Monday, February 22, 2010

2010 IOS Gull Frolic

Gulls, gulls, gulls and more gulls.  That's what this past Sat (Feb 20th) was about.  It was the Illinois Ornithological Society's (IOS) annual Gull Frolic field trip.  This trip has been going on for quite a number of years and has changed over the years to become almost a one day Gull festival rather than a just field trip.  Complete with food, drinks, tons of people and even a speaker for the day, this is definitely one of the best Gull-watching events in the country. 

This year, the festivities had record attendance.  Mostly of people, but thousands of gulls also received the memo about the day and arrived right on schedule.   
There was no way to count the total number of gulls that covered the harbor and left little room for the ice. Estimates ranged anywhere from 6 to 10,000 birds.  
This year, gulls of seven different species were in attendance.  As always, Herring Gull was present in the highest numbers with Ring-billed being a close two.  It was difficult to say who was in third place though. Thayer's Gulls probably took that spot due to the 8-12 individuals that were flying around.  
Third place was Glaucous Gull at at least 5-7 individuals floating around the harbor. Iceland Gull was a close fourth though with at least 4 birds present.  Three Lesser Black-backed Gulls hovered around with at least two giving excellent looks.  Great Black-backed Gulls weren't quite as cooperative. The only individuals present coming only as close as the breakwater. 

Chumming was the order of the day.  Don't know what Chumming is?  That's why I'm here. 
Chumming is essentially baiting the birds to get them to come in closer and create a flock that helps draw in other birds.  The word comes from the Virginia Algonquin Indians from a word that they used for the practice of baiting fish.  It is done most effectively during pelagic trips where Popcorn, fish scraps, fish oil, blood and anything else edible is tossed into the wake of the boat where the ever hungry gulls come to get it. The feeding flock eventually attracts other opportunistic scavengers such as Petrels, Shearwaters and Albatross.  In this case, since we were inland and had no seabirds to attract, the bread we threw out served only to draw the birds closer for better photo ops and ID looks at birds such as this winter adult American Herring Gull: 

Iceland Gull was a favorite of the day, though no L.g. glaucoides subspecies could be identified out of the flock.  All of the individuals seen were the Larus glaucoides kumlien's subspecies like this 1st cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull:

Glaucous Gull was easily one of the larger gulls to attend. This bird is easily distinguished from the Iceland above by it's very pale, bleached, almost white feathers, pinkish bill with a black tip and massive size.  These birds are almost as big as Great Black-backed Gulls, just to give you an idea of how big they are. 

This guy was also a bit of a bully: 

This Lesser Black-backed Gull was highly cooperative and gave me a chance to get some decent shots for once.  Lesser Black-backed is a relatively easy gull to identify. The darker back, streaked head (though lightly on this bird) Herring Gull sized bill and distinctly yellow legs make this gull stand out quite well in a flock: 

Thayer's Gulls are not quite as obvious at first.  The adults of this species look almost exactly like adult Herring Gulls but with a few differences.  The bird below is a classic adult Thayer's Gull.  
Lack of black on the primaries, heavily streaked head, smaller bill and head, almost "daintier" structure, dark eye, etc. 

As I noted above, Thayer's Gulls can be quite tricky to ID.  Here is one such example.  
The bird below is a Thayer's Gull (Larus thayerii).  In naming some of the field marks of the bird above, I named the dark eye as one of the primary ones.  The dark eye can be quite useful in picking out adult Thayer's Gulls out of a flock. However, the bird below is proof that this ID mark is not always reliable. 
This Thayer's Gull has a yellow eye.  Every other ID mark fits, except the eye.  Although, the bill is slightly more yellowish as well. Also note that the inner webs of the primaries are darker black than you'd normally expect and there is little streaking on the head. Sometimes makes me wonder if these birds are actually hybrids with Herring Gull or not.  At any rate, the current accepted ID for these birds is and remains Thayer's. 

Anywho, I will be dealing with more details of Gull identification in a later post.   My next post will be my favorite photos from the day and then my Gull ID post so watch for that soon!

The Gull frolic was an awesome experience and if you haven't been, I would highly recommend attending at least once, if not multiple times.  It's always on the same weekend every year so mark your calendars!!
Many thanks go out to the members of the IOS Gull Frolic committee who went to great lengths to organize this year's festivities and entice Gull expert Alvaro Jaramillo to come all the way from his home in Half Moon Bay, California to the icy Midwest to give his excellent presentation on Slaty-backed Gull ID (which I will partly touch on in my gull ID post and in the next post as well.)

So til next time,
Happy Birding!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sax-zim Bog Winter Birding Festival

Sax-zim Bog.  

No, the name is not Norwegian for "Frozen toes."  Though, to some it may bring thoughts of icy Minnesota cold and deep snow. To quote long time Minnesotan and humorist Al Batt "The Mercury dropped so fast it bent the nail that held the thermometer."   But even though it can be cold sometimes, the bog is one of the best and most famous birding spots in the country. 
To birders, the name brings thoughts of Owls, Boreal Finches, Chickadees and Woodpeckers, Sharp-tailed, Ruffed and Spruce Grouse and the easternmost place to find breeding Black-billed Magpie.   
Owls, especially Great Gray and this Northern Hawk-Owl, are what draws the most people:

Sax-zim Bog is just that. A bog. More precisely, it's a Black Spruce/Tamarack bog.  
The Bog is located about an hour's drive northwest of Duluth, Minnesota between the two almost non-existent towns of Sax and Zim, just north of the town of Meadowlands.   
It's a vast place. Acres upon acres of endless trees interspersed with open fields and small clearings.  

This year's Sax-zim Bog Birding festival took place on Valentines day weekend.   
If you're a birder without a girlfriend, what better way could you possibly spend a weekend?  

Especially with awesome birds around like this Pine Grosbeak that are already suited up for the occasion:

This year's festival was excellent. Very well run. Everyone seemed to have an awesome time and, for the most part, got to see what they wanted.   Due to the slow year, there was a distinct lack of boreal birds including many finches,  and most notably, Great Gray Owls.   Out of roughly 200 people (both with the festival and separate) not a single person was able to find a Great Gray Owl during the festival. I guess the food must be good up north. 

Many of the favorites still graced our presence though.  Redpolls, though much less common this year from last year were still a conspicuous sight around the bog.  This highly cooperative bird posed quite nicely for the camera: 

While Redpolls and other finches (especially Siskins) were present in fair numbers, other species were either present in small numbers or nonexistent.  Not a single Black-billed Magpie was found and only a few Northern Shrikes.  Gray Jays also seemed to be fewer than last year as well as the Chickadee population. Despite this the old favorites still showed up on time.  This beautiful Boreal Chickadee gave us spectacular looks, posing here and there, just being the star of the show: 

On Valentines Day, I lead a field trip to Minnesota's famous Aitkin County.   The primary goal of the trip was Sharp-tailed Grouse on a Lek. Arriving at the location at sunrise, we spotted roughly a dozen Sharp-tailed Grouse already on site.  Unfortunately, the moment we tried to hop off the bus, they all flushed and refused to return.  Admitting defeat, we headed onwards.  The rest of the day was composed of two Northern Goshawks, a few finches, a couple Gray Jays and lots of clouds and wind.  

Since no Evening Grosbeaks could be found in the bog, we opted to stop by Kim Risen's feeders for a bit to try to find some. We were not disappointed.  In all, 14 birds eventually came down to the feeders including this beautiful adult male: 

The festival ended with the trip returning to the festival headquarters in Meadowlands.  
A fun time was had by all in one of the best winter birding spots in the country. Even though some of the birds appeared to have missed the invitation.  

Many thanks to Mike Hendrickson and the rest of the festival committee for all their hard work and long hours making everything work.
Thanks also to the festival speakers, Kim Risen and Al Batt for their excellent presentations.  
The festival would not have been the same without Al's quick wit and great jokes.

It was another great weekend in Northern Minnesota!
Mark your calendars for Valentines Day weekend 2011!  Hope to see some of you there next year, attending this great festival that is without a doubt, the best winter birding festival for boreal species in the country!  

Til next time,
Happy Birding!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Michael Jackson, Moonwalking and Red-capped Manakins

How many of you have heard of Michael Jackson? I thought so.
How many have seen his "Moonwalk" move? I thought so too.

But, how many of you have heard of the little bird that does it too? Some? not all.
That's ok. I expected that.

Well here you go:

Red-capped Manakin (Pipra mentalis) is a bird of the Central and South American rainforests in the family Pipridae. It is found in Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru. 

There are four species of Manakins that are black with red heads, but none of them have a display like the Red-capped does.  It is the only bird in the world known to do the "Moonwalk" move that Michael Jackson made so famous. 

Dr. Kim Bostwick explains more about these tiny, tropical dancers: 

If you haven't been down to Central or South America to see these little guys, I would highly recommend it. They are definitely one of the top 1000 birds to see before you die.

What are the other 999 species you ask? Gunnar Engblom of Kolibri Expeditions is compiling a list of just that. 1000 birds to see before you die.

Another species of Manakin you may have heard about is
Club-winged Manakin.

This species has a slightly different display. They use their modified secondary feathers to produce a violin-like "chup-tseeeeep" sound to attract mates. Studies of this species by Cornell's Dr Kim Bostwickhave shown that they vibrate their wings at 1500hz which is exactly the same frequency as the sound

More on these Manakins from Cornell, via Nat Geo:

In all, Manakins are amazing little birds and some of the flashiest in the rainforest.
They're practically "jumping to be noticed."

On my upcoming trip to Peru this fall, I will hopefully see a few species of Manakins. Red-capped being high on the list of Manakins to see. Till next time, Happy Birding!