Black Dog Lake Gull Watching

When it comes to gull id, I've always depended on the kindness of strangers to point out what birds are in the flock. I haven't had a huge interest in them, they all looked the same and when someone would point out the differences they were seeing on a particular gull, I wasn't seeing those differences and felt that they may have been on some mood altering substance.

Part of the problem is that gull id is hard and not easy to explain. And quite honestly, no one has done a good job of making it understandable to a general audience. All the books that I have found are written by hardcore gull people for hardcore gull people. The books that are currently available are not organized in a way where you can easily do side to side comparisons. They are big clunky and well, just not organized for someone starting from square one. I've even tried looking at websites and haven't found any that are easy to navigate, at least for species in this area. Seriously, I just looked up "gull mantle color" and found this chart--oy! It's not easy for someone to get into. I wish there could be a book with side by side comparisons, a little less natural history info, maybe even flash cards. I'm seriously thinking of scanning my Sibley and making some flash cards.

That said, I'm forcing myself out to get to know gulls. Partly because I want to get over this hump and partly because I'm helping on a gull trip at the Space Coast Bird Festival in January. I really lucked out on Tuesday and ended up having an 8 species of gull night, which for the Twin Cities is pretty darned good.

And might I add that gull watching in Florida in January is going to be 10 times more fun since it will be warm whereas here in Minnesota it's snowy and the temperature is in the teens. I was bundled up, but still got numb fingers while watching gulls the other night.

The power plant keeps the water open and gulls and other waterfowl come in to feed and roost as nearby lakes and the Mississippi River and Minnesota River freeze up. Part of the problem with gull watching is trying to find a place where they are fairly close to try and id. This road next to the power plant is turning out to be an okay place. The birds are fairly close and easy to see...if you have a scope. In the evening, the sun is behind you and you can get some beautiful light on the birds.

So here are some answers that may even lead to debate on the hidden gull in the photos. My goal was to jut be able to pick out a bird that looked different from the expected herring gulls and ring-billed gulls. That's all I wanted to be able to do. I was surprised that I was actually able to mentally id a couple on the spot.

In the first photo, here is the gull in the red circle that is different from the herring gulls and ring-billed gulls. It's in its first-cycle or immature plumage but it's different from what a herring or ring-billed would look like.

Here in the profile, you can see a big difference (and a male common merganser). The bird is pale and it's wing tips are roughly the same color as the back, not dark like the bird below:

See bird in the front that is all gray has dark wingtips? This is a young herring gull.

So, back to our gray, yet very pale gull. The coloration in some ways reminds me of gyrfalcon coloration. When I arrived, another woman was at Black Dog scanning for gulls and she had spotted this one. I scanned and was pleased that I was able to tell it from the other gulls. I noticed that it was pale and I noticed that the wingtips were the same color as the back. I wasn't sure if it was a Thayer's gull or and Iceland but thought I would watch and take photos and check the id when I got home. Other birders arrived and MN gull guru Jim Mattsson came in and called it an Iceland gull. He said that the bird's overall paleness, the wingtips being the same color as the back and having a frosty appearance, as well as a rounded head make this an Iceland gull.

When I first arrived, I found a very large gull, bigger than any of the others. With its large size, checkered back and blunt bill, I felt confident in calling this a great black-backed gull. All the gulls got up and disappeared for a bit so at first I was the only who saw it. Fortunately, it landed again and the whole group got to see it (and I got confirmation which felt good).

I also noticed another super large gull that was really, really pale. Can you pick it out in the above photo?

Here's another photo of our large pale bird. This is a glaucous gull. I really felt good that I was actually seeing different gulls and figuring them out. This is a BIG step for me, I think just picking up gulls here and there at festivals and spending the last week studying Sibley and the overwhelming Gulls of the Americas has helped as well. I'm not as bad off as I thought.

Other birds did distract me a bit. While we were there, we watched the gulls soar around the smoke stack at the power plant. Jim pointed to a pepper speck at the top and said "peregrine":

Sure enough, looking through the scope, you could see an adult peregrine falcon. At one point it even called out. Not sure what that was all about, but it was nice to have the distraction from the gulls. We got a total of eight species that evening: ring-billed gull, herring gull, Iceland gull, Thayer's gull, glaucous gull, lesser black-backed gull, greater black-backed gull and...

...a Bonaparte's gull. This one flew in and I heard a member of group call it out. I found it right away and breathed a sigh of relief that this one was easy to pick out from the numerous gulls on the lake. It was super tiny compared to the others, had a dainty bill, and a little black spot behind the eye. All in all, I felt as thought I would have positively identified all the gulls in my photos when I came, except maybe the Iceland gull (that one I would have struggled between Thayer's and Iceland).

Quite a few other species of birds were out on the water including the trumpeter swans see above and white pelicans.

As the sun began to set, the water became more and more pink--it was quite beautiful.

And don't panic, the usual birds will resume on here soon!