Tag Archives: New York

Intriguing Apparent Hybrid Gull at Niagara Falls.

Jeannette and I took our annual pre-Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch (starts on Wednesday!) roadtrip this year to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.  We went to Buffalo on a pilgrimage to visit the Anchor Bar – the birthplace of the Buffalo Wing. And we spent the rest of the time in the gull-watching Mecca of Niagara Falls.

On our first day at Niagara, wind gusts over 60mph were ripping over the falls (the local airport recorded a gust of 72 mph!) and birding was brutal at best, but essentially impossible (at least for a vacation). We spent a couple of hours in Niagara Falls State Park, but although it looked pretty that day, it was a day to go to the Anchor Bar! We also checked out the Olmstead-designed Delaware Park while in the big city.
Day 1 falls

The next day (Thursday, 3/9) it was quite a bit colder, but the winds were “only” 15-25mph. It was far from pleasant, but it was most definitely bird-able! And the birding was very good!
IMG_3837-edited-2

Despite the relatively late date for the peak of “winter” gulling here (despite what it felt like), we sorted through the many thousands of gulls (predominately Herring and Ring-billed, with a small number of Great Black-backed) and conservatively estimated at least 31 Iceland Gulls, 23 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and 8 Glaucous Gulls in and around Goat Island alone.
IMG_3782-edited-2IMG_3789-edited-2
Third-cycle “Kumlien’s Iceland Gull

And then there was this one:
IMG_3806-edited-2IMG_3819-edited-2IMG_3822-edited-2

I identified it as a possible or “putative” Laughing Gull x Ring-billed Gull hybrid on account of several features:
– near-complete blackish hood with smudgy white around the eye.
– mantle was 1-2 shades darker than the surrounding Ring-billed Gulls.
– overall size and structure was comparable to Ring-billed Gulls, and didn’t bring one of the smaller hooded gulls to mind.
– large white apical spots on the outer primaries.
– dark orange bill with a blackish band, slightly smaller and thinner than nearby Ring-bills.
– yellow-orange legs

And frankly, it looked a lot like photos I have seen of this presumed pairing, such as this one from Amar Ayyash in Chicago.

Jeannette photographed it and we moved on. We never felt a need to flush it, and the bird clearly was not going to raise its wings on its own for us! But feeling the identification was solid, we enjoyed it, left it alone, and went on our way (perhaps we were simply being ultra-conservative about disturbance after the Great Gray Owl debacles this winter!)

A few minutes later, we ran into another birder, and alerted him to our find. He saw it, got some photos, came back to chat, and then went back to the bird. We continued to bird our way around the island.

I knew I needed to take a look at the photos on the computer, and do some homework. A couple of things really bothered me.  But before I had a chance to study the photos and re-evaluate my initial ID, chatter broke out on the area’s birding listserve. Chris Kundl was the birder we met, and he went back and spent some quality time with the bird, extensively photographing the wing pattern, which we – unforgivably!- did not. He, and several other local birders, then identified it as a (rarer) Black-headed Gull x Ring-billed Gull hybrid, based on the extensive white in the wingtips and the white leading edge to the wing. (His photos are here)

Kevin McGowan posted a link to a basic-plumaged individual of this presumed combination, and it definitely looks similar.

However, as Shai Mitra then pointed out on the listserve, a few things are a bit off for that combination. “(T)o me, this bird looks so unlike a Black-headed Gull that I remain puzzled. Specifically, it looks large, thick-necked, large-headed, broad-winged, and heavy-billed. Black-headed Gull is only half the mass of a Ring-billed Gull and very differently shaped, whereas this bird looks quite similar to Ring-billed Gull in overall size and structure. It is of course possible for hybrids to tilt toward one parent or the other in various ways, as opposed to showing intermediacy, but note that the Sullivan County bird from 2002 showed much more intermediacy in these very features (e.g., more obvious influence of Black-headed Gull in terms of size and shape). Looking more closely at the plumage, I also note that the hood seems to lack any of the brownish tones usually evident in Black-headed Gull, and that the mantle appears subtly darker than those of Ring-billed Gulls (Black-headed Gull is notably pale-mantled).”

The size, structure, shape, blackish (not brownish) hood, and darker mantle was what led me to the call of Laughing x Ring-billed. But how else does one explain that white leading edge to the wing? And the extensive white on the outer primaries? A hybrid Bonaparte’s Gull would explain that (and the black tone of the hood), but that’s even smaller and daintier gull than Black-headed.

So what does this mean? Simply: I don’t know. My initial ID does not explain the wing pattern, and that really bothers me.  So what is this? It looks like I have some more homework to do – and I will be sending this blog around to gather additional insight. I also want to look up when the various hooded gulls acquire their alternate plumage, as this seems incredibly early for a hooded gull to be hooded. Keeping in mind that not all hybrids are perfectly intermediate, that backcrosses occur, and that it’s hard to “prove” parentage, I think this bird is worthy of a little more debate.

Of course, we looked at everything else during our visit, including a couple of Harlequin Ducks off Goat Island, and goodly numbers of a wide variety of ducks (especially Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Buffleheads) at a number of locations. And later, we finally caught up with a “as good as they get” Thayer’s Gull – a spiffy adult at Devil’s Hole State Park (after passing on labeling a couple as such at Goat Island earlier in the day).
gorge and whirlpool
The Niagara River Gorge and the Whirlpool from Whirlpool State Park.

IMG_3833-edited-2
Redheads

Unfortunately, it was already time to head home on Friday, so after another walk around Niagara Falls State Park, we began the trek eastward, birding Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, the winds were very strong once again and our time was limited, but we thoroughly enjoyed the hundreds of Tundra Swans (it’s been a while since we’ve seen any!), good numbers of many ducks especially Ring-necked, and sorted through many thousands of Canada Geese at the refuge and nearby cornfields (13 Cackling Geese in Gypsum Pond were our only non-Canadas, unfortunately) before beginning the long drive home (made much longer by snow squalls and that darn Norlun trough that set up over southern Maine!).

Our time was far too limited, as always, but it’s time to get ready to count some hawks!  And at least we still have this gull to mull over.
Falls from Goat Island

A Vermont and Montreal Roadtrip In Photos

Jeannette and I made a run for the border in our annual pre-hawkwatch roadtrip getaway.  We’ll be covering Katrina’s days off at the Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch through the end of the season.  Then, my guiding season kicks off in full force through early July.  In other words, it’s a good time for us to get a little break.

This year’s destination was a visit with family in Vermont, followed by a few days in Montreal.  I had not been to Montreal before – no excuse for that, really – so this was a good incentive to head (mostly) west.  Sure, the weather could have been a little more seasonable, but we enjoyed a really great trip nonetheless.

While this trip wasn’t necessarily a “birding trip,” we obviously were going to do some birding.  And there were a few “goodies” around that, if nothing else helped guide us in fruitful directions.  First up was the Northern Hawk Owl that has been spending the winter in Waterbury, Vermont.  Since we had to pass through the intersection that the bird has been frequenting on the way to see the fam, I don’t think this counts as a chase, does it?

Although most hawk owls are notoriously tolerant of people, this bird was ridiculous!   People were walking back and forth on a trail right below it, and it didn’t care.
1. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (30)

Then, spotting something of interest, it dove through the line of admirers, and landed in the snow.  It scuffled around for a bit, and then came up with a White-footed/Deer Mouse, which is proceeded to devour on a nearby snag…in clear view of everyone.  Returning to its original perch, it flew between two photographers, right at head-level!
2. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (29)

3. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (1)
The lighting and the proximity were so good that I believe these are the best phone-scoped photos that I have ever taken!

After visiting friends and family, we departed the next day.  Of course, we couldn’t help but stop at the hawk-owl once again.  “Let’s just drive past this Northern Hawk Owl,” said no one, ever.
4. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (2)

After lunch in Burlington…
4a. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (15)

…we dipped down to Charlotte to board the ferry over to Essex, NY.  With such extensive ice on the lake, the only open water is limited to the ferry channels.  Ducks have concentrated in this narrow band of open water, including some very good birds.  The Tufted Duck being seen here was nothing more than an excuse to take the ferry, and we are very glad we did.
5. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (24)This was a great little “mini-pelagic!”  In fact, after we took the car across to NY, we hopped back on as round-trip passengers to have another look.  Good thing we did, because as we began the half-hour journey back to Vermont, the Tufted Duck was right in front of the bow!  And Jeannette “nailed” it, I think it’s safe to say.
7. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (11)

8. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (12)

In addition to the Tufted, impressive numbers of Common Goldeneyes and both Greater and Lesser scaup were enjoyed and extensively photographed.  Mallards, American Black Ducks, a small number of Common Mergansers and Buffleheads, 3 Ring-necked Ducks, 2 female Long-tailed Ducks, and 1 White-winged Scoter (the latter three only in New York, and the final two being good birds for the season here) were also present, and early in the third leg, we spotted a female Barrow’s Goldeneye among the masses for a nice addition to my paltry Vermont state list. Jeannette very nicely augmented here library of waterfowl –especially flight – photos, and this fun little ride turned out to be a real highlight of the entire trip.
6. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (25)
How many species can you identify in this photo?

A quick stop to look for coffee in Plattsburgh, NY resulted in what was perhaps the best cupcake we have ever had (a butter cream-iced tres leches cupcake at Delish), and eventually we made our way across the border and arrived in Montreal in the evening.

The next morning, we walked from our downtown hotel to Parc du Mont Royal, the expansive park in the heart of the city.  There’s been a Black-backed Woodpecker here all winter, but we did not know exactly where.  We did find a grove of Scotch Pine that had the classic sign of foraging Black-backs, but we didn’t see it…or much else, really.  Just like at home, deciduous-dominated forests are awfully quiet right now.
9. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (6)

10. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (7)

After lunch, we visited the Botanical Gardens, including their impressive Insectarium and extensive greenhouse biomes.  Stealing the show, however, was the free-flying butterfly (and some moths) exhibit.
11. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (14)

11a. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (28)

12. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (16)

13. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (17)

14 NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (18)

A stroll around Olympic Park…
15. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (4)

16. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (5)

…Was followed by dinner, at a place with 30 kinds of poutine on the menu: Poutine la Banquisse!
17. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (9)

18. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (10)

The next day, another walk at Parc du Mont Royal (which was actually less birdy than our first visit) …
19. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (8)

…was followed by exploration of Old Montreal and the OldPort.  Unfortunately, the weather had taken a turn for the worse.
20. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (3)

The storm was fully upon us…
21. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (22)

…as we ventured out for our “splurge” dinner of the trip at the famous Au Pied de Cochon.  Because we didn’t have enough poutine the night before, we shared the intriguing and tasty fusion of a poutine temaki, and the duck carpaccio.  Entrees were outstanding as well, with Jeannette getting primal with a Bison rib as I went all in with what may have been the best sandwich I have ever eaten – and by far the most expensive!  With 10 grams of truffles and an apparent three pounds of butter, this was not your everyday grilled cheese!
22. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (19)

23. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (20)

The snow was piling up as we departed the restaurant…
24. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (21)

…and about 8 inches had accumulated by morning.  Now that we actually knew where to look for the Black-backed Woodpecker at Mont Royal, it turned out it was rather east to find after all!

25. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (13)

Before hitting the road, we took a walk around Ile Sainte-Helene, which was actually quite birdy; the birdiest place in the city during this short visit.  In addition to the usual woodland residents, goodly numbers of Cedar Waxwings and American Robins were present.  Waterbirds in the fast-moving river were limited to four Common Mergansers and a single Common Loon, however.
26. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (26)

27. NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (27)

It was a long and slow drive home, in large part due to the heavy snow in the mountains.  With about two feet in some places, a few of the passes in northern New Hampshire and Maine were a little interesting.  I think it’s safe to say it was a good idea to have taken our Subaru on this road trip!
28.  NHOW-phonescoped1a,3-9-14 (23)

Back to work early in the morning on Friday, we were very pleased to be greeted at the store by some Red-winged Blackbirds.  The hawkwatch is underway, with a goodly 38 birds on the first day (6 Red-shouldered Hawk!), spring is definitely here…even if, once again, it doesn’t feel like it!