Landfill Birding

Before I went to Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, I listed all the field trips that I would be on and one of them was a gull id workshop at at Tomoka Landfill. See all the gulls in the above photo, that landfill was jam packed with birds! I had a bit of a panic, gulls are not my strong suit and let's face it, if you are on the outside looking in at people who enjoy watching gulls, it seems kinda nutty and impossible to do. I used being on the workshop as an incentive to learn my gulls (at least in Minnesota) and I have increased my gull power but fortunately on this trip there were several great local guides and one brought in from the big leagues--Alvaro Jaromillo, author and professional guide for Field Guides. Now, in the above photo, Alvaro almost looks like he's saying, "Yeah, gull watchers are cuckoo." However, he is describing facial features to look for on herring gulls. One of the awesome things about this particular birding trip was that all of the guides were nice, acknowledged that gull watching was hard and if you made an error, they nicely helped you hone your skills. There was no attitude of "I can't believe you thought that was a herring gull, give back your birder card, loser." Alvaro strayed from the traditional terms used for gull id like "primary projection" and used phrases like "does the face look kinda goofy" or "does it look angry like it would kill you if it could." He admitted that these were not terms that you would find in gull guides, but they work. All of us begged him to write a beginner gull guide to give us hope. He did such a great job of making the identification of gulls approachable and more importantly, fun. In truth, all the guides made it fun.

So, essentially gull watching and identification is really a cross between Where's Waldo and logic problems. You look at all the common ones and really learn them and learn them well. Above is a large flock of laughing gulls with a few ring-billed gulls thrown in. There were also quite a few herring gulls hanging out at the landfill as well.

So, you look through all those common ones and you try to find that Waldo, that one gull that isn't quite like the others, that is different. Note the above, we have several large adult herring gulls and smaller adult ring-billed gulls, but then we have someone in the middle who is different. Now the logic problem end of this comes in. You ask yourself why this isn't one of the common gulls. First you can tell by it's plumage that it's a younger gull. It's large, so why is this not a young herring gull? The legs are pink like on a herring gull...but Alvaro told us to look at the beak, it was all black, chunky...not quite herring gull. Another guide, Mike Brothers mentioned that this bird didn't have the "smudgy look" on the back like a young herring gull, it was more patterned (it's hard to tell in this photo). So this was identified as a young lesser black-backed gull.

If you don't see it, don't worry, you'll get there when you're ready. Here is one that might be easier:

We have some smaller laughing gulls on the left, a large herring gull (with a ring-billed gull right behind it) and a large lesser black-backed gull. Again, you're looking for the Waldo, the gull that is different from all the common ones. So you see already that there are two large gulls. One is light gray on the back (that is the herring gull) the other is darker (that is the lesser black-backed gull). Also, note the leg color too. The herring has pink legs, the lesser-black backed has yellow legs. Alvaro and the other guides freely admitted that there will be weirdos that don't fit the books, they could be hybrids or they could just be weird, some will have to go unidentified and it happens to the most expert of gull watchers. My buddy Clay Taylor told me about some herring gulls that were observed at a fish processing plant and all had yellow legs (how exactly were those fish being processed if the herring gulls were eating the leftovers and turning their pink legs yellow?).

Besides all of the gulls, there were TONS of other birds hanging out at the landfill. When you looked at the piles of trash with your naked eye, you saw movement that you thought was maybe some white plastic bags waving in the wind, but looking through the scope, it was thousands of birds of several different species. I posted a video of it earlier. I expected gulls, vultures, crows, starlings, grackles and even a few bald eagles. The surprise to me were all the ibis, herons, and egrets. Earlier I blogged about how Florida is a study in specialist birds like the Florida scrub-jay who need a very specific and exact habitat in order to survive. Species that learn how to expand their food foraging ability are the ones that will continue to survive.

Earlier someone commented on the blog about how sad it is to see these birds crowding for food at a landfill eating food that is bad for them. I'm not sure how bad it is. These birds have been eating at the landfill for decades and a quick glance at Birds of North America Online showed that most of the species we observed are experiencing a population increase. The few that were on the decline were down more for water management issues disturbing nesting habitat. I'm certainly not saying that this is the best idea ever for birds to be eating at a landfill. Sure a bird like a turkey vulture has the digestive system to be able to eat that rotten chicken tucked away in the garbage bag, but what may have spilled on that chicken? Old chocolate sauce? Did that old bottle of detergent that didn't get recycled leak a bit on there? Tough to say, we don't have the answers at the moment.

And as we were enjoying all of these birds (like this cattle egret above) and trying to learn from the wise Alvaro, we had a challenge from not only the din of calling gulls, crows, and eagles but the Dayton 24 race was going on nearby and roaring cars rivaled the sound of thousands of birds. One birder mentioned allowed that race fans must not be that bright to sit and watch cars go round and round in a circle. I thought that was fancy talk coming from a man spending a sunny Sunday morning in a landfill to watch birds.

One of the pluses of birding with a group at a landfill is that it's super easy to point out birds. You could point out the oddball gull quick and easy by the many landmarks. You could say, "From about two o'clock of the pile of boxes is a bright green piece of plastic, it's just to the right of the plastic. It was also interesting to note things like a pile of cardboard boxes with a bald eagle perched on one side and a great egret on the other.

There were dozens of bald eagles all over the landfill and they perched on anything that wouldn't move. Periodically, young thug eagles would fly over the gulls and cause them all to fly into the air in a tizzy.

When we drove around in the morning, the trees were chock full of birds from black vultures to grackles to cowbirds to starlings. This must be a popular roosting area, not too many people come in at night to disturb them.

The birds had a relatively aloof view of humans. These black vultures were not digiscoped, I took this photo right off the road from my car window. To them, humans (especially in vehicles) brought more trash/food. So unless you were running right at them, they were too concerned with you.

This trio was watching us as were watching the gulls, almost wondering what could we be doing if we weren't delivering food.

And though I should have been taking photos of gulls, I could not keep my digiscoping equipment off of the turkey vultures. Even if you are not into gulls, if you go to the Space Coast festival in the future, sign up for the landfill trip, you get close to some crazy birds. And though there is a viewing area specifically for birders, the landfill made a special exception and we were allowed to go on top of areas that birders are not usually allowed on, like Mount Trashmore a high hill of covered garbage (that leaks out methane so absolutely NO SMOKING there). The methane from that his is also channeled to help run the landfill and the leftover energy is added to the local power grid.

As the day got later, many of the vultures, crows, and gulls took flight and circled on the thermals (warm currents of air that spiral upwards). With so many scavengers overhead, you couldn't help but feel a little like a dying animal.

Overall, I had such a great time with the gang and watching gulls, I wasn't ready for it to end. Word from the local guides was that Mike Brothers had discovered that about 50,000 gulls came into the nearby Daytona Beaches to stage before flying out to see to roost for the night. The show started at about 3pm. It was already a little afternoon 12pm. I was supposed to head the 45 miles back for a social at the festival, but the guys had me hooked on gulls, so I decided to relax a bit in Daytona and watch the evening gull show.

That is for another blog entry.