Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

On the Road: Gulls with Black Heads, and More April 19, 2009

After two nights with the weather radar showing birds migrating our way, we had to hit the road on Saturday for some Big Footprint birding.

First stop: Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Chicago. Driving into the park we met our friend Paul, who told us he’d seen a Laughing Gull flying towards the harbor. After searching the harbor, harbor mouth, pier, beach, and open lake for more than an hour, we finally found the Laughing Gull sitting on a dock in the middle of the harbor. Here’s the dock, looking west from the entrance of the sanctuary:

The docks at Montrose Harbor, The red arrow shows where we finally found the Laughing Gull.

The docks at Montrose Harbor. The red arrow shows where we finally found the Laughing Gull.

And here’s the bird, resting with some Ring-billed Gulls that sometimes moved and blocked our view:

The Laughing Gull (with black head) is resting in the center of the photo. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The Laughing Gull (with black head) is resting in the center of the photo. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The bird was too far out for Ethan to get good photos with his Sony DSC-H50 camera. For the record, here’s a digiscoped image, that shows its black head and dark gray mantle (back and folded wings). If you look closely you can also see its heavy, dark red bill and the broken white ring that surrounds most of the eye:

The Laughing Gull is resting in front of a somewhat larger Ring-billed Gull.

The Laughing Gull is resting in front of a somewhat larger Ring-billed Gull.

The time spent searching for the Laughing Gull was not wasted, because we found lots of other great birds. Ethan got a photo of a Common Loon near the entrance to the harbor:

The Coomon Loon sawm close, attracting the attention of both birders and fisher folk along the shore.

The Common Loon swam close, attracting the attention of both birders and fisher folk along the shore. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Also during our search at Montrose, I saw my first Barn Swallow of the year. Aaron and I watched a Wilson’s Snipe take flight from the dunes. As we followed it through our binoculars, we saw a Peregrine Falcon chasing it, then giving up half way down the beach. And, as the radar predicted, we saw many recent migrants to our area. Most of these birds we had seen earlier this spring at Columbus Park (like Hermit Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Swamp Sparrow, and both kinglets) or on birding trips to central Illinois (like a Vesper Sparrow near the beach). We couldn’t find the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher that Paul and others had seen earlier that morning.

We were also pleased to meet many of our birder friends exploring Montrose, plus a few followers of this blog. It was great to see lots of beginning birders, including some on a bird walk sponsored by Science Chicago. (Like many new birders, we still carry our field guide almost all the time, but it’s really worn, and we open it less often).

After a quick stop at North Park Village Nature Center to buy me some new binoculars at the Eagle Optics special sale, we headed south, then east to Indiana. This part of our trip was inspired by posts by Jeff McCoy on the Indiana birders e-mail list. Our first stop, south of I-80 in Gary, Indiana, produced an Eared Grebe, plus many ducks. The Grebe was a year bird for us, but it was way too far out to get a photo. Our next stop was on U.S. 30, a mile or so east of its intersection with Indiana 39. We looked at a series of flooded farm fields along the highway and nearby gravel roads:

Ethan and Aaron scanned the field for shorebirds -- finding hundreds of them!

Ethan and Aaron scanned the field for shorebirds -- and found hundreds of them!

We finally had the mass shorebird experience we’ve been searching for all spring — hundreds of Pectoral Sandpipers foraged at the margins of the “fluddles” (as birders tend to call them):

Can you find all seven Pectoral Sandpipers? We found several hundred of them. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Can you find all seven Pectoral Sandpipers? We found several hundred of them. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Here’s a closer view, showing the distinctive pattern on the chest:

Birders use size, bill shape and color, leg color, steaking on the chest, and several other features to distinguish Pectoral Sandpipers from similar, related species. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Birders use size, bill shape and color, leg color, steaking on the chest, and several other features to distinguish Pectoral Sandpipers from similar, related species. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

There were four other species of shorebirds nearby: Least Sandpiper (another year bird for us), Lesser Yellowlegs, Greater Yellowlegs, and (of course) Killdeer. We also found our second species of gull-with-a-black-head swimming in the fuddles near the sandpipers — Bonaparte’s Gull:

The smaller overall size, paler mantle, and smaller black bill help distinguish this resting Bonaparte's Gull from the Laughing Gull we saw earlier today. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The smaller overall size, paler mantle, and smaller black bill help distinguish this resting Bonaparte's Gull from the Laughing Gull we saw earlier today. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We still had several hours until sunset, so we headed south and then west through Indiana. We didn’t find any new birds at first, but we did see some really beautiful pigs grazing along the road. We also got our first bug spatters on the windshield, and Ethan got his first mosquito bite of spring.

We ended up at Willow Slough, near Morocco, Indiana, just before sunset, where we heard our first Bobwhite of the year. After sunset we drove near a marsh, just sat in the car, and listened. We heard Spring Peeper peeping, American Toad trilling, and American Woodcock mating calls. Then, finally, the boys heard what we had been listening for — the grunt of a Virginia Rail in the distance. (I, unfortunately, was on the wrong side of the car.)

We finally reached home at about 10:30 p.m. And when Aaron gets home from Sunday School, we’ll probably hit the road again, despite the threat of rain.

—–

So, tomorrow the kids go back to school, and I’ll have a week of Big Green birding to catch up with new birds near our home and at Columbus Park. This morning I heard White-throated Sparrows singing from the neighbors’ backyards. I wonder what the warm winds later this week will send our way?

 

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