Tag Archives: Herring Gull

Birds on Tap: Gulls and Growlers!

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With windchills around -15F, even the gulls looked cold today. And there’s no way to sugar-coat it: it was brutally cold. The coldest temperatures in over a month – and one of the coldest days this entire winter – greeted the start of the first edition of the “Gulls and Growlers” tour in our “Birds on Tap – Roadtrip!” series with our partners, The Maine Brew Bus.

Donning plenty of layers, we hit the road and headed north to an unusual destination – well, only unusual if you’re not really, really into serious birding: the Hatch Hill Landfill in Augusta. And the swirl of birds that greeted us quickly explained why we were here on this bitter day.

1,000-1,500 Herring Gulls (with a few Great Black-backed Gulls sprinkled in) would rise up in a swirling cloud every time one of the 8-10 Bald Eagles made a close pass. Add to that 500 or so American Crows and a few hundred European Starlings, and you have a lot of biomass! We learned a little about aging of eagles as birds passed overhead and perched in the towering pines behind us. We sorted through the masses of gulls for any unusual species, and the sight of so many birds in one place allowed for us to forget about the cold – at least for a moment.
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My original plan was to spend 1 to 1 ½ hours here, watching and photographing eagles and studying gulls, hoping to tease out a rarity or at least foster an appreciation for just how approachable gull identification really is. But I’m also at least somewhat rational – well, unless I had spotted a rare gull! – so we knew when to say when and boarded the bus for a short ride to one of the local gull roosts.

At least 300 gulls were present, with dozens arriving every few seconds, so it would have been the perfect opportunity to carefully sort through them. Unfortunately, the 20+ mph wind was directly in our face. We soon moved on.

After a quick coffee/hot chocolate/bathroom stop – perhaps the most welcome stop of the day! – we shifted gears a bit and focused on the Kennebec River. Starting at Mill Park on the north side of Augusta’s downtown, we made several stops as we traveled south to Gardiner (often using the bus as a windbreak!).
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In doing so, we spotted at least 4 more Bald Eagles, and a tallied 132 Common Mergansers. In fact, the mergansers stole the show today, with several rafts actively displaying and some birds fishing in close proximity, diving into the strong current and surfacing between chunks of ice. It was a good count for this time of year, but we enjoyed uncommonly good views of many of the birds.
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We checked through a few small groups of gulls – mostly Herring and Ring-billed as expected – and even though we were freezing, we were reassured that spring is right around the corner thanks to the Turkey Vulture that was weeble-wobbling its way through the gusty winds over Gardiner.

Mike, our driver and beer guide for the day, took over as we traveled between our last few birding stops, offering an abbreviated history of alcohol in Maine, and for a dark period, lack there of. Maine was at the forefront of the Prohibition movement, but now, we are back at the forefront of local, innovative, and cutting edge production of beer, cider, spirits, and much more.

Our first stop in the beverage half of today’s tour was Lost Orchard Brewing/Crooked Halo Cidery where David Boucher and his father, Nick are doing some really “crazy” things with hard cider. By using all sorts of different yeasts and adding lots of creative ingredients, David is working to make “a traditional style untraditional” with his self-admitted “mad science.” And speaking of untraditional, their repurposing of an old church as their tasting room – complete with a bar on the alter, which Nick constructed from the wood of old pews – made for a very unique place to visit. They even offered to turn the organ on for us!
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Closed to the public in winter, they opened their doors just for us, and treated us to some special drinks. In fact, we were the first members of the public to sample their new Exodus, a McIntosh apple cider fermented with farmhouse yeasts and Brettanomyces, which made for a well-balanced cider that was just tart, sweet, and dry enough.

Genesis was drier, “more like an apple wine,” and Hellfire – a strawberry-jalapeno-infusion – played with our taste buds with sweet strawberry up front and a jalapeno burn on the back end. Sour Sister used sour cherries and four strains of souring yeasts, and then David dipped into their private reserve to tantalize us with Dante’s Inferno. Aged in cinnamon whiskey barrels loaded with cinnamon sticks, this is my new favorite cider – and one of the favorite drinks of the day for the group. Our only complaint was that they didn’t have anything bottled for sale at the moment; I know I would have left with a case of Dante’s Inferno!
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Heading south, our second stop was the brand-new Flight Deck Brewing in Brunswick. This was another special treat for the tour as they opened a mere two weeks ago, and we were the first tour group to visit. And we immediately saw first hand how well it has been received by the community, as the place was packed – as it has been since the day they opened; over 5,000 people were served in their first week alone!

Another really cool renovated building, Jared and Nate’s burgeoning brewery is housed in the former indoor small arms range of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. The path is paved with cement blocks cut from the walls to install windows, and they have an entirely electric, seven-barrel brewhouse run on 100% renewable energy from the old base’s micro-grid powered by solar and biomass.

Head brewer Jared described the process and their brewing philosophy, while Nate joined us to describe their unique system, location, and goals for the new business. Meanwhile, we sipped a few of their delicious beers. We started out the Pilot’s Porridge Oatmeal Stout, a “session stout” that was light in body compared to many stouts, and fairly low in alcohol, it still had the flavors we know and love in stouts.
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Our next beer was 44th Parallel IPA, a traditional and straightforward IPA, and one that will no doubt be a standby for locals. But for me personally, both were overshadowed by the Irish Breakfast. A pale ale base with a day-long steeping of Irish breakfast tea made for a unique and fun beer. The tea definitely stood out, but its bitterness and herbaceous-ness was balanced by a sweet, malty backbone. I’m getting into some of these tea-beers, and I think this is a solid effort (they were already out of their Hibiscus Tea beer that was my favorite on a recent “scouting mission” here).
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Winds were still howling, and temperatures- believe it or not – were dropping again, so we decided to forgo a search for Snowy Owls (none had been reported recently here, or we would have definitely cowboyed up!) and head home. While learning that Portland (well to the south of our sojourn today) reached a mere 17 degrees above zero, setting a new all-time record-low high temperature for the date didn’t make us feel any warmer, it certainly proved we earned our afternoon beverages!

While I can’t control the weather, or the birds, I do love the Birds on Tap – Roadtrips! because I know the beverages will always be there for us! And I believe this was a great itinerary that I look forward to leading again next year…hopefully with a few more degrees on the thermometer (and a little less wind!).

I have a feeling it will be warmer on the next eight Roadtrips we have in 2017, starting with the annual favorite, “Spring Ducks and Draughts” on Sunday, April 2nd. Oh, and by the way, as of today, there are only two spaces available! I hope to see you aboard one of our unique and exclusive trips, all of which are listed on our website.
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Gull Identification Workshop Wrap-Up

You may have noticed that my blog has been a little quiet in the last couple of weeks.  Mostly, that has been due to my birding being mostly about photographing gulls every chance I get! And in between, accumulating and sorting photos from friends.  What was planned to be a 95-slide PowerPoint program became an exhaustive (literally), 180+ slide dissertation.  Not only was I impressed by how many people signed up, but how many stayed until the bitter end – even though I strongly urged people who were new to this to depart before the section on Thayer’s Gulls and hybrids!

Come Sunday morning, 13 people joined me for the field session of the two-day workshop – no doubt reduced by the 12-degree temperatures that greeted us to start the day. We began with close studies of the various ages of Ring-billed Gulls at Back Cove…aided by a little “incentive,” of course.
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Sorting through Herring Gulls was up next, and then we made our way over to the Fish Pier in OldPort, for some “real” gulling.  And it did not disappoint. The endless variation of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls was readily apparent with eleven 1st-winter, two 2nd-winter, and 2 adults – many of them close and in direct contrast with each other. A total of three 1st-winter Glaucous Gulls were added to the mix, along with ample opportunities to practice aging Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls.
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I really couldn’t ask for anything more…well, I could, and of course, did. And shortly thereafter a particular gull-of-interest put in an appearance. Widely being reported as a Thayer’s Gull, this odd individual was a bird I wanted to study closely (Jeannette and I only saw it in the distance on Tuesday), and it was indeed a very instructive bird for a gull workshop.  Having been looking at thousands of gull photos over the last two weeks, I have been a bit negligent with studying and addressing this bird.  Besides, I had not seen it in the field and even some very good photos are of secondary value to time with a bird in the field.

Doug Hitchcox got some decent photos of the bird on Sunday, but the best photos to date have been from Noah Gibb. I will therefore use these photos as our reference.
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One of my take-home messages during my workshop is that a good “guller” has to be able to say “I don’t know,” and leave some individuals as “Gull sp.” This is probably the best answer to this bird, but what I think we can say is that this cannot be “counted” as a Thayer’s Gull.

For better or for worse, Thayer’s Gulls on the East Coast receive extensive scrutiny.  Birds that would be passed over in coastal California are analyzed to death in New England. Likewise, birds that look like “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls on the West Coast get extensive scrutiny, while here in Maine we pass some of these off as typical variation.  And I think this is a good thing – rare birds are rare, and vagrants to opposite coasts should warrant extreme care.

Therefore, this current rash of “Thayer’s Fever” – a common affliction of East Coast gull-watchers – needs to be tempered a bit. There is a reason that there are only two accepted records ever in Maine of this challenging, and variable, species. Therefore, extreme caution is necessary when placing this desirable label on funky gulls.

Like the Shawmut Dam gull reported by many as a Thayer’s a few weeks ago, I believe that the Portland “Thayer’s” is well outside the range of variation of what we can accept as a bona-fide Thayer’s Gull on the East Coast.  While there are a number of characteristics that suggest this bird could be a Thayer’s, there are a number of significant “strikes” against it.  While I think the Shawmut Dam birds suggests a Iceland-Thayer’s intergrade (I am not going to get into the muddled and controversial taxonomy here today), the Portland bird looks to me more like an abnormally dark-winged “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull. Sure there could be Thayer’s genes in there…which there probably are in all Kumlien’s Gulls . . .oh wait, I said I wasn’t going to get into taxonomy.  Never mind.  Moving on.

So where was I? Oh yes… while the dark secondary bar (and upon closer inspection showing a distinct contrast between dark outer webs and pale inner webs) and the similarly distinctly two-toned outer primaries are important Thayer’s features, there are a serious amount of non-Thayer’s like features shown by this bird. Again, like the Shawmut Dam bird, there are just too many things “wrong” with this bird to safely label it a Thayer’s Gull, in my opinion.

First and foremost, there’s the Portland bird’s incredibly white overall appearance. While a first-summer or some 2nd-cycle Thayer’s can look this pale overall, this bird IS a first-cycle bird.  Since no second-cycle feathers are evident (the bird has a very uniformly-marked plumage typical of a bird less than a year old) and none of the feathers suggest any abnormal wear, we cannot call this anything other than a 1st-cycle bird.  It is not overly worn, and bleaching would affect all of the most-exposed parts of the bird – like the mantle, upperwing, and especially the primaries (and it is those primaries that are abnormally dark, not pale). The mostly-dark bill is also highly suggestive of a 1st-cycle bird, as is the fairly dark eye. Perhaps that is a bit of an over-simplification, but for now, that should suffice.

With that (fairly well) established, we can look at this bird more closely.  Again, those outer primaries and “picket-fence” secondaries are very Thayer’s-esque. Unfortunately, the similarities pretty much end there. The bird is not very big, and similar in size to most of the “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls we see it with.  It is also has the somewhat short and thin-billed appearance, with a gently rounded head and large eye that are typical of Iceland Gulls; this bird does not get any subjective gestalt points.  More importantly, in my opinion, are more tangible issues, from head to tail (and in no particular order of importance):
–          The overall pale appearance to the entire bird give that “white” impression at a distance; Thayer’s (THGU) usually look “dirtier” or even “brown.”
–          The pale face doesn’t have that nice dark smudge that we like to see on THGU.
–          The bill is clearly becoming pale at the base already.  The pattern looks good for Iceland (ICGU), and is certainly on one end of the bell curve for THGU.
–          The tertials are wholly marbled, and look perfect for ICGU.  “Classic” THGU show mostly dark tertials with marbled distal ~1/3rd or so.
–          On the folded wing (and on some flight shots), the primaries definitely have dark outer webs, but they also have a pale fringe that not just rounds the tip, but continues down the length of the most of each feather’s outer web. That is more consistent with dark-winged “Kumlien’s” Gulls.
–          While the tail is mostly dark, the bases are fairly extensive white with lots of marbling.  The extent of marbling is a good fit for ICGU.

While absolutely none of these factors eliminate a THGU on their own, the sum of all of them taken together makes for a most unusual THGU.  Considering the range of variation in “Kumlien’s” ICGU combined with hybridization – and by some accounts extensive intergrading – put this bird well outside the possibly-artificially-delineated box that we currently label a Thayer’s Gull.  At the very least, this is far short of a bird that could be “good enough” to constitute a third state record.

Can you see why I was so impressed that so many people stayed to the bitter end of my program on Saturday (and Sunday, for that matter!)?  So there, I said it – the OldPort mystery gull is not a “good” Thayer’s, despite the wishes of many-a-birder!  Sorry.

So anyway, after the Fish Pier, we ventured over to Mill Creek Cove in South Portland.  Two more 1st-winter Iceland and a 1st-winter Glaucous were present (some are all likely birds we saw on the other side of the harbor) to reinforce our new-found skills.
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And finally, some of the group joined me for a field trip extension over to Westbrook to look for the “Westbrook Gull,” a bird that, as I explained in the workshop, still defies identification and therefore is also quite instructive. Unfortunately, it was not present today (I see it less often on the weekend), but we finished up with a great showing for here of 4 Iceland Gulls (three 1st-winter and 1 2nd-winter) with the Herring and Ring-billed Gulls near the falls.  Meanwhile, while we did look at other birds all day, the open water behind downtown Westbrook yielded the surprise of the day – a pair of Ring-necked Duck that has just been found by Colin Chase.  Whether they are southbound, northbound, are somewhere in between, this was a great winter find, and a nice way to bring our workshop to a close.

Some people added Iceland and Glaucous Gull to their life list this day – and I think one person deleted Thayer’s Gull from their life list! – but more importantly, everyone left with a little more knowledge about how to identify gulls, and more importantly, hopefully a new-found appreciation for these remarkable, adaptable, and successful creatures.

With the success of this weekend (and some refinement due to the slide show portion of the program), I think it is safe to say that you can look for this workshop again in the future.  Until then, good gulling everyone!