Bonies at the flats

A few days ago I spent the morning at Conejohela Flats, canoing around because the water level was extremely high following the 3 inches of rain we had just received. Generally we spend most of our time scoping the birds out from a blind that is on one of the small islands but now the blind was basically a small island of its own.

Bonaparte’s Gulls

Before I set off though, I had the pleasure of watching several first winter Bonaparte’s Gulls (or bonies) elegantly forage for food right near the dock. I really enjoy these gulls because of their bouyant, tern-like flight. They are not these big bruiser gulls like Herring or Glaucous Gulls that look mean and fly like a cargo plane.

On the contrary, they can float just above the water, gracefully maneuvering to and fro looking for a tasty floating tidbit, and then just as gracefully dive down to nab it. Even without binoculars they were easy to pick out among the Ring-billed Gulls due to their size and different flight mannerisms.

Bonaparte’s Gulls are smaller gulls, and the first cycle birds (just molted out of their juvenile plumage) have distinctive dark stripes on their wings. I also saw several adults later on when I was in the canoe, hence the lack of digiscoped adults.

One interesting thing about Bonaparte’s Gulls is that unlike most other gulls, they usually nest in trees. I would be hard pressed to remember one time when I saw a gull in a tree.


The lumping of the gulls

For any of you who have looked through a flock of gulls and thought it was hopeless to pick out the different species, you are in luck. Scientists have just released their findings in the UK journal Molecular Ecology Notes regarding DNA barcodes for bird species in North America. They found that most of the large, white-headed gulls (California, Herring, Iceland, Lesser Black-backed, Western, Glaucous-winged, and Glaucous Gulls) share 99.8% of their DNA. Although there is no official percentage that endows a bird with its own species name, these gulls show a high percentage of similarity, enough that the researches lumped them all into one group.

This would greatly simplify the issue and birders would only have to worry about separating Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. The idea that they are all the same species is difficult for me and many others to believe. There are problems with the DNA barcode method because it does not look at the whole DNA sequence, but just one particular area. Despite this, it is still an interesting study and helps us feel better for having such problems ID’ing these birds.

I have seen all of these gulls and photographed them as well so I give you 4 to ponder. You tell me if you think this is acceptable variation for one species.

Kumlien's Iceland Gull Lesser Black-backed Gull

Herring Gull Glaucous Gull
clockwise from top right:L. Black-backed Gull, Glaucous Gull, Herring Gull and Iceland Gull.

Year birds, state birds and a lifer

Yesterday I spent the day cruising the gull scene around Tullytown, Pa which is home to a rather massive dump. Larophiles know that dumps can often attract large numbers of gulls and this dump is no exception, attracting one of the largest numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gulls of anyplace in the Americas. My goal was to find a few white winged gulls, particularly Glaucous Gull which I have never found in Pennsylvania. Well, I was not disappointed! By the days end we had found at least 7 Iceland Gulls, all first cycle birds. I say at least because we saw at least that many that looked different, who knows if some of the similar looking birds were repeats or brand new. Up to this point I had only ever seen 1 Iceland Gull before so this was really a feast for my eyes.

It was at this point that another birder from the west part of the state joined us, looking through the closer gull flock that contained at least 2 Iceland Gulls. After tiring of the search through the flock we decide to do some other birding. We set off down the road and only made it a mile or two when this other birder screeched to a halt behind us, hopped out and shouted, “The Black-headed was right at the corner when you left!.” There had been a Black-headed Gull reported several days earlier and we had scanned for it several times with no luck. Pulling a neat little U-turn in the intersection we streaked back to the gull flock and sure enough, there it was sitting serenely not 50 feet from us, putting my life list up to 575. The bird was obviously smaller and seemed pretty intimidated by the bigger Ring-billed and Herring Gulls that surrounded it. We managed quite a few decent pictures of the bird and enjoyed studying this 3rd county record.

After this excitement we decided to search for the Glaucous Gull one more time. We were lamenting the difficulty in finding this and Cameron was remarking how he usually finds 1 Glaucous for every 3-4 Iceland’s and suddenly he excitedly shouted out, “I’ve got one!” This gull was a big bruiser, roughing up every gull that came close to it and in general causing a ruckus wherever it went. I managed to get a few identifiable photos, notice the pale wing tips, large size and black tipped bill. The Glaucous and Black-headed Gulls have advanced my PA list to 245, a modest number that will hopefully grow in the next few years.

Another Ontelaunee sunset

I headed to Lake Ontelaunee again this evening to witness the growing numbers of gulls roosting on the lake. Apparently most of them are spending their days near a dump in Morgantown and then headed to Ontelaunee to roost. This evening there were again almost 2000 gulls, this time with a high percentage of Herrings than last time. I estimated about 500 Herring Gulls and 1200 Ring-billed Gulls. Also notable were the 3 adult Lesser and 1 adult Great Black-backed Gulls. I was looking especially hard for some of the white winged gulls (Iceland, Kumlien’s, Glaucous) but came up empty handed. Picked up two more birds for the year though to bring my total to a measly total of 53. Hopefully I will have lots of time next week to explore and bird as I spend my first week in Maryland, setting up the apartment I will be living in for the first few months of grad school.

52. Pied-billed Grebe
53. Horned Grebe

Ontelaunee Black-backed Gulls

Today was a good day for gulls at Ontelaunee. When I arrived there were several hundred circling around in the air, giving a shimmering effect when they banked and caught the sunlight just right. They almost gave the impression of snow. While they were getting their act together and collecting to a more impressive flock of 1600 or so, I scanned the flocks of geese and ducks. Only one each of Tundra Swan and Snow Goose but in all the groups of Canada Geese I did find one smaller goose which was potentially a Cackling Goose. Recently split from the Canada Goose, Cackling Geese are significantly smaller and have short stubby bill. It can be quite a recreational activity combing through big flocks of Canada Geese in hopes of seeing one of these smaller, more rare geese.

By this point the circling gull flocks were fairly impressive so I drove to a spot where I could scan through them when they were in the water. Mostly Ring-billed Gulls of course but a nice smattering of Herrings, mostly immatures, here and there. As I reached the far end of the flock I noticed some gulls that were significantly darker. Zooming in I counted 5 Great Black-backed Gulls and 8 Lesser Black-backed Gulls. The count of LBBG’s is easily the highest I have seen at Ontelaunee and is a real testament to the rapid range expansion that the species is exhibiting in the Eastern US.

The Hungry Herring

While at Barnegat Light State Park in New Jersey late last year I was lucky enough to photograph a Herring Gull chopping down on a nice looking sea star. I normally associate sea stars with Florida or the West Coast because that is where I have seen the most and so I was surprised at first when I recognized the gull’s victim. Gulls are not picky eaters. In fact, Birds of North America (BNA) states that Herring Gulls are a “generalist predator on pelagic and intertidal marine invertebrates, fishes, insects, other seabirds, and adults, eggs, and young of congeners. Opportunistic scavenger on fish, carrion, human refuse.” BNA also says that they swallow small prey items whole while large prey items (gastropods, bivalves, sea urchins, crabs) are broken up and eaten or dropped on rocks to break them open.

Herring Gull eating a starfish

This guy really juggled the sea star around trying to fit it down his throat. He seemed frustrated that no matter which way he turned the sea star, its legs were still sticking out and he could not get it down his throat. As I left, he managed to get the sea star further down his throat but still had no luck as far as actually swallowing it.

Strike three for Thayer’s

Well, I have been to Memorial Lake 3 times now to see the Thayer’s Gull and last night was the closest I have come to see it. It showed up as it was getting dark and Tom Johnson gave me a call that he was seeing it from across the lake. My mistake was trying to see it from where I was rather than whipping over to his location. By the time I finally did go over to the other vantage point it was much too dark to get a satisfactory look. I am fairly positive that I actually saw the bird but I don’t like to count things when I am not 100% positive that I know what I am looking at.
There were good numbers of other gulls as well. I counted at least 50 Great Black-backed Gulls, 3 Lesser Black-backed Gulls along with 100’s of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. A small group of A. Coot and 2 Common Mergansers boosted the diversity a tad.

The only other exciting news was the report of an Ash-throated Flycatcher in Lititz, PA. If I can manage to find this bird tomorrow it will be a life bird!