New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Friday, March 2, 2012

Mid-February Gulling- Sunday the 12th through Wednesday the 22nd

Part 1-

Black Ice, and a little Snow!

     Sunday 12th- Jen and I decided to stay in Ct. and look for Gulls at a few of our favorite locations. Being that February is prime time for searching for wintering white-winged and other uncommon species of  Gulls, it would be fun searching.  We started early and since Hammonasset SP was only fifteen minutes from our house, that would be a good place to start. Hammo (as it is called) is one of those places that you never know what will show up there throughout the season. Iceland and Bonapartes Gulls are common visitors in the winter and spring, and considering an all white juvenile Iceland Gull was spotted there a few weeks ago, we might be lucky. In the last two winters I have also recorded three wing-tagged Ring-billed Gulls (Mass. DCR Water Supply Protection Study) and a leg banded and marked Ring-billed Gull last month from a Montreal Gull Study Program.

     We arrived at 7:15 am and found the gate open. We drove right to Meigs Point hoping for a substantial Gull roost on the beach. Unfortunately, the number of Gulls was small; a few handfuls of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls were scattered on the breakwater and outside rocks. Even after a bit of “coaxing” I was only able to bring fifty Gulls to the beach, all common species.

     However, in front of our truck only a few yards out on the beach was a pair of Snow Buntings feeding on the sand. The two birds were moving in a very low to the sand, obviously trying to minimize the impact from the cold and blustery northwest wind.

      After taking a few more images of the Buntings, we decided to move on. On Saturday, the day before, Nick Bonomo and Carolyn Sedgwick reported finding an adult Iceland Gull on a beach on
Neck Road at the Madison/Guilford line. We know Circle Beach well because Jen’s parents live nearby, just down the street. Jen’s Dad was a life long commercial lobsterman/fisherman and Jen spent many of her school years and summers working with her Dad on their boat hauling and baiting the traps. Also of course there was the off season maintenance of and building new traps, painting buoys and repairing the funnels. Dad moored his boat the “Nancy-Jean” at his dock  behind the beach in the Neck River just up from where it joins the East River (also where the Madison/Guilford line is formed). We spend our summer weekends at the family’s beach house nearby on Weaver Beach, so this area is our summer birding spot.

     We drove up to the small beach just after 8:15 am, and the tide was low. We could see a few Gulls flying around the beach, but most were on the sandbar totaling maybe two dozen Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. I walked over the beach and began scouring the area along the beach, on the rooftops of the cottages and on the outer boulders sitting high from the low water. I didn’t see the Iceland Gull. I walked back to the truck and then returned to the beach with my small cooler filled with catfood. It only took two scoops tossed on the sandbar to get the Gulls stirred up. With the frenzied cries of the excited Gulls ( a natural dinner bell) echoing through the morning air like a foghorn in a storm, the Gulls descended onto the feed. Gulls began arriving from everywhere seemingly from every direction, materializing out of thin air; their numbers quickly grew to at least two hundred.

     A single Ring-billed Gull landed right in front of me. This bird got my attention immediately; it had a single orange numbered tag affixed to its left wing. The number on the tag was “A-643, and you could see that the right wing tag was missing. The bird also had a metal federal band on its right tarsus and a color coded leg marker band “26” on its left tarsus. This tagged Ring-billed Gull is the fourteenth Jen and I have found in two years. I contacted Dr. Ken MacKenzie with the Mass. Water Supply Protection Gull Program ( with the tag info and images of the Gull, and should hear back from him soon with the banding data from this Gull.

   Update: This sub-adult Gull was banded on 12/27/2011 at the Blackstone WTP in Milbury, Mass.  The red leg flag numbers are- 262, Fed band # 0994-04390. This Gull has been hanging around the Guilford town dock and beach. I saw it again on Grass Island on March 02.

     There were many Gulls on the beach, and it only took less than a minute to consume the food, so I tossed another scoop full. Besides the fury of Gulls converging on the beach, the sky above me was filled with wings. I searched through all those wings for that one pair of white ones, and out of the corner of my eye on the left, there they were. The Iceland Gull appeared from between the cottages to the east. It circled once and then sat down in the beach, a bit off to the side of the feeding Gulls. In my experience, Iceland Gulls are a bit shy when around the more aggressive Herring Gulls. You can usually find them sitting off to the side of the Gulls along the periphery of the flock.

     I knew this Gull was hungry, and sooner or later it would join in the feeding frenzy. After a few more scoops tossed on the beach, the Iceland Gull which was now perched on the roof of one of the cottages, made a wide swing over the sandbar and then passed within a few feet of me and landed just on the edge of the food. This bird was stunning!

    Jen and I watched this beautiful adult Iceland Gull for fifteen minutes, but the blustery cold wind suggested to Jen that she head back to the truck and get warm.  I continued with the Gulls, when I spotted those white wings again. The bird was coming in close from my left and it crossed by me within a few yards. I did a double take, as this Gull although an Iceland Gull was different; it was nearly pure white with a black tipped-grey bill. As the bird landed in front of me on the beach, it was a second Iceland Gull; a first cycle bird. I looked back to Jen holding up two fingers. She opened her door and pointed upwards. Apparently she saw this bird land, and also saw a third Iceland Gull, another all white bird fly over me but kept going over the cottages and homes towards Grass Island. At the time I didn’t know what she was referring to, I was happy with this second bird now standing a yard or two in front of me.

    Two more images of the adult.

     After enjoying these two Iceland Gulls for forty-five minutes, we decided to move on to our next area in Guilford. Last year on Feb. 15, I found an adult Black-headed Gull by a chance encounter at the Lost Lake outpouring, on Leetes Island Road. The bird was rediscovered a few days later at Shell Beach where it remained for another three weeks. The bird traded back and forth from Lost Lake, to Leetes Pond to Shell Beach. Hoping that (maybe) the Gull would make a return performance, it was worth a try. However, when the Gull showed up in Guilford, Lost Lake was nearly frozen so it would spend much of its time either on the ice of the Lake or at the fresh water outpouring at the far eastern corner of Shell Beach Cove.  It occurred to me that this Gull may have come to Guilford as a wayward traveler; a one-hit wonder. Or maybe this bird has been coming for years and because of the difficulty in accessing Lost Lake has escaped being discovered.

      (Below are a few images I took of this Black-headed Gull from last Feb/March). The first series of image are the first pictures I took of the bird. I was driving over the causeway by the outpouring and it flew out from the shore and landed a few feet away; which of course got my attention. I stopped my truck on the causeway, lowered the passenger side window and took a few quick shots. I drove up the street and stopped on the side of the road to review the images on my camera. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I turned around and took a few more shots from the causeway. I went up the street parked my truck and called Jerry Connelly from the Audubon shop. Jerry was there in ten minutes, (and as it usually goes) as Jerry drove over the top of the hill heading for where I was sitting, the bird took off and was gone! Jerry eventually saw the Gull after a few attempts later on Shell Beach.

     These images are from Shell Beach the day the bird was rediscovered on Feb.22.

    While I was photographing the Black-headed Gull, this banded and wing-tagged Gull flew into the mudflat for some catfood. This adult Ring-billed Gull (wing tag # A487) was from the same Mass. program (link above). It was banded (Fed. Band # 0994-21403) (and leg marker # 141) on 1/5/2011 at the Springfield Wastewater Treatment Plant.

     However this year with its milder winter, Lost Lake is ice free. I stopped my truck on
Leetes Island Road on the hill overlooking Lost Lake (through the trees and over the railroad tracks). There was a good movement of Gulls in the Lake, but unfortunately, they all flew in to the lee on the other side of the tracks where I couldn’t get a good look at them through my binoculars. Shell Beach had a small gathering of Ring-billed Gulls at the outpouring, but no “red legs” could be seen through the many pairs of yellow ochre legs.

     We left, and soon found ourselves at the boat ramp in West Haven.  We found several hundred 
Gulls on the ramp, parking lot, in the water and circling overhead (thanks to the bagel man who was there). We searched through as many Gulls as we could, but did not find any unusal Gulls.  Out in the Harbor were three large rafts of  Scaup (estimate-3,000) and  1000 + Brant.

     Driving along the West Haven Beaches towards Woodmont, there were good numbers of roosting Gulls in the usual places such as Bradley Point and Oyster River Beach. We only stopped for a casual look through the birds; nothing jumped out at us.

   Our next stop was in Stratford. Jen had not seen the adult Iceland Gull that Frank Mantlik found last year that hangs around the small beach at the end of Fifth Avenue. I have seen the bird many times, but Jen (even though her office is only two or three minutes away) has missed the Gull during a few lunchtime attempts.

     The bird usually sits on the piling at the end of a small jetty that is just to the right of the small 
beach by the cottages. When we drove up, the bird was not on the piling. If the Gull is not on the piling, than its second favorite roosting spot is on the beach behind the small jetty to the west. After seeking permission from a nearby resident to cross the small beach to the high tide line (which was given), I walked carefully over to the jetty (below the high water mark) and slowly peeked over the top. Expecting to find the Iceland Gull standing proudly on the beach, I readied my camera. What I found was an empty beach! I turned around and started back for our truck. I noticed a small swirling group of Gulls flying over the beach in front of our truck.  As I looked up, there were those beautiful white wings! The Iceland Gull glided effortlessly over the beach with the grace of a falling snowflake carried gently on the wind. I took a few quick shots and then pointed up to the bird so Jen could see the bird from the truck.
     I soon realized why the Gulls were circling the beach.  Jen was out of the truck tossing a bit of 
catfood on the beach. In the meantime a few birders including notable CT birder/photographer Paul Fusco had congregated by our truck enjoying the very close views of the Gull and marveling at the bird’s personable nature joining the other Gulls on the beach.

     Where was the Gull in the first place? When I walked over to the jetty searching for the Gull 
that is “always on that small beach” (which wasn’t there) Jen looked to the left of the small cottage at the end of the road near where our truck was parked. She was looking through the support pilings of the house/cottage and noticed that one of the Gulls on the beach had bright pink legs. Immediately she knew that it was the Iceland Gull, and she decided to try and entice the bird out in front on the beach, and that is exactly what happened (that is when I saw it).

    They have figured out where the buffet is!

     After enjoying this stunning Gull for a few more minutes, we decided to go west to our next location. The Gull made a few fly-bys and settled in on the beach again. We said good-bye to the other birders and of course to the Iceland Gull now that Jen had finally seen it.
     On two previous occasions we tried for the reported Lesser Black-backed Gull in Southport at Burying Hill Beach and Sherwood Island across the creek in Westport and were unsuccessful; maybe the third time would be a charm? When we reached the end of the parking area at Burying Hill Beach, another birder was already looking over the beach through his scope. We introduced ourselves, and I found out that Mr. Rich Huck was from Kensington; a town that was only a few miles north from my old home town of South Meriden. We chatted a bit and then I asked him if had seen “the Gull”. Of course he asked “which Gull was that” and mentioned to him the Lesser Black-backed that everyone was seeing except us.
      He told me that he had just gotten there and had begun looking. He looked down the beach and said there is a black-backed Gull standing all by himself. I looked through his scope and thanked him- he just found the Lesser Black-backed Gull! I asked him if it would be OK if Jen and I walked down the beach to see if we could get a little closer for photos. Rich mentioned it was fine with him, so Jen and I started our slow walk. We stopped to take a few distance shots about fifty yards form the Gull.

     When a man approached us walking his three dogs, the Gull decided that it wanted to join the other roosting Gulls on the point by the old wooden jetty. The Gull flew right by us within a few yards giving me these nice passing shots. It landed with the other resting Gulls on the small rocky sandbar in front of the parking area that was exposed by the low tide.

      With a little “coaxing” the Gulls flew up to the beach where we were standing and landed within a few yards of us. The Lesser Black-backed however, circled the parking lot a few times, but landed in the water just off the beach.

   It took off for a second time and circled the beach again, only to land back in the water, but this time much closer to us.

     Soon its curiosity got the best of the Gull and it decided to join the other Gulls on the beach for a late lunch. It landed within ten feet of us; I mentioned to Rich that he probably wouldn’t need his scope at that point.

   After a half an hour of watching and admiring this regal Gull, we said good-bye to Rich and to Larus fuscus and we headed back east. What a great day gulling in CT on a Sunday; we had sighted four Iceland, a wing-tagged Ring-billed and a single adult Lesser Black-backed Gull before lunch!

     Fairfield 1:30 pm- Pepe’s Pizza- no need to say anything else!

     New Haven, Long Wharf (behind Leon’s)- A few hundred Scaup (mostly Greater), 50 Ruddies, 40 Gadwall, 50 Black Ducks and Mallards, and a few Oldsquaw in the channel.

     We stopped back in Madison at Jen’s parent’s house. While Jen was visiting with them, and since Circle Beach is only two minutes away, I decided to pay another visit with the Iceland Gull(s). The adult was still present, but the first winter bird was not on the beach.        
 A Little More Ice and a Snow White Cap!

    Monday 13th- Since the opportunity of these Iceland Gulls was presenting themselves almost
in my back yard, I wanted to go back to Circle Beach at dawn that morning. I arrived just at dawn to a wonderful sunrise. There was a morning stir of Gulls, and I watched for the Iceland Gulls. A small group of three dozen Gulls had congregated in this small area, but I didn’t see one Gull with white wings. After I started enticing the Gulls a bit, the adult Iceland Gull made his appearance coming from the east outside the small point of rocks beyond the last cottage.  It flew right into the beach without its usual routine of circling the area several times. It landed in the water a few yards from the beach appearing to be assessing the situation a bit.

    With the next offering from me, the bird lifted flew up off the water and landed right on the beach with all the other Gulls. This usually timid adult Gull has learned to become a bit more aggressive, and it bullied its way into the middle of the pack of feeding Gulls within a few feet of where I was standing.

    Now that this Gull had become less wary and a bit more trusting of me, I was able to spend a
great deal of time watching, studying and learning the nature of this Gull. Not only did I absorb the physical features of this Gull, but I learned a great deal about its personality and character traits.  All of these features are important for me as an artist since I will be carving many Iceland Gulls in the near future. This bird has presented me with a wonderful gift, a gift that I humbly appreciate and cherish.

    After a good breakfast, it was time for a bath…….

   …..a good yawn…….

    …..and a bit of grooming.

  I spent about an hour with the Gull, and went over to chat with Mr. F. one of the neighbors.
He was so happy that these “rare” visitors to the area were spending part of the winter on their beach, and that I was enjoying them so much. Mr. F. is on the board of the Faulkner’s Island Brigade. I carved a Roseate Tern for them for their fundraising efforts and ironically, he is taking care of my carving until the raffle is announced. I showed him some of the images I took of the Gull on my camera’s LED screen, and he like me thought the Gull was stunning. Behind his home on the marsh, the osprey platform is 75 feet from his back deck. He enjoys watching them all spring and summer  especially the young growing up and admits he is a bit sad to see them go when they fledge in the late summer.  He told me that the birds return every year on March 27th! Mr. F. invited me back to watch and photograph the birds from his upper deck; that way you can see right into the nest! I graciously accepted his very generous invitation; it will be an exciting experience. 

     As I was saying good-bye to Mr. F., I noticed a car pull up near the beach, and a scope was being pulled out of the trunk of his car. I walked over to the man to introduce myself, and we both were surprised. It was Rich Huck; we had just met less than twenty-four hours earlier in Southport. I smiled again, and said that he wouldn’t need his scope; the Iceland Gull would be really close! We walked over the beach and the Gulls had settled a bit. They were spread out over the water and a few standing on the beach. With a bit of coaxing, the Iceland Gull flew in again giving Rich a really close look; it landed right in front of him.

     While we were watching the Gull, Bob MacDonnell –
( ) a noted photographer came over to us, and we all enjoyed the Gull.  As we were getting ready to leave, Rich looked up and through his scope he spotted an adult Bald Eagle soaring high over the East River marsh.

     It eventually landed in a tree on Grassy Island as was easily seen from the boat ramp parking lot.

   Ice and a little bit of Rain!
    Tuesday 14th- Heading back to Circle Beach in the morning I arrived at dawn again. It was 
overcast and light rain was forecasted.  As I was driving down Neck Road, I was thinking about the Iceland Gulls. They always seem to “show up” on the beach when I start feeding the other Gulls. They always come from the east. Since this species seems to be a bit independent from the other species seeking an isolated stretch of beach for a roost, maybe the bird(s) are on a different beach at night. As I turned the corner where Neck Rd.  (actually changes to Ridgewood Ave. -but the locals still refer to it as Neck Rd.) changes over to Circle Beach Rd., I looked over on the small cove beach by the first cottage. There it was! The adult Iceland Gull was standing all alone on the beach.

     Apparently this beach was the turf of a Herring Gull. The Herring Gull decided to chase the 
Iceland Gull off its beach. After a short chase, the Iceland Gull disappeared around the point heading east.

     As I started my routine, the Iceland Gull appeared after a few minutes and joined the other Gulls on the beach.

 It looks like they are starting to figure out what I have in the orange bucket.

    The light rain ended, so I drove down the road the short distance to Circle Beach. I still hadn’t seen either of the two first winter birds so I was hoping they might show up on the other beach. The adult showed up again with the other Gulls hopping from one beach to the other. While I was on the Beach, one of the other Neighbors; John, came over to say hi. He had heard from Mr. F. about the Iceland Gulls. I pointed out the Gull to him, and he had no idea such a beautiful Gull was visiting their beach. We chatted a while about birds, and bird carving. 

     When I left around 8:30 am, the adult was standing on the edge of the beach near the last cottage, again all by himself.

     Thursday 16th- Adult Iceland Gull continues…   

    Saturday 18th- (This was the day that Jen and I hosted our “come-along with us” birding adventure to Rhode Island). It will be featured in Part 2 of this report.

    Bullies never win!

     Sunday 19th-  Jen and I had an hour to spend before running our errands, so we decided to 
make another quick stop to Circle Beach. Our efforts were rewarded with two Iceland Gulls on the beach; the adult and one first winter; the almost all white bird.  While we were enjoying the first winter Gull, Jen looked out towards Half Acre Reef and spotted two Razorbills just inside Half Acre Rock. This is a place that I have seen Razorbills often over the years, you can almost count on them being there.

   The adult.....

     While we were standing there, a second winter Herring Gull thought it was the master of the
beach. It chased the adult Iceland Gull from a small patch of water real estate that it assumed was his or hers.  The Iceland Gull flew a few feet and landed in front of us; the confrontation was over.

     What seemed like a moment later, this young bird tried the same advances on an adult
Herring Gull, the outcome was much different!

      Now that that young bully was escorted away, it was safe to go back in the water!

      As Jen and I got back to our truck to leave, this beautiful Harrier  skimmed over the marsh, 
it was a great ending to the short but adventure packed birding outing.    


    A little bit of Winter Color!
     Monday 20th- I stopped by Circle Beach just after dawn for a few minutes, and the adult Iceland Gull was standing on the little beach cove all by itself. I left the beach and then drove over to Guilford looking for the possible Black-headed Gull, no luck.

     West Haven boat ramp- the usual rafts of Scaup and Brant, and hundreds and hundreds of Gulls. I didn’t see any Gull that was unusual (I looked hard).

     Long Wharf (Behind Leon’s)- Usual Scaup, a single hen Redhead (could not take pictures-looking directly into the bright sun), Ruddies, Black Ducks, Mallards, and Gadwall.

     East Haven, East Shore Park- As I walked down the path along the fence at the Treatment Plant, I didn’t see one bird in the trees. With the strong NW wind blowing, I thought there would be a little activity. There were small rafts of Scaup off the Park, and in the lee of the cove by the pier and Treatment Plant. The flocks of Scaup were mostly Greater, but a number of Lesser Scaup were present. Also Gadwall, Black Ducks, Mallards, a few Wigeon and Buffleheads were mixed in with the Scaup.

      As I was leaving I first checked the large tangle of bushes by the small marshy area near the fence at the end of the trail. I saw a few small birds mingling in the bushes. They were Yellow-rumped Warblers.

     Mingling with the Yellow-rumped Warblers were a few Palm Warblers…..

   …..farther back along the trail in the red pine trees I saw small glimpses of yellow plumage scurrying through the trees. One of the birds flew into an open area of the branches, and I could easily see them; Pine Warblers. Three of them.

      There were also a few Sparrows including this Song Sparrow.....


     .....and this Field Sparrow.

     This Downy Woodpecker flew down along the fenceline and landed right in front of me.

     While I was watching the Warblers, a single Northern Rough-winged Swallow darted around the grounds over the Treatment Plant disappearing and reappearing through the distant willow trees. I was watching this one bird (and trying to follow it with my camera) near the distant silver Quonset style bldg., when a second Swallow appeared briefly over the pumping house in front of me and was gone as fast as it appeared.

     I was walking slowly along the trees towards the harbor watching and following the Warblers. As I emerged from out of the brush, I spotted an immature Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a branch only twenty-five feet away from me. I obviously startled the bird, I managed two quick shots of it before it took off and landed on a small planted tree where I was earlier standing looking for Warblers. We often overlook the beauty of an immature bird, favoring the striking plumages of the adults.  This bird was quite impressive showcasing its colorful banded tail and striking “windows” of its upper wing plumage.  The bird remained perched when I left the Park

     Where's Waldo?

     Since the Iceland Gulls have settled in to the Madison area (thanks again to Nick and Carolyn for finding the adult) many have asked me for a few tips and field marks or "what to look for" when trying to find this bird at Circle Beach or any other location. In this last chapter of this report, I figured a game of "Where's Waldo" would be a good way to help those who have a bit of a problem singling out this species in a whole bunch of Gulls.

First lets look at the important field marks that makes this unique species so unique. The best field mark would be (but not alway limited to) the white or light primaries with the pale grey marginal stain on the Madison birds-

   Here is the adult-

     The first winter bird......


   The head shape of the Iceland Gulls are gently rounded, with a soft expression to its eye (pale yellow on the adult, darl brown on the first winter). The smallish bill on the adult is a pale yellow, while the first winter bird has a black bill fading to gray near its basal end.

   The adult.....

   The first winter.....

    Let's find Waldo! The birds in the first few images will be easy to find, but will become more difficult as the images progress. Just left click on any image to make it larger. Good Luck!!

    Part 2- Rhode Island Birding Adventure, Part 3- Gloucester Gulling, Part 4- Pink-footed Goose, Part 5- Banded Gulls, and Part 6- Gloucester again will be posted next week, please check back for the complete reports.


Keith Mueller
Killingworth, CT