Thursday, November 6, 2014

Indiana Lakewatch: Sabine's and Parasitic and Pomarine, Oh My!

Halloween 2014 will go down as one of my most memorable days of birding. Ever. In a year of seemingly unending highlights, this one stands out, and I have to put it in writing while it's still fresh.

Throughout last week, birders were discussing the low pressure system that would be coming on Friday - would it be perfect for birds, or would the conditions be too extreme? Can birds even fly in these sorts of winds?


After a bit of deliberating, noticing that the more severe conditions wouldn't occur until late morning, discussing it on Facebook, and scrounging up enough layers for the first truly cold conditions of the season, curiosity got the best of me and I decided to go for it, setting aside the Illinois year list for the day in hopes of adding something to the ABA list.

Turns out birds do indeed fly in this stuff.

I arrived at 7:20 am, encouraged to see a small group of Indiana birders already lined along the east side of Carmella's Cafe, trying to utilize what little windbreak was available while still being able to scan the lake (the latter being more important than the former). I donned gloves, hat, ear muffs and coat, and as I marched up to the line I took great solace in the fact that I was not the only idiot crazy enough to want to know what birds do on a day such as this. I planted my scope, and together we scanned and waited.

This was my morning view, while the winds were only 20-30mph:


It wasn't long before we picked out a jaeger on horizon. It was way too far out to identify, as were the next two that flew by, but the mere presence of jaegers seemed promising.

Before any more excitement with the larger birds, a flyby Red-necked Phalarope right along the beach stirred up the group and gave us some momentum.

The next person - and last, at least for a long while - to join the crew was Amar, and not surprisingly, the madness started unfolding not long after he arrived. Someone called out that they had an interesting small gull approaching, and as we all shuffled to get on it, the striking tricolored dorsal "M" of a SABINE'S GULL emerged from behind the breakers. Though the looks were rather quick and interspersed with trying to anticipate where the bird would again appear, it was actually fairly close to shore, and that unmistakable black/white/slate gray pattern had already made the day worth its while, as it had been over a decade since I had seen a Sabine's - and this was ABA #502 for the year!

Amar had of course come prepared with plenty of bread to keep the gulls happy, so on a couple occasions he and I forsook the shelter of the quasi-windbreak and ran down to the beach to chum, where a rather humorous scene unfolded. It turns out, opening packages of bread with gloves on is, well, about as difficult as it might sound. Throw in 30-40mph winds, a consistent spray from the lake, the necessary attention to the tide in order to keep from getting completely drenched, as well as the birder's never ceasing awareness of the actual birds flying around, and you have a bit of an interesting situation, which in this case was only further complicated by the (seemingly intuitive) fact that throwing sliced bread into strong headwinds is quite, quite difficult. Nevertheless, the waves eventually started picking up the bread at our feet and taking it back to the surf, piece by piece, where the swelling flock of Ring-bills, Herrings, and Bonaparte's indicated that our seemingly futile endeavors would pay dividends. In the midst of it all, Amar commented that any jaeger worth its salt would be making a pass at a group of gulls like this.

Here was the view from down on the beach:


Not long after, while we were back scoping with the rest of the group, two jaegers were spotted to the east. They were fairly close to shore and moving our way, so Amar and I ran back down to beach, resisted by the ever increasing winds off the lake. We locked in on the birds which were barreling our way and alternated between watching through the binoculars and trying to get pictures, both of which were difficult to accomplish as steadiness of hand was greatly challenged by the conditions. But, the pics were good enough to show that this pair was a PARASITIC with my lifer POMARINE JAEGER!

Note on the Parasitic the pointed central rectrices extending a couple inches beyond the rest of the tail, plus the extensive white flash on the underwing.



Parasitic Jaeger
Marquette Park, Lake Co, IN
October 31, 2014

On its first pass, this was the best shot I got of the Pomarine; the waves tell the story of the weather.

Pomarine Jaeger
Marquette Park, Lake Co, IN
October 31, 2014

While watching these fly off, I spotted a second Sabine's Gull! Again it appeared only briefly above the waves, but it was close enough to give some great looks.

Thrilled by the jaegers and another Sabine's, we headed back to scope from the cafe area. It was only another 15 minutes before the jaegers returned from the east, but this time they had added a member to the group - another Parasitic! We scampered back down to the shore, steeled ourselves against the howling winds, and waited for the birds to make their pass again.

Note the difference in size between the Pomarine (on the right in all these photos) and the Parasitics. What a beast of a bird!





Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers
Marquette Park, Lake Co, IN
October 31, 2014

Here are the two subadult Parasitics. The darker one appears to be the same bird from the previous round, and the new one is a light morph. Admittedly, the central rectrices and dainty size next to the Pomarine initially had us thinking these were Long-tails. But upon further discussion and review of the pics, it's quite clear that these are Parasitics: the central tail extensions are perfectly inbounds for Parasitic; while being slender, these birds still show more of a gut than a Long-tailed should; the white flash is more extensive than a near adult Long-tailed should have; and an interesting point that I found in Birds of Europe, the width of the base of the wing is equal to the width from the bottom of the wing to the tip of the tail (not including the central extensions), whereas a Long-tailed would have a narrower base of the wing - tough stuff to pick out when the bird is flying past in these conditions, so I'm grateful we were able to get diagnostic photos. The whole experience was a great reminder that an essential aspect of birding is maintaining a willingness to question yourself, reconsider your IDs, and maintain the humility to admit when you're wrong. This was a fantastic learning experience for me.









Parasitic Jaegers
Marquette Park, Lake Co, IN
October 31, 2014

Bulky, dark, and the double flash on the underwing made this lifer a little more of a straightforward ID.

So. Awesome.



Pomarine Jaeger
Marquette Park, Lake Co, IN
October 31, 2014

As these birds disappeared to the west, Amar mentioned that we'd have a hard time topping that.

And 15 minutes later, we did just that.

Jaegers were spotted again to the east, so we quickly repeated the drill of struggling our way down to the beach, for the fifth or sixth time by this point - any claim that birding is not an active hobby is pure rubbish! This time the winds were so strong that they blew the lake water further inland than before, creating a miniature river between the two dunes where Amar and I were perched and poised for our next jaeger encounter.

To our extreme delight, the group of jaegers had picked up a couple new friends and was now up to FIVE birds! A close look at the pics revealed that the top left bird was a new Parasitic, while the other four were Pomarine, an outstanding count!



Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers
Marquette Park, Lake Co, IN
October 31, 2014

Equipped with more stealth and athleticism than the Seahawks' defense, the jaegers cut through the wind seemingly unfazed by the mounting gusts off the lake. Could they even be enjoying it? Surely they were as they loafed along, somehow simultaneously carefree yet in complete control. As I watched them pierce through the unrelenting gusts, I absolutely marveled, unable to think of a time in recent memory when the sheer coolness of a bird had so mesmerized me.

Here's the new Parasitic, which did not have any central tail extensions:

Parasitic Jaeger
Marquette Park, Lake Co, IN
October 31, 2014

I keyed in on the Pomarines as they came closer, capturing all four together, and getting some actually decent shots of a couple that came particularly close - the kind of shots I figured I would only ever get on a pelagic trip off one of the coasts someday. The wing flash, the barred rump, the squared off central rectrices - it all gets me giddy all over again just looking through these shots.








Pomarine Jaegers
Marquette Park, Lake Co, IN
October 31, 2014

Appropriately, my final shots of this group are some of the most dramatic of the whole day - capturing in one frame these graceful creatures over turbulent waters, which together created one of the most amazing scenes I've ever taken in.


Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers
Marquette Park, Lake Co, IN
October 31, 2014

Here we are after the madness, back to work at the scopes, with enough adrenaline pumping to keep us warm for the next little while:


Amar, in his element, minus gulls:


All of this had happened by noon. And from that point on, conditions began to deteriorate. Rain showers increased in frequency. It hailed. It snowed. The predicted 40mph sustained winds developed, and at our location gusts reached 69mph at one point, which, just for reference, is only 5mph short of hurricane force winds.

After a couple hours of slower birding, with only one more pass from a Pomarine, the group dwindled down to just a few of us, and I decided to call it a day so that I wouldn't have to face traffic on the trip home after a physically demanding day - I was sore from my muscles being tensed up all day as I braced against the wind, and six days after the fact, the tips of two of my fingers are still bruised from slamming them in my tripod on a couple occasions, which I barely even noticed at the time because I could hardly feel my fingers for much of the day. Seven plus hours of standing in that kind of weather will do it to ya. Of course, it was all more than worth it.

Sabine's was 502, Pomarine 503, and Parasitic 504 for my ABA year list. And I can't wait for my next lakewatch.