Saturday, January 24, 2009

My Deal with Gulls

I think coming to realize that I know absolutely squat about gulls may end up helping me with gull ID in the long run. Take for instance the other day and my visit to Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City. I'm still very unfamiliar with this lake. I spend my time predominately in the South and the Western regions of Oklahoma, and when I visit Hefner I spend a great deal of time trying to orient myself to the best locations. That said, my city driving skills aren't great, and I always seem to place myself on a street that has a detour and only runs one way!

I've had moderate success with
gulls and terns in the state, and have managed to rack up thirteen species in the past 5 years, most of those on my own. I think I dropped in on Berlin Heck's Lesser Black-backed Gull a couple of years ago at Hefner but that's it. My personal best two would be a Sabine's Gull at Lake Lawtonka in 2006, and last year's Mew Gull at the Kerr Reservoir Lock and Dam (Beck et al. 2008 ). It's difficult to be patient enough to stand in the cold, while picking through a few thousand individual birds in a huge swirling mass. Hoping to find that one single (sometimes more) rare or accidental species. But when I find one, it makes me feel like jumping and shouting, which I have been known to do. Chance and luck give to patience, and numbers of individuals present (or at least that's the way I see it).

Here's my problem (confession if you will). Sometimes during gull ID sessions, my mind ends up giving in to confusion. That's usually when I take a break and go looking for something else. Here are some examples of this confusion of which I speak: is the mantle on that bird darker than the rest, or is it light and shadow playing with my perception of the gull? How old is the bird that I am looking at, 1st year, 2nd, adult, what... ? What about the bill size, shape, colors, rings, gonys spots, long, short? Aaaghhh! I'm sure many of you may feel the same. I don't normally give to looking at the guide right away; it always seems that the moment you look at the book the bird is gone. My mantra, "be patient and look at the bird." I take notes and do my best to get a clear photo. Some of which you all have endured! That's it.

So to Hefner, and my half an hour chase of what I presume to be a Herring Gull of interest (Larus agentatus sp.). There may be a chance that it was a hybrid, although Howell and Dunn (2007) noted that it's "generally rare" to find them, although it doesn't seem that its too uncommon of an event, especially in western North America. There may also be a chance, most likely, that it's just a regular run of the mill Larus a. smithsonianus, perhaps displaying some of the variablility that this species is notorious for. Either way it was a fun 30 minutes and also a chance for me to knock out an assignment for Ornithology. The assignment: in our field journals for the semester, write fifteen species accounts. Guess what my first is. You get to come along for the ride! I've gone into a little more detail than we need for the assignment ( I think!), but I could use the practice. Not failing to forget that understanding the more common species such as Herring will help with identification of the more obscure gulls in the state, especially the large white-headed gulls.

American Herring Gull (Larus argentatus smithsonianus.) Location: Lake Hefner, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; road that runs atop the northern levee (Hefner Drive, Road,??); Time of visit: January 23,2009, 15:15 to 15:48; Conditions: 98% overcast, winds NW15-18 mph, gusts around 25; very light drizzle lasting less the five minutes.

The individual gull was initially seen approximately 125 meters off of the levee. The gull was at rest on the relatively calm water. Because of the proximity of the area to the levee the water was shielded from the wind. Waves were not a problem on this side of the lake, and allowed for more relaxed viewing than further south on the water. Ring-billed (45 indiv.)and Herring Gulls (15+) were present along the two and a half miles of the levee road. Most birds were observed cruising low (around thirty-fourty feet) and at varying distances, but in close proximity to the levee. This made for easy observation of individuals on the wing. Some individuals would cruise past and then circle back again a couple hundred meters, and then proceed to follow the same general eastward path they were originally on. On occasion, birds would dive and capture fish of an unknown species.

The individual Herring Gull that this account is based upon stood out to me for a number of reasons. The first observation, and what drew me to this particular individual, was how much darker the mantle appeared to be from other adult Herring Gulls in the same general vicinity, a full shade darker. I did take the time to watch its activities to be sure that the shading of the mantle was not due to light conditions. Numerous times, both on the wing and at rest, the bird was seen next to or very near other individuals of the same species, and approximately 80% of the time I felt sure that the dark mantle tone was in fact true and not due to conditions. Although the photo is poor (150 meters, bad light conditions) , you can see a generally darker mantle in the individual to the left, both birds are Herring Gulls.
Other field marks that were noted for this particular individual included a large bill with a red subterminal spot, a pale eye, and typical (but dark) mottling from the top of the breast around the nape and over the rest of the head, all of which are key identification points for Herring Gull (Howell and Dunn 2007, Pierotti and Good 1994). The bird appeared slightly larger than many of the other Herring Gulls present. Maybe this could be due to the fact that male individuals are usually larger than females in Larus species ( Howell and Dunn 2007).

White "windows" were visible on Primaries 9 and 10. The remaining primaries were tipped with white, as well as the secondaries. Unfortunately I never got a great look at just the scapulars, but from a photo not posted here, they look to be typical for Herring. Underparts where pale, including the under-wing, and the gull had the pink legs typical of this species.

So what was gained from this little adventure into the Herring Gull? 1: I realized that I have a very long way to go with gull identification. 2: From reading some ID books and species accounts I don't feel so bad about getting things a little confused at times, gulls may in fact be some of the most difficult species to identify (at least for me). 3: Work on the common birds and understand all of their characterisitics, that way the unusual characterisitics stand out.

Some of the other species seen while at Hefner included Red-breasted Merganser, Common Loon, 97 Common Goldeneye, A smattering of Horned, and Pied-billed Grebes, and a few more common waterbirds.

Literature Cited

Beck EJ, Reinking DL, Husak M. 2008. Oklahoma's first winter bird atlas project produces two new Mew Gull records. Bulletin of the Oklahoma Ornithological Society 41:10-11.

Howell, S.N.G. and J. Dunn. 2007. Petersons Refrence Guides: Gulls of the Americas. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York.

Pierotti, R. J. and T. P. Good. 1994. Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Monday, January 19, 2009

Canton and Beyond

Well it sounds like everyone in the Oklahoma birding community did well this weekend. Multiple people paid visits to the White-tailed Kite in Lawton. Sounds like the usual assortment of loons are present at Tenkiller Lake, including Oklahoma's second Yellow-billed Loon for the season; and don't forget the Pacifics in Stillwater. Fortunately I can add a little bit more excitement to the weekend.
Saturday afternoon I made it to Canton Lake just around 4:15 pm, which gave me plenty of time to check the gulls and ducks that were feeding pretty closely to the dam. After about fifteen minutes I located a 1st year Thayer's Gull, in a light plumage. Unfortunately no photo, but I did have lengthy looks at it from about75 yards and took down many notes. But just before the gull I forget to mention that there was a Rock Wren along the dam, just above the boat ramp along the west side of the parking lot (if you're following me!). I did get a photo of this guy, only one and I'm not happy with it at all.

I chased gulls for about 45 minutes along the dam, and then headed north along the west side of the reservoir, making stops every chance I could hoping to find a new gull or something fun. Patience paid off and a Townsend's Solitaire flew beside the truck. I chased this bird around for about ten minutes before it finally gave me a chance to try and photograph it. Take a look, can you see the white eye ring and the white-outer retrices? I can, but not easily! I couldn't have asked for a better time,
throw around 4K Common Mergansers and a smattering of other common waterfowl and I call it class A birding. I still haven't solved the problem with birds being too far out on the lake, I'm not even sure a boat would help; they are especially weary about boats and humans and move off a good distance if approached. I moved on north and west to Woodward.
Sunday was spent primarily at the Selman Ranch IBA. I did make a short trip to Ft. Supply Lake but never found anything there. It was especially quite, that is until the fire sirens. Apparently a prairie fire north of Ft Supply needed tending to. By the time I made it to the top of the hill on the west side of the spillway, the sky was filled with smoke. Later I heard that the fire burnt a swath 3x5 miles large. You could see the smoke from at least a county away!

Later that day and evening at the Selman Ranch I would come across a a few more species including Northern Bobwhites, dark phased Red-tailed Hawk, and finally a single Lesser Prairie Chicken (mind you that's not the whole list!). That made the day for me! As much time as I spend in the region I still don't expect to see Prairie Chickens, and when I do its very exciting.

Today was also spent at the Selman Ranch it was beautiful and relatively quiet. Along the Cimarron and Buffalo Creek Salt Flats I located three Greater Yellowlegs. Apparently this winter has been mild enough that many have decided to hang about. I've heard that many were reported this year on CBC's around the state. A handful of Loggerhead Shrikes were waiting about for unsuspecting American Tree , White-crowned, Field,

and Song Sparrows, or maybe something a little bigger...apparently they take Cardinals in Northeast Oklahoma! I left the Selman Ranch around three thirty and finished up the count there with a Ferruginous Hawk.

Back to Canton and Gulls! I made it back to the dam about 4:30 again... The gulls were feeding along the dam with the large group of Common Mergansers again. There were 5 Bald Eagles in the mix, two adults. I located a Thayer's again, I'm inclined to think it was the same individual. Shortly there after I found a 1st year Glaucous Gull and got the photos this time. There are loads of gulls on the lake, equal amounts Herring and Ring-billed it seemed. I wouldn't hesitate to have the notion that there's probably a whole lot that I missed!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Success finally! After five pursuits and many hours of searching I was able to locate the White-tailed Kite (Elanus luecurus) that has been reported since early December '08, just SW of the Wichita Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.

Let me ask? Is it excusable for a student of Ornithology to chase birds between classes. I say yes, and especially this superb and photogenic individual. I located it NW of the corner of 267th and NW Carlson, on the 16th of January. This is reasonably close to the locations it has been spotted before. I was able to watch it from varying distances, and on one occasion only 15 yards! I was also able to get some identifiable shots, but someone with a real camera could have done considerably better. The bird stayed in the viewable area for approximately 30 minutes.
It's hunting style was very interesting to watch. My description of it would be a hovering/swooping action. Fortunately for me it got closer with every swoop. I did observe it perched as well, but far off on both occasions.
This is species is considered a rare migrant and winter visitor (Tyler, 2005). I've lived in Lawton for 5 years and this is the first in the state that I have seen. I added it to both my life (?, haven't bothered to tally it yet) and state list (319).

Oh yeah #318 for the state was four Trumpeter Swans in NE Comanche County. It looks as though there are still two life birds hanging around Oklahoma though, according to reports. The Yellow-billed Loon and White-wing Crossbills are only an hour a way.......hmmmm. Stay tuned they'll be some more to come from NW Oklahoma later this weekend.

Oh the Red-shouldered Hawk was one that I found while searching for the kite. The western distribution of these birds has been a thread on the Oklahoma bird listserve for a while now, so I thought some might be interested. Not a great shot though!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mark a Fence-Save a Bird

Come out and help ensure the continuing survival of the Lesser Prairie Chicken in Woodward Oklahoma in April 2009. By marking barbed wire fences in the home range of LPCH we can help reduce mortalities caused by fence collisions. The Sutton Avian Research Center has shown that fences (particularly in Oklahoma, due to the extraordinary fence densities in the NW region) contribute significantly to mortality rates in this species. The pie-charts are from the Sutton Center and they show quite well the problems these birds are facing.
Raptor and Mammal caused mortalities contribute, but they are part of the natural cycle of life . What LPCH's can't afford are the large black slices of the pies. You can find a whole lot more at . Don Wolfe, who is the senior bilogist on this project since its upstart, has loads of information about this species (and other grouse) and I encourage anyone interested in attending the Woodward LPCH festival to take a look at some of the information available at their web-site. The center has been marking fences (some of which I have helped with) for the past three-four years, and since that time they have yet to find a dead prairie chicken next to a marked fence. What a success rate, I'm sure in the not so far future we will see a publication about their positive findings.

In April the Oklahoma Important Bird Areas program is sponsoring a fence marking weekend (just like last year) at the Selman Ranch. Our goal is to finish marking all of the interior fences on the Selman Ranch IBA. If we run out of fence, we may have a chance to mark on some other properties, but I am still working on this. In any case this conservation action project is very significant and please don't hesitate to visit the Oklahoma Audubon Council website and read more about the upcoming festival!

Oh by the way. I know for a fact that some highly rated bloggers will be at this festival. The "Bird Chick" Sharon Stiteler is our keynote speaker ! Debby Kaspari from the blog
"Drawing the Motmot" and artist extraordinaire will be our featured artist. I also have an notion that the witty and always fun Timothy Ryan from the blog "From the Faraway Nearby" might make an appearance. Hopefully when he reads this he'll give it more thought!