New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Sunday, January 20, 2013

"Holiday Gulling"- "Snow and Quite a Bit of Ice"

 "Journal Notes- Observations from the Field"

      The winter Gull season has become quite exciting with Gull  numbers increasing along the shore. I (and Jen) have spent quite a bit of time enjoying the winter Gulls in this State and Rhode Island, and soon I will be back in Gloucester and a few other favorite Massachusetts locations. However, I find myself way behind in my reports. Many thousands of images have been taken and my cameras have been very busy. Although Gull rarities have been missing in New England (so far) this winter, a few species such as the Iceland and Glaucous Gulls are on the increase, and Black-headed Gull have been numerous with many birds returning to their usual winter territories, and many new ones as well.

     Because I have so many reports to write (which would take a very long time) I decided to try something a little different. Years ago I wrote a book entitled "Waterfowl Concepts". This book was conceived as a Journal based on my observations of ducks as an Artist, not an Ornithologist; although there is much overlap between the two. But my interests were basically "what makes a duck work" and "how can I reproduce that information into wood and canvas and paint"! The book featured random accounts of waterfowl behavior, anatomy, morphology, plumage, structure, both in the field and aviary settings. To facilitate my studies and hunger for more detailed information, I built a large private aviary complete with water level photo pits, drawing table and an observation seat. The aviary housed many species of North American dabbling and diving ducks. Through my thirty-seven years as a professional bird carver/artist I have spent thousands and thousands of hours in the field "just watching and observing" waterfowl and many species of coastal seabirds, alcids, shorebirds, and Gulls. Its amazing what you can learn just by simply watching and paying attention.

     For these reports, I decided to write them as Journal entries, "observations in the field"; my accounts of birds and gulls in the wild. These observations and accounts will be mixed in with the story line, but in a Journal format.

       Waterfowl Concepts is now out of print, here are a few  pages from inside the book-

      Lately I have gained a very passionate interest in Gulls which can be found (usually in large numbers) almost anywhere along the coast or inland. What a great opportunity to observe and study! As I stated many times, I am not an Ornithologist, my interests lie purely in observing birds to better understand them so I can honestly, faithfully and passionately honor them in art. These are just my observations and how I interpret what I am seeing.

     (Part 1 of 9 Parts from December 21 through January 17)- Day 1- Friday, December 21- Circle Beach, Madison, CT - While I was waiting for primer coats of paint to dry, I decided to run down to Circle Beach to see if the Iceland Gull was still there. It was late afternoon and it was quite windy, and a bit colder. The westerly wind and dropping temperatures certainly brought a "winter nip" to the area.

     The number of Gulls at Circle Beach had been on the rise over the last week. A few days earlier there were no more than fifty Gulls in the area. This number had now risen to over two hundred, and they all came with a bit of coaxing.-

     This Iceland Gull (and most that I have observed) is quite timid, (or maybe cautious). It would always fly in on when all the other Gulls are occupied with their feeding. It would circle the area on the outside of the flocking birds......

     .....and land on the edge of the group (center right)-

     Even walking up on the beach, it tends to stay on the peripheral of the birds (center top)-

     In the early stages of this feeding behavior, the Gull also stays on the outside of the birds (center right- below the wing tip of the flying Herring Gull). I initially thought this Gull was exhibiting caution, trying to avoid injury from the mass of frenzied Gulls-

     This adult Iceland Gull usually keeps its tertials stacked "high" whether its standing......

     .....a or swimming-

      Since this Gull is only fifteen minutes from my house and studio, I enjoy this wonderful opportunity to study it as often as I can. I have spent many hours on Circle Beach with this Gull, and I have only seen it call on three occasions.-

     I assumed that this was the same Gull from last winter/spring, based mostly on its habits. The Gull exhibited similar characteristics in its behavior when it flew to the beach, and how it acted once it was there. But I also wanted to examine its plumage. This Gull had more streaking in its head and hind neck than last winters bird photographed about the same time. This years bird-

     Compared to last winter's bird which had clean white head plumage with no streaking-

     However, this streaking will change as the bird advances in its plumage cycle. As an example, I photographed the adult Lesser Black-backed Gull that has been a winter resident at Grassy Point, Ninigret Park in Rhode Island for many years, is also showing more streaking than it did at this time last year.

     When examining the head of this Iceland Gull it appears to be identically shaped as last years bird including bill similarities, eye location and iris speckling.

     But what about the wing tip markings?-

     Comparing the grey markings on the outermost primaries-

      This winter's Gull has grey edge markings on the anterior web of the last four primaries (p10, p9, p8 and p7). The web line markings on p10 and p9 terminates before the tip forming a large white mirror, and the web line marking on p8 and p7 is much narrower.....

      .......compared to last winter's Gull (below) which is very similar and location accurate.. The tips of  p9, p8 and p7 display a broader grey sub-terminal band. These 'bands" although not as prominent on this years Gull (above) are similar but appear to be fading in size and  intensity. It is possible these markings fade with age. In reviewing the literature that I have, I wasn't able to find any information to substantiate this.....
 I return to behavior similarities. This Iceland Gull (as well as late winter's bird) baths and preens frequently (more than the surrounding Herring and Ring-billed Gulls)-

     This Gull also shares similarities, by frequently taking off and making a few flight circles around the group......

     .....only to return again usually landing outside the group, but many times within a few feet of where I am standing-

     Similarities also include chasing off the larger Herring Gulls when its territory is crowded-

     A few additional images showcasing this beautiful Gull-

      Scratching! You can see how the bird shifts its weight to its opposite side allowing its remaining leg to be positioned in the center of its body to maintain balance-

     I had been there over an hour when Carolyn Sedgwick and Nick Bonomo drove up. Carolyn and Nick discovered this Gull last winter, and I appreciate that; thanks to the both of you! Nick has a wonderfully informative blog called "Shorebirder"

     Last year this Gull had company; two additional first winter Iceland Gulls, one nearly all white. Neither one has been seen this year, hopefully they will be back. I will keep looking!


     Day 2- Sunday, December 23- West Coastal Rhode Island- Seven species of Gulls!

    Beavertail State Park , Jamestown- With Christmas Eve and family obligations a day away, we wouldn't be able to get out much over the Holiday, so we decided to spend a relaxing day "Gulling" in Rhode Island. Beavertail is always a great spot to start the day, besides it is Jen and my favorite place in Rhode Island. As far as birding, Beavertail never disappoints! I wanted to find the Iceland Gull that others have spotted there, and of course we kept missing. It was a beautiful day. The sun was out, the clouds came and went, and it was a bit chilly.

     At the point, a single adult  Razorbill swam by-

     Jen and I walked up to the Gull roost on the east side of the point off the second parking lot. We both looked through the Gulls, but we couldn't find the Iceland Gull....

     .....maybe with a hand out or two?-

     We searched through a hundred Gulls, but no Iceland Gull. We decided to leave for a hot cup of coffee at the Village Hearth Bakery in town     (They have the best bread in Rhode Island). As we always do, we made another loop around the never know what flew in! As we passed the Lighthouse, Jen said "back up"! So I backed the car up, and she said; "There's your Iceland Gull" I got out of the car and looked down the ledge, and sure enough, there is was.-

     The Gull roost continued to the north, but this second winter Iceland Gull seemed to prefer the company of this Herring Gull-

     It hopped from rock to rock using its wings for balance.-

     Jen always cautions me about walking on these slippery rocks. I of course reassure her that I am always cautious and careful and always take my time and assume sure footing. Not sure if this Gull listened to Jen's concerns......

     ......because it slipped on the slippery algae, and fell on its breast!-

     It soon recovered and walked on-

     Once the Gull recovered it began reaching down to the rock and started feeding. At first I thought (assumed) it was reaching for small mussels or barnacles.....

     But as I watched closely, the Gull wasn't prying little mussels off the rock...... was scraping Algae off the surface of the rock. It was low tide and this area of the rock is normally underwater-

     The Gull continued scraping this green plant off the rock-

      Shaking its head, water was flung out of its bill-

     As the Gull turned away, the wind pushed its feathers off its body-

     Good studies of this Gulls plumage. The grey forming scapulars are visible in these images-

      Classic head shape: rounded head and small short bill. The iris is becoming lighter from its first winter dark color. Also notice the drop of salt water dripping off the bill, This drop of salt water was just delivered from its nares (nostril) delivered from its salt gland-

     Close-up view of its primaries and tertials. The long primary projection beyond the tail of the Iceland Gull is clearly shown-

     Good flight studies of this second winter Iceland Gull-

     The Iceland Gull flew north along the shoreline to join the fragmented Gull roost. Notice what the Herring Gulls are doing on the top of the rock (center top and right)?-

     Fort Wetherill, Jamestown- Another gem of Jamestown, Fort Wetherill has always been a great location to bird. But its not just the birding that makes this area worth visiting. The remains of the old Revolutionary War Fort will make your birding experience like no other. The high bluffs overlook the East Passage to Narragansett Bay with Newport to the east, and the bluffs of Jamestown to your west. The morning flights of  Common Eiders heading through the "Passage" are often offset by Razorbills, Scoters, Red Breasted Mergansers, Goldeneye, Loons, and a few rare visitors such as the two Black Guillemots that spent much of the winter in 2010. Looking south from the boat ramp in West Cove, Fort Wetherill-

     Last winter a single drake Harlequin was present in the Cove by the boat ramp. This year it appears to be back-

         There are always a few Black Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and Bufflehead in the Cove-

     Narragansett, Town Pier- When Jen and I leave Jamestown, we always travel south down Route 1A through Narragansett. Our destinations are usually Newton and Hazard Avenues, Scarborough Beach, Point Judith, Camp Cronin, Galilee Harbor, and of course we always make a stop at the Narragansett Town Pier.

    About a hundred yards off the pier to the southeast, there is a small area of the water that appears to have an upswelling of some sort. Not sure what causes this smooth patch of water but there is always a gathering of birds here. Lately we have seen multiple Bonaparte's Gulls and a few Razorbills-

     Here a single Bonaparte's Gull lands with a pair of Razorbill-

     Scarborough Beach State Park- A great Gulling spot! This is a well known location for seeing wintering Black-headed Gulls on a regular basis. Last winter three Black-headed Gulls (two adults and a first winter bird) wintered here until April. I hadn't seen any reported sightings of the Gull this year, but we thought it would be worth looking. There weren't too many Gulls on the beach, just a handful where there is usually a hundred mostly Ring-billed. I decided to walk to the rocky point where the Black-headed Gulls like to loaf with the other roosting Ring-billed, Herring and a few Greater Black-backed Gulls.

     Just outside the outpouring from the WTP, between the small rocky jetty and the rocky point, there was a single Black-headed Gull swimming by itself. The Gull apparently was uneasy with my walking along the shore. It rose up, and flew directly up along the shoreline! It kept going until I could no longer see it, disappearing to the north.-


      Maybe there were two? I walked slowly down the rocks point. Being low tide, the rocks were exposed and the Gulls were taking advantage. There were only a few dozen Ring-billed and Herring Gulls on the roost, but I crept closer. Every time that I have seen the Black-headed Gulls here, they have been usually hidden behind the rocks. As I approached the end of the exposed reef, I noticed a small round head peer over a large boulder. The small round head featured two small cheek spots and a red bill! There was the second Black-headed Gull (center right); an adult!-

     I inched slowly and carefully ahead, and was rewarded with a great view of this beautiful Gull.-

     The Gull decided to relocate........ lifted off from its boulder perch.......

      .....and flew right by me, showing off its bright red bill and dark under wings.-

     I must not have been bothering the Gull, it landed closer to me next to a few Ring-billed Gulls-

     Unfortunately, it landed behind one of the Ring-billed Gulls which showed its displeasure with it since it was invading its space. The Gull took off again, and flew a few yards down the reef and landed on a high boulder as if it was showing off its stunning plumage-

     It landed again, but not for long.....

     .....after a minute, it took off again, and again it flew right by me......

     .....and landing even closer to me. As I admired this spectacular Gull, I noticed that this Gull had a beautiful salmon colored tinge to its white plumage. The breast, chest, flanks and the white base to its primaries p10, p9 and p8 were also stained this beautiful color (made me think of an adult breeding plumage Ross' Gull- or more extensive than a Little Gull). This is a stunning Gull!-

     The Gull eventually took off and flew directly towards the WTP. At first I thought it was going to join the small flock of Ring-billed Gulls in the sedimentation tanks where it often goes. But this Gull kept flying west towards Point Judith Pond.-

        Notice the salmon tinged staining to the white wing feathers at the base of the primaries and the greater primary coverts (dorsal wing)-

     This staining is also noticeable on the ventral (lower) wing-

      The small rounded head also shows a minimal amount of staining, but the boldest staining is located on its breast, side pockets and chest.

      Galilee Harbor-  There was a large raft of Common Eider and a few Scoter off the Galilee Wall at  Point Judith and Camp Cronin. The Harbor at Galilee hosts Rhode Islands largest fishing fleet, and is one of the largest and busiest on the east coast. Each year over ten million pounds of fish and shellfish are processed  and shipped along the east coast. In the early 1900's the stone breakwaters forming the Galilee, center and Jerusalem walls were built by the Army Corp of Engineers. These breakwaters span about three miles. They were originally built to provide refuge for ships traveling between New York and Boston and of course to protect the "breachway" from the force of the sea. The protected waters inside the breakwaters is known as the Harbor of Refuge.

     With millions of pounds of seafood being processed in the harbor each year, for a birder that can mean only one thing: Gulls!! Galilee is a large draw for Gulls, especially when the fishing vessels come into port.

      With the large concentration of Gulls in the port in the winter, you should be able to find an Iceland and/or Glaucous Gull or two hanging out on the piers. But timing has everything to do with it. I have seen quite a few Iceland Gulls in the Harbor, but only one Glaucous Gull; my timing is always off! Jen and I have been there the day after Glaucous Gulls were seen, or sometimes a day or two early. This year Paul L'Etoile found three Glaucous Gulls on the 18th  in the harbor:

     That was five days before this report. We looked throughout the Harbor, but no Glaucous Gulls: timing is everything! Jen and I parked in the fisherman's lot near the processing plant. We always walk down the bulkhead and main dock from the Plant to the Fishermans Coop behind Champlin's Restaurant. As we started down the main dock, we decided to entice a few Gulls to us, and then they came. In the middle of the  frenzy of Gulls, I spotted a banded Gull. The Gull landed on a piling in front of us showing of its silvery band and bright orange numbered leg marker "2V".-

      It wasn't until the Gull flew down from the piling and landed at our feet did we notice the wing tags. I didn't see them earlier because the Gull was facing me directly obscuring the tags. The tags were different, I had never seen this type before. They were rectangular shape and white. First I assumed the Gull may have been from the Sable Island Gull Project, but it wasn't. Paul had also photographed this Gull the day he found the three Glaucous Gulls. He found out that the hatch year Gull was banded in early September near St. John's Newfoundland. I was able to read most of the numbers on the band- 1106-21036-

     More and more Gulls came flying in from all directions. I looked up again, and discovered a second banded Gull. This first winter Greater Black-backed Gull had a single leg band only. I was never able to read the numbers completely except for the last three (-585). The Gull stayed for a minute and then took off.-

     In the middle of the Gull frenzy, this Red-throated Loon popped up close to the dock for a few moments before it dove-

     We spent an hour on the docks looking for a Glaucous Gull with no luck. Probably a combination of a Sunday afternoon and the day before Christmas, the fishing fleet was quietly tucked in port. We drove down to the inlet and immediately a single Razorbill popped up from a dive next to the bulkhead-

      Charlestown, Grassy Point, Ninigret Park-  It was late afternoon we decided to stop by Grassy Point to see if the Lesser Black-backed Gull was there. As I mentioned in an earlier report, this is one of Jen's favorite birds; not the species, this bird. Jen affectionately refers to this bird as "the Brat"! The nickname came from the Gulls habit of showing up for a few minutes and then flying off and staying at a distance or out of sight. Then it shows up again and then retreats again. I tried to tell her that since this Gull has been coming back here for a dozen years, this area is its territory. The Cove where the Gull usually hangs out is usually void of other Gulls; it appears that this Gull likes the area to itself. Its only when other Gulls show up that it flies off. She just likes to think its being bratty! :^)

     This day, we didn't have to go far along the path to find it. The water in the pond was low so the Gull was
"stamping feeding:" along the shoreline in the Cove before the point. Stamping feeding is what I refer to when a Gull stands in shallow water and stamps its feet in the sand and mud in a stationary position. This stamping stirs up the substrate and food items such as clams, mole crabs, sand worms, etc. are exposed making an easily caught meal. When the tide is low in the pond, this Gull is usually in the Cove along the shoreline.

     The Gull must have been trying to swallow something; it gaped a few times as it swam away.

    We decided to sit for a few minutes on the bench and watch the Gull. It swam out a little farther and then flew off. We apparently invaded its space!-

     But we were forgiven with a handful of catfood-

     We must not have been too threatening, the Gull landed about twenty-five feet away from us!-

     This view demonstrates the long wings of this species-

     The sun really accentuates those yellow tarsii and feet-

     Good head study showing the typical shorter and thicker tipped bill ( wide at the gonydial angle depth) the dark area surrounding the eye, and the heavily streaked head, neck and hindneck giving it its so-called "dirty look".-    

     The long wings cause the wing tips to extend well beyond the tail-

     The white "mirrors" on p10 and p9 are smaller than the Greater Black-backed, and they are shorter in overall area by the black terminal bands at the distal tips,-

     Ninigret pond always have sizable numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers-

     We walked out to Grassy Point and a few Bonaparte's Gulls such as this adult joined the other feeding Gulls along the shore-

      The white "blades" (what I call them) of the anterior or outer wing of the Bonaparte's Gull are obvious in this image. (Remember the Black-headed Gull has the blades as well)-

     Putting on the brakes-

     A very handsome Gull. Bonaparte's Gulls tend to sit on the water with their tails and wingtips held high.-

     A juvenile arrives. Notice the dark terminal bands on the tips of the tail and primaries?-

     Good wing study of a first winter Bonaparte's Gull. The dark terminal bands of the wings, dark outer webs of the primaries, dark tipped greater primary coverts and dark lesser wing coverts are clearly shown in this image.-

     The sun illuminates their flesh-colored tarsii and feet-

     Juvenile Bonaparte's Gull on the water. The dark wing coverts are exposed in the pocket between the scapulars and side pocket feathers-

     Good anterior of the Gull showing its tear drop shape starting at the very round chest and tapering back to the narrow tail and highly crossed wing tips.-

    Several flocks of Scaup came from off the ocean and flew up the pond to the western end. Most of the Scaup were Lesser Scaup like this flock.-

      The white speculum of the secondaries does not continue into the primaries, a field mark of the Lesser Scaup. (the bird at the top left may be a Greater Scaup). Although the birds were in the distance and back-lit, this bird appears to have the extended white into the primaries, and a larger and longer bill-

    Look who came back!-

      The long extended primaries make this species have a long slender profile-

     This image catches the Bonaparte's Gull tossing back a piece of catfood-

     Good size comparison between the first winter Bonaparte's Gull and the Lesser Black-backed Gull-

   Although a blurry shot, both species together in the air-

     Bonaparte's Gull are incredibly agile in the air, more like Terns than Gulls-

      A few study shots of a Bonaparte's Gull. The smallish head with dark auricular spot and almost black bill-

     Close-up of the white "blades" of the primaries-

     The light underwing and primaries of the Bonaparte's Gull. The Black-headed Gull's under primaries are dark.-

      First winter Gulls wing and tail studies showing the dark wing coverts and broad dark terminal bands at the tips-

     Another flock of Scaup-

     George the Gentleman clammer. George was digging for cherrystones off the point, and being very successful. Notice the Gulls feeding behind him? The catfood had drifted with the tide off the point, and the Gulls were feasting on it......and they couldn't care less that George was only a few feet away. George smiled and enjoyed the show! He asked us why our fascination with Gulls? Jen pointed out and told him about the Lesser Black-backed Gull and he was quite interested, although he got a kick out of Jen's nickname for the Gull.-

    Just about every time we end the day at Ninigret, we are treated to a glorious sunset!-

        Part 2, Day 3 "Double Ice" continues......   Click on "Older Posts" below right-