Monday, February 17, 2014

SLATY-BACKED GULL And So Much More!

Caution: if you're averse to mega rarities and pictures of White-winged Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks, this will be a very boring post for you.

Some days are memorable because of the quantity of birds seen. Others because of the quality. Saturday was definitely the latter for Andrew and me. We birded sunrise to sundown and only managed 35 species. But, the day was overflowing with outstanding experiences, most of which would have made the day worth it on their own. Instead, they all came together for us.

I picked up Andrew a little after 6 am, and we quickly made our first good choice of the day: Starbucks. The peppy barista in the drive-thru asked if we were off to go running. Running? Who goes outside in these kinds of conditions? Oh wait, us. That's not the point. Who gets coffee before running? That's the real question.

"Mmm, no, we're going birding."

"Doing what?"

Refusing to say "birdwatching," I replied "Um, we're going to go look for birds."

"Huh."

And we were off, coffee in hand.

The plan was to hit a couple spots along the lake in Cook County and make it to the fairgrounds by mid morning, hoping for a positive report of the Slaty-back along the way. Turned out to be a great plan.

Reports of all three scoters drew us to Montrose, which ended up being the bookends of our long day. We arrived as the sun peeked over the horizon and began shining on Lake Michigan's icy lid. White-winged Scoters were everywhere (copy and paste this comment under every location mentioned for the rest of the post), providing close looks as they dominated flocks of Common Goldeneyes, Common and Red-breasted Mergansers. Walking along the lake toward the fishhook pier provided more of the same.

White-winged Scoter
Montrose, Cook Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Once at the pier, we set up the scopes and almost instantly got on our first target bird for the day: Surf Scoter. This was actually a state lifer for me (293) - took me long enough! It showed well for us right next to the pier.


Surf Scoter
Montrose, Cook Co, IL
February 15, 2014

We continued scanning, but missed the Black Scoters that had been there earlier in the week. However, we did get our first Long-tailed Ducks of the day flying by. Two buddy list lifers in quick succession, and a really solid first stop of the day.

We then hopped up to Loyola Park, where White-winged Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks were present again, along with a sizable flock of Greater Scaup. I managed a few distant shots of the Long-tails, including one male in flight, check out that tail!

Long-tailed Duck
Loyola Park, Cook Co, IL
February 15, 2014

These two females were hanging close together:

Long-tailed Duck
Loyola Park, Cook Co, IL
February 15, 2014

 Right before we took off, Andrew spotted this Peregrine Falcon high atop one of the tall buildings along the lakeshore. Here it, standing guard over the city:

Peregrine Falcon
Loyola Park, Cook Co, IL
February 15, 2014

When we got back to the car, Andrew's phone rang. It was Jeff Smith. Andrew's countenance changed and he gave a subtle nod, and I knew enough to begin pulling out of the parking lot as quickly as possible - the Slaty-back was back at the fairgrounds. The next 45 minutes were spent trying to stay calm, stay reasonably within the speed limit, and not make ourselves sick with anticipation. We also sang the praises of Amar Ayyash about half the time.

It seemed like we hit every possible red light, yet we still managed to make pretty decent time. We pulled into the fairgrounds, happy to see a line of scopes pointed in one direction. After exchanging a few pleasantries with fellow birders, we made our way to the end of the line. Andy Sigler had the bird in his scope and let us both have a look, and a great sense of relief washed over me. I got back to my scope and just stared at the bird for a while, snapping a few pics here and there. Thankfully it was standing when we arrived, so the distinctive pink legs were easy to see. What an outstanding lifer, and an amazing bird to get on the Illinois year list!

Slaty-backed Gull
Lake County Fairgrounds, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Slaty-backed Gull
Lake County Fairgrounds, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

The ever shifting flock of gulls dictated the shifting of the eager flock of birders, as everyone attempted to get a clear look at the bird. Matthew Cvetas hooked me up with this clear lane, providing some excellent looks at that pronounced secondary skirt and huge tertial crescent.

Slaty-backed Gull
Lake County Fairgrounds, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

It was an honor to get to share this experience with so many other birders, some of whom I already knew, and many of whom I finally got to meet for the first time between stints of checking out this beauty - what a way to meet! Right before we left, the bird took off and circled right past us, giving us incredible looks at that striking underwing pattern and that ridiculous trailing edge on the wing. I will never forget that flyby. A huge thanks to Amar for this bird!

Slaty-backed Gull
Lake County Fairgrounds, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Slaty-backed Gull
Lake County Fairgrounds, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Mega rarity lifers are like major life events, much akin to a graduation or something. You were there. You know it happened. But that doesn't mean the magnitude of the event has sunk in. That usually takes a while. Between each of our stops for the rest of the day, we would bring up the fact that we actually saw a Slaty-backed Gull, then just shake our heads. 

Oh, and there were some other birds there too. A random Horned Lark made a few passes, but it was a county bird for both of us. The same second cycle Iceland from the previous day was still there, and I was quite happy that there seemed to be unanimous consent on the ID. This adult Thayer's was also in the air with the Slaty-back right as we left:

Thayer's Gull
Lake County Fairgrounds, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

After that, we decided to swing by North Point Marina and meet up with the frolic crew for a little while (check out the day they had, wow!). A nice adult male Long-tailed Duck was in the harbor right when we arrived, along with yet another flock of White-winged Scoters.

White-winged Scoter
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Long-tailed Duck
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

But hey, it's not called the "Waterfowl Frolic," let's get on to the good stuff. I finally met Adam Sell while we were watching, and he pointed out this second cycle Glaucous that was going at some hunk of fat. The surrounding gulls looked on longingly as it devoured its tasty meal.

Glaucous Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

An adult Glaucous made an appearance, too:

Glaucous Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Glaucous Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Andrew spotted this adult Thayer's:

Thayer's Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

But my favorite gull at this stop was undoubtedly this immaculate adult Iceland Gull. Even if gulls aren't your thing, you have to admit this is a gorgeous bird. Good stuff.

Iceland Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Iceland Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Iceland Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Iceland Gull
North Point Marina, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Despite our success to that point, we still had two targets: Andrew needed Red-throated Loon for the year, and we both were hungry for a Black Scoter. We stayed focused and headed south to IBSP, first stopping at the north unit. The first thing we found there was a small pocket of open water right next to shore absolutely loaded with goodies. Ten Long-tailed Ducks, including a couple gorgeous males, along with a bunch of White-winged Scoters. I've wanted a good pic of a Long-tailed Duck for a long time, and that finally came to fruition.

White-winged Scoter
IBSP North, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Long-tailed Duck
IBSP North, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Long-tailed Duck
IBSP North, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Somehow I managed this shot of a male diving. So awesome:

Long-tailed Duck
IBSP North, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Then the two males swam together for a few moments:

Long-tailed Duck
IBSP North, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Long-tailed Duck
IBSP North, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

It was difficult to tear ourselves away from that pool, but we eventually did, and found yet another open patch of water with a ton of ducks in it, including both mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, a huge flock of Great Scaup, and the White-wing and Long-tail tallies shot up to 42 and 17 respectively at this location alone. As I was scanning, I spotted a small loon, and just as I called out "Red-throated Loon!" it took to flight, heading southbound not too far from shore. Another target nailed!

Red-throated Loon
IBSP North, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Before getting back to the parking lot, we stopped and gazed at the nearby flock of Long-tails and White-wings again. What an astounding spectacle! Amazingly, the South unit of IBSP had the exact same assortment of ducks, but this time we counted 37 (!!!) Long-tailed Ducks! Absolutely outstanding. Three loons flew by together just a little too far out to confidently ID, but they were likely more Red-throats. While here, I also picked out our first Lesser Black-backed Gull of the day, sitting out on the ice:

Lesser Black-backed Gull
IBSP South, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

On to Waukegan, where we had more of the usual suspects, but also found a few Bufflehead. Another Lesser Black-back was present here, and I managed to pick out another southbound Red-throated Loon, securing its place on an amazing trash bird list for the day:

Red-throated Loon
Waukegan, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Long-tailed Duck
Waukegan, Lake Co, IL
February 15, 2014

As we left Waukegan, we had less than two hours of daylight and one lingering target. You have to miss something on a day like this, right? Sure. But that wasn't going to keep us from trying. The report of Black Scoters at Belmont had us racing back to Cook County. Then, on our way, our friend Davida called with the excellent news that she and her husband had just seen the pair of Black Scoters off the fishhook pier at Montrose! Our plans changed accordingly and we set our sights on the spot where this crazy day had begun.

Sunset drew near as we approached, and a heavy cloud cover made conditions that much darker, so we quickly made our way to the pier. As we had about ten hours prior in the exact same location, we set up scopes and began our search. The temperature had steadily dropped since mid-afternoon, and the breeze was stiff, though that was nowhere near the forefront of our minds. Then, in a startlingly synchronized manner, we both yelled out "Female Black Scoter!" Celebration ensued. I turned to give a first pump, then turned again to see Andrew literally jumping up and down - the male Black Scoter was just to the right of the female, and this was the first male he had ever seen. Definitely jump worthy. We continued to watch and eventually had both Black, the Surf, and a White-winged Scoter in the same frame. Here's a truly pathetic shot of the male Black; you can barely see that orange bill:

Black Scoter
Montrose, Cook Co, IL
February 15, 2014

Wow. A couple days removed, I still haven't fully processed the grandeur of this day. Fittingly, the Gull Frolic of 2013 was the first time Andrew and I ever birded together, so this was one heck of a way to celebrate one year! As the kids are saying these days, we crushed it.

Totals by the end of 2/15 (more totals coming at the end of the post about this morning, which was also awesome):

World Life List: 649

ABA Life List: 529

ABA Year List: 134

Illinois Life List: 294

Illinois Year List: 104