Laughing Gulls

Heads up: I'm going to Guatemala at the end of February. Mike from 10,000 Birds and Patrick from Hawk Owl's Nest should be there too. Since it sounds like internet access might be iffy while I'm there, Swarovski is going to help me hold a guest blog contest! More details are coming but if you are a blogger who would like to introduce some of your material to my readers or if you have read my blog and thought, "Hey, I can do this, I'd like to give that whole blogging thing a try," this contest will be for you. Details will be up tomorrow (Friday).

I'm wrapping up all my coverage of the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. I think I have about 2 or 3 more things to blog about. It was an action packed festival, I was there for a full seven days. Even if you can't do a full festival schedule, just doing 2 days gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Right now, I'm compiling all my photos for our pelagic birding trip (birding by boat to look for seabirds)!

Here's a video of some laughing gulls that were following out boat out to sea. The crew was tossing out chum and what amazes me is that even as we're bookin' it out, and the gulls are pumping their wings to keep up--they still manage to catch fish chunks thrown at them:

The Gulls At Daytona Beach

I got to debut one of my favorite new birding shirts while at the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival. Can I say how much I love the shirts at Magnificent Frigatebird? I blogged about some of these shirts around the holidays. I love the sense of humor that the company has and I love that they don't just carry the Hanes Beefy Tee. On behalf of female birders every where, thank you for carrying a variety of sizes and styles and for not making female birders look like a sack of potatoes with a bird logo. Check out their shirts, there's something for everybody. If you can buy a shirt, please do, we need to support companies that add some hip to the birder wardrobe, because Tilly hats are not helping. FYI, the new way to id a birder is not by the vest with pockets, but by a Tilly hat with the cord strapped firmly under the chin). Above I'm wearing the Birding Slut t-shirt (I got lots of compliments for it--even from a Dunkin Donuts employee). Speaking of Dunkin Donuts, some may remember my rant a couple of years ago about how many Dunkin Donuts quit making the flavor I loved. When I'm in a new state, I usually stop at one. I love the coffee and a small part of me hopes that I'll find the one DD still carrying the vanilla creme donuts. After birding at the landfill and taking a break before heading to Daytona Beach for some hot all-gull action, I found a Dunkin. I walked in and found that they had both vanilla creme and chocolate creme. It took a photo and sent it to Twitter. I even got a reply from for the Dunkin Donuts Twitter Feed: "@birdchick, we are glad, when you are glad. Please report back when you see a White-tailed Tropicbird or an Antillian Nighthawk."

Wait, DD watches birds?? No wonder I love their coffee and their donuts! Probably just as well that the creme donuts are harder to find, makes it easier for me to fit in the cute birding t-shirts.

Word on the street among gull watchers was that Daytona Beach in late afternoon was the place to be. It's near the Tamoka Landfill. I'm sure many of the gulls we saw there ended up on the beach. The gulls are staging along the beach before flying out to the ocean to sleep at night. Rumor had it that there could be 50,000 gulls coming into the beach. And if you were in the mood for a game of Where's Waldo, you could pick out some interesting gulls among the many common ones like the ring-billed gull above.

Some were easy to pick out right away. Above is a tern and not a gull, this is a royal tern. Other fun ones we picked out included that famous lesser black-backed gull and also the Iceland gull that I blogged earlier.

One of the challenges of birding along the beach was the public. We had joggers plowing though the gulls oblivious to the dozen or so people with scopes aimed where they ran. Kids also thought it was a great time to run through the gulls to watch the flock swirl around them. I can't say that I blame them. Having walked through a few clouds of birds myself, I can totally understand the excitement.

I did have one tense moment. I could see a girl who looked to be about 8 - 10 years old running down the beach scaring up birds. She was running towards us and we had just gotten the Iceland gull into our scopes after working the beach for some time. I tried to signal to her to stop. The two older women with her (I assume one was her mother) were oblivious. The young girl slowed her pace at my hand signal, but got a mischievous glint in her eye stopped right in front of where my scope was aimed, blocking the gull. I turned my scope to the side and stared at her. I figured if I moved my scope, she would move on. She had slowed enough so the flock wouldn't move, but she stayed, and the battle of wills had begun. I heard one of the women call behind me, "Baby, you keep dancin', ignore those people, it's okay."

A confrontation was out of the question, the two women could have easily pummeled me had I said, "Oy! We're trying to photograph a bird here." The young girl stayed put, smiling at this odd game of wills. I was surprised she stayed, "Seriously, you just gonna stand there and be a stinker?"

Then, it suddenly hit me, "Duh, Sharon, now is your chance!" I called to the girl, "Hey, you want to see a super rare bird through my scope?"

She smiled and shook her head yes and ran over.

I got the Iceland gull centered in the scope. I told her that this bird came all the way down from the Arctic to Florida and it was very rare to see one here. She peered through the scope and turned to look at me with wide eyes. She seemed genuinely wowed. The two older ladies came over and looked too. They were very excited. They said that they had noticed many people with scopes and wondered if we were a photography club. I told them about the different gulls and they were surprised.

I also pointed out the glaucous gulls. There were a couple and they were such a stand out to the naked eye. The women took down the name of both the gulls and told the little girl that they would have to learn more about them on Google when they got back home. Who knows, maybe that little girl will be a future birder, or worse, gull watcher. I can't believe I didn't think of it sooner when she first came down the beach. I came dangerously close to being the cranky old woman who shakes her fist at the young kids who don't understand and didn't do it as well as when I was a kid.

The glaucous gulls were quite helpful for our gull watching. Since there were so many birders out with their scopes and some of us were digiscoping, many people on the beach came up to ask what we were doing. Since the glaucous gulls stuck out even with the naked eye, I just said, "See that big white gull, it's not supposed to be here."

That almost always did the trick. It's so much easier to point to a big white bird and say, "See that one that's obviously different, we birders are really excited about that." It's the young first year gulls where you say, "See all those brown looking gulls that are all the same size? Well, the one in the middle has wing tips that are slightly less dark brown than all the others. We birders are really excited about that one!" That's when a non birder backs away with that frightened look in their eye that they have just encountered someone who is either high or relatively unstable or both.

I must say, I had a lot of fun with the glaucous gulls, there were two of them and both were fairly light. It had finally warmed up at this point and we were enjoying the breezes on the beach. What a difference to watch a glaucous on a balmy beach in a t-shirt instead of bundled up in sub zero weather on a patch of open river near a power plant.

As the tide started to come in, the gulls came closer to us. This glaucous gull got so close, I couldn't fit the whole body in my field of view. I took the opportunity to take some head shots. The glaucous gull really is beautiful. You have the white frosty look, and the beak and feet are a pretty pink. See it in the bill?

I don't know if I'm going to be jumping onto those hardcore birding listservs where they discuss an unusual gull for about three weeks, but I'm not going to shy away from them either. I once met someone who said he tried to learn 3-4 warbler species each spring. Then after ten years, he'd have them down. Perhaps I should treat gulls the same way. Just learn a few each year and then in a decade, I might have them down.

Certainly having them up close did help.

I Digiscoped A Famous Lesser Black-backed Gull!

While doing some gull watching at Daytona beach during the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, some of the more experienced gull watchers were super excited about a lesser black-backed gull. It's not so much that it was there, it's not out of the realm of possibility for a lesser black-backed gull to show up, but this one was banded, and one of the gull watchers (Michael Brothers) knew where this bird came from--and we all know how much I love a good bird banding story! Lesser black-backed gulls breed in Europe. They have been showing up more and more in North America and the suspicion has been that it's a matter of time before they start breeding in on this side of the Atlantic, if they have not already, but no one had documented a nest. That is, until the last two years. In 2007, a lesser black-backed gull was paired up and tending a nest with a herring gull on an island off of New Hampshire.

A same pairing was observed in the summer of 2008 and it is presumed that this is the same lesser black-backed gull, but this time, researchers were able to band the lesser black-backed gull and the herring gull and they also witnessed the copulation between the two--determining that the lesser black-backed was the male. They gave him the usual metal band, but also a green plastic band that is easier to read in the field: F05!

F05 apparently likes to spend his winters in Florida--this is so exciting! It's rare to get a recovery when it comes to banding, but the chance to track one while it's alive is such a treat. Thanks to the internet we can find his history and have some answers. You can read the whole story of the pairing, the banding process, and the hybrid chicks at this website. If you check it out, you can see that the bird I digiscoped above is wearing the same band as the lesser black-backed on the island off of New Hampshire.

Also, if you are frustrated with gulls and the fact that there are wacky hybrids that make gull id even more difficult, you can blame this dude, he's not helping.

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.

Skywatch Friday Florida

It's Skywatch Friday! You can create a blog post with a photo of sky and then link on over to their site and share in the magic. The above photo is from the pelagic birding trip offered at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. We were heading out on the boat to see some seabirds. We started at dawn and as our boat headed out to see we started dropping some chum and whirlwind of laughing gulls and herring gulls followed our boat.

I had another fun moment at Space Coast. While co-leading a trip to Viera Wetlands, a man approached our groups and asked me, "Are you Birdchick?" I said that I was and he introduced himself as Klaus--one of the guys behind Skywatch Fridays. I geeked, but only a little.

So, head on over to Skywatch Friday and check out all the forms of sky people have submitted this week.

Gratuitous Turkey Vultures

Okay, this post was meant to be about a field trip to a landfill to see gulls and a few other species at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival but I did not realize how many turkey vulture shots I took at the landfill. I never get this close to them where I live (well, apart from the education turkey vulture at The Raptor Center). It's easy to understand why so many turkey vultures are attracted a landfill, they find food by smell. Human waste is stinky and smells edible to them and they must find quite a bit to eat in our refuse based on the sheer number of turkey vultures present.

This bird was sunning itself near our group. They were not terribly bothered by humans, most of their human contact at the landfill is by the workers dump and moving the trash. Usually a human is a source of food. I've heard two different theories of why vultures sun themselves. One is to get rid of feather parasites, the other is that vultures can soar so long and the feather tend to flatten out. Holding the feathers in the warm sun puts them back into the proper curvature. Not sure which one is true.

Okay, back to sorting landfill photos.

A Preview For Landfill Birding

I'm trying to corral my photos to use in a future post about birding in a Florida landfill (I tell ya' that Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival takes you to some highfalutin places). Here is a video that I took with my Fuji E900 attached to my Swarovski spotting scope just to give you an idea of the sheer number of birds and the sound they create. You'll hear a din of several species including fish crow, laughing gull, bald eagle, and boat-tailed grackle. Now, here is a question, how many species can you make out in both sound and the video? I'm not sure I know the exact number, but I think you will be surprised at what all you can find at a landfill!

Breakthrough In Gull ID

I have so much to blog about the Space Coast Bird Festival, but I'm still here in Florida and birding like crazy. Monday is my final leg of the festival: a pelagic birding trip. Sunday, I had a major breakthrough in my gull identification ability. Part of it was really great teachers (who don't make you feel bad for misidentifying a gull). I'll go more in depth about that later but here is the moment where I realized I don't completely suck at gull id:

The beaches at Daytona are an evening staging area for thousands of gulls. They congregate there before roosting offshore. Several of us were combing the beaches for lesser black-backed gull, Thayer's gull, and Iceland gull. My buddy Clay had just arrived when someone reported an Iceland gull waaaaaaaaaaay down at the other end of the beach. Several of us booked it there on foot as fast as we could. In the distance, we could make out one birder frantically taking photos, we figured he had the gull. As we approached, we saw people running towards the gulls (it's a public beach) and the whole flock flew up and away. The birder who had been taking photos was in a vehicle, so he drove over to us. He said that he watched it take off and had a general idea of where it landed. His vehicle was packed with equipment, but he offered to let us stand on the floorboards and hang on as he drove to the far end where it landed.

Above is a reenactment. Four of us clung to the vehicle as it headed down the beach. We all watched and scanned for a lighter gull that could be an Iceland gull amid the darker laughing, herring and ring-billed gulls. Then, as we were coasting down the beach, with my naked eye, I spotted it. The vehicle came to a stop, we jumped off and...

We got some great looks and great shots of the Iceland gull. I can't believe I picked it out with my naked eye. Gulls are not so scary after all! I blogged about this particular species of gull earlier this winter, only it was much colder and in Minnesota. The gull was also much further away. Having one so close on a balmy beach was so much better. This is a first cycle (hatched last summer) Iceland gull, it is very pale and frosty looking, note that it does not have dark wingtips, making it easier to distinguish of many of the other gulls out there.

I promise this won't be an all gull all the time blog, but let me assure you, it is possible to gradually learn your gulls.

Now, here's hoping I don't barf on the pelagic birding trip.