Sunday 7 January 2007

2 : 0 for Thayer's but still smiling

The saying goes that the longer we work for something the more we appreciate it. I don't think that's all there is to it, at least not in the birding world. When it comes to finding the birds we want, it seems to be more along the lines: the more you long for something, the longer you'll have to search for it!
Of course I really wanted to see Red-shouldered Hawk, but frankly not badly enough to specifically go and look for it until I just happened to visit Lake Erie Metro Park's Hawk Watch at the best time of the year to get Red-shouldered Hawk. Accordingly, the first hawk I saw while still putting up my scope was a Red-shouldered Hawk. Life and lifers can be simple at times and still be incredibly pleasant.
For some reason, Thayer's Gull has decided to be really very much appreciated by me once I finally get to see it. For now I will maintain that this is a good character trait of Thayer's Gull. I don't know though what I'll think about this if I still haven't found one next May.
Anyway, here's last Friday's story.

Bruce Bowman wrote an email a few days ago asking me if I wanted to accompany him and Macklin Smith to the Arbor Hill (or Salem) Landfill on Friday, "by far the best place in the county for gulls".
What was my answer? "Well, Bruce, let me think ab... OK!!"

We left Ann Arbor around 11:30 and got to the Landfill around noon. The first thing that impressed me was the height of the landfill which is very roughly 50 metres above the surrounding landscape. South-east Michigan is a rather flat spot of the planet and when we reached the "active" top of the landfill where all the gull-action was taking place, it was difficult to keep my eyes from the horizon and to focus on the gulls flying around our car.
Yes, sure, this was an exaggeration and the pure wealth of gulls was enough to bring tears of joy to my eyes - or maybe that was the smell of the dump? Anyway, while we were still searching for a place to park the car, we noticed a large white blob amongst the whirling mass of American Herring Gulls which turned out to be a purely white immature Glaucous Gull. Not a bad start, not at all! Here's yet another picture of the German Glaucous Gull which was also almost completely white and we all expected our Salem bird to be a 2nd winter bird.

However, after we had put up our scopes and started scanning, it was soon realized by its dark iris and the completely black tip to its bill that this gull was indeed a 1st winter bird. I thougt that was kind of unusual and very neat to look at!

And then, the true brilliancy of birding took us yet again by surprise and hit us like a bolt of lightening out of a blue sky. After only a few minutes of scanning through our first pack of gulls, Macklin called to us that he had found a strangely dark-mantled bird. We soon all got our scopes onto it and what followed were more than 3 hours of constant observation and an abandoning of our plans to check all the gulls here and move on to other sites! Why? Well, it was soon agreed that this was not an ordinary American Herring, nor was it a Lesser Black-backed as we know it, and that alone made it a very interesting bird to say the least. As a matter of fact, we couldn't help but notice that the bird showed certain traits of a Yellow-Legged Gull, Larus michahellis, although not everything was typical about it and we also took/take a hybrid into consideration. Whatever it was, it was surely significant enough to call in other birders and we were soon joined by Allen Chartier and Mike Sefton. Allen managed to get a few very decent digiscoping shots of it and the link to some of them is here, here, here, here, here, and here (or alternatively, click on the first link and then "view previous") but even though we spent such a long time watching the bird, we were never offered good looks at its wing-tip. It only stretched the wings once in a while but always in the wrong direction and the two times it flew also didn't really deliver the views we'd have loved to obtain. What we know however is that the tip of P10 was completely white and that there was a white spot on P9 that apparently reached onto the inner and outer web of the feather. There were black markings on at least the five outermost primaries, more likely all 6 outer primaries or even 7, and the primaries showed extensive black in flight, possibly appearing as if the wingtip was dipped in a barrel of ink, but I am not entirely sure.
Well, we are still in the process of identifying the bird and I will very likely write a more complete entry on it later when more is known, but it was excessively exciting watching it.

With so many birders now on the bird, it was possible to scan the other gulls for more, and as a matter of fact, even these limited possibilities (without walking/driving around to check out all the gulls) offered a surprising array of species! Here's a list of what we saw with (very) approximate numbers present:

1 - Greater Black-backed Gull (at least 2 adults and 1 1st winter)
2 - Lesser Black-backed Gull (1 ad)
3 - American Herring Gull (more than a thousand)
4 - Glaucous Gull (1 ad and one 1st winter)
5 - Iceland Gull (1 first winter)
6 - the potential/maybe/hope-we'll-ever-know Yellow-Legged or Hybrid Gull
7 - Ring-billed Gull (maybe around 50 to 100 in total)

Here is an image of a Greater Black-backed Gull from the Baltic coast to spice things up a bit:

The Iceland Gull was particularly neat as it was a very pale and finely patterned bird reminiscent of this one with very finely patterned tips to the primaries (Kumlien's influence or a very pale Kumlien's Gull) and after all, it was also only my third ever Iceland Gull!
But as you might have noticed, as long and extensive that list may be, one gull is missing:


Yes, shame, there was not a Thayer's in sight, and try as hard as we might, there was nothing we could do about it.
One gull had me all excited for a while because it showed a very dark - basically black - eye and I called to the others that I had found a Herring-type gull with dark eyes. Allen immediately responded that he occasionally had American Herring Gulls with one eye black and the other eye pale and the gull in question turned its head in that precise moment and ... hurray ... the other eye was pale indeed and the whole bird was nothing but a messed-up American Herring Gull!

Well, as I said in the beginning: this whole business with searching for Thayer's is just about appreciating it very much when I see my first one. Wait, change that to : "if I ever see one".

Here's the evil pale eye of a European Herring Gull from the Baltic, just to have another picture on this long post. I really like their bills in winter when some show a pink base with a black, red and yellow pattern at the tip, very neat!

So the quest for Thayer's goes on. But with observations like these (Glaucous, Iceland and maybe even something reminiscent of Yellow-Legged), there's no need to frown and I am still positive I will eventually find a Thayer's this winter here. Bruce has already invited me to another gulling expedition next Tuesday, so here's looking up!