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Jordan and the Gulls

March 8, 2010

Spring arrives in North Carolina all at once.  One week you’re bundling up against a nor-easter that shuts down the entire triangle with a quarter inch of snow and the next you’re pulling on shorts and thinking about firing up the air conditioner.  It’s something I’ve never quite gotten the hang of in the time I’ve been down here.  But the birds seem to see it coming.  Once the Pine Warblers start tuning up in the last week of February it’s only a matter of time before things start bursting out all over, so if you’ve got some winter birds to see, you’d better get to it.

Often times we birders tend to think spring really gets here with the arrival of the first neotrops.  Purple Martins and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds may be the shock troops, aggressively pushing winter north not long after the last frost subsides, but weeks before they even arrive, migration is in full swing.  Regular wintering birds increase in numbers as the birds that spent the winter in your backyard are temporarily augmented by those further south moving slowly towards their nesting grounds. There’s a burst of numbers and activity should you notice it, and I was front and center this past weekend at Jordan Lake as the lake was practically swarming with gulls at every point.  My familiar Ebeneezer Point beach loafer group had nearly tripled in size since the last time I saw them mid-winter.

The birds in my neck of the woods are nearly exclusively Ring-billed Gulls, the ubiquitous parking lot Larus across most of the continent.  A little careful scanning can turn up something different though, which in my case is almost always the odd American Herring Gull (and yes, I’ll keep calling them American Herring Gull as my own little protest against the AOU who really needs to get with the times and make that split from the Euro Herring Gulls already.  They’re not even that closely related!).

I typically find one American Herring Gull in groups like this.  Two if I’m lucky.  While American Herring Gulls may be dirt common near salt water, they’re generally only present in small numbers this far inland.  They’re almost exclusively young birds, no older than second year, that tend to wander widely and turn up here to bully the smaller Ring-bills and generally live large in a way that’s probably more difficult on the coast where they can be bullied by adult American Herrings and the even bigger and meaner Great Black-backs.  Here the gull hierarchy is still in their favor.

But it was a good day for American Herrings, because I ended up finding six more first year birds in this flock where before I’ve never found more than two.  And then, a sharp adult bird made its presence known in the middle of the flock, king of all it surveys.  A good day for smithsonianus!  (Take that AOU!)

In addition to the big gull bonanza, I was taken by the clean plumage of many of the Ring-bills, a handsome distinction not lost on the Ring-bills themselves.  In addition to the raucous calls of the standard winter gull flock, many of the Ring-bills were actively displaying, prancing around the edges of the flock, pointing their bills at the sky and emitting what is known as the “long call”, the primary display vocalization, effectively a song, for gulls.  Typically it’s a variation on the squealing all gulls do, but coupled with some visual cues like throwing their heads back and spreading their wings.  It’s quite a sight.  As I was trying to get a photograph of this behavior, a lady and dog walked right in front of me and scared my gulls into the water. So be it, but if there’s any doubt that spring is in the air, the gulls will set you right.

This last photo is not particularly related to anything special, other than I totally digiscoped a Golden-crowned Kinglet and I’m pretty proud of that.

Golden-crowned Kinglet.  Yeah!

  1. March 8, 2010 10:56 am

    You sure the adult is not a European Herring Gull?

    Frankly I was baffled by the decision of the AOU to not split them. I mean the science behind the split is overwhelming. The funny thing is that the adults are near-impossible to identify in the field, yet everyone who has extensive field experience with one species will look at the other one and simply sense that they are by far not the same. It is obvious, but apparently impossible to pin down or describe in words…

    And you digiscoped a Kinglet?!

    GET OUT !!!


  2. March 8, 2010 11:17 am

    Your gull situation sounds like ours: mostly ring-billed gulls with the odd herring, little, black-backed or other thrown in (though Bonaparte’s gulls overwinter here, a nice change from the boisterous ring-billed clan). And I really thought you were describing our seasonal change: it sounds like you have the same kind of sudden switch that we have: one day it’s winter, and the next it’s not.

    We’ve been enjoying the purple martins arriving, the hummingbirds making appearances, sandhill cranes flying over, and the excitement in the winter residents who are eager to get on with spring’s business: mating and multiplying (along with migrating for those who need to). I love this time of year with the explosion of life and the dynamic feel of wildlife populations.

    That’s a better photo of a golden-crowned kinglet than any I’ve ever taken. I’m jealous! One of these days I’ll capture a good image of those little beauties. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy–and envy–yours.

  3. Nate permalink*
    March 8, 2010 11:21 am

    @Jochen- Range, I guess. And the fact that the juvi birds were Americans. But you’re right, there’s absolutely no reason why the AOU should continue to lump the Herring Gulls. But they seem to have a unnatural attachment to old concepts of species that don’t stand up to modern scrutiny. Genetically American and European Herrings are separated by Great Black-backs, for pete’s sake.

    @Jason- We still have a handful of Bonies around too, I tried to take some photos but they move much too fast. I agree, I used to think March was a boring month, and I guess it still is if you’re on the lookout for the rush of spring migrants, but the slow build up and release of winter residents is pretty cool too.

  4. March 8, 2010 11:41 am

    Yeah, take that AOU! Pow! Zap!

    And, also, nice kinglet.

  5. Nate permalink*
    March 8, 2010 11:42 am

    @Corey- They’re quaking. Quaking!!!

  6. March 8, 2010 12:01 pm

    Even funnier than the AOU’s recalcitrance is that eBird thinks American Herring Gull is a rare bird in my county. I sometimes see flocks of 700 or more. I’m not all that close to the coast, but close enough that Herring Gull is equal in number to or slightly outnumbers Ring-billed Gull.

    I’ve noticed in my local patch that gulls tend to segregate. Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls often sit on a sandbar out in the river while Ring-billed Gulls sit in a dense clump in a parking lot or a baseball field. If there are any rare gulls, they will be with the Herring Gull flock.

  7. March 8, 2010 12:02 pm

    Also – that’s a great shot of the kinglet!

  8. Nate permalink*
    March 8, 2010 8:14 pm

    @John- You’re right. On the very rare occasion that rare gulls show up in the triangle, they’re almost elusively with Herrings at landfills and such. This flock of Ring-bills that frequents Jordan Lake almost never has anything of note, though the odd rare gull does show up every few years.

  9. March 8, 2010 11:28 pm

    Nicely done on the kinglet. Very nice! Unlike Norwegian Blues, I assume no nails were used.

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