I met Jed Burtt's Ornithology class (Ohio Wesleyan) once again for their annual gull foray on Lake Erie. Having learned of the poor recent performance of E. 7nd in Cleveland, we opted to concentrate on Erie County. Temp. at noon in Sandusky 13 deg. f with a NW 14 mph wind. Snow showers were persistent throughout and was a hindrance to visibility. At Huron, gulls were obscured at 500 meters.
10:00 - Castalia Pond ... exceedingly few birds, though for novices a close-up study of American Wigeon, Gadwall, and Northern Shovelers is always a treat.
11:15 - Shelby Boat Ramp (opposite Turning Point Island). In an effort to locate an ice-shelf I had scouted the Sandusky Harbor area, only to find even here completely open water. Still, about 500 gulls were on the water in the lee of the island. But before we could do more than note a few great Black-backed Gulls, a Bald Eagle happened by and rid the area of every last gull.
11:40 - drive-by of Medusa Marsh and Bay View. Again the Bay is completely open. About150 Common Mergansers were off Bay View. The marshes were largely frozen with several Mute Swans present.
1:30 - Huron River; teeming with gulls ... at least 8000 with about 2500 Herring Gulls. There were only about 2 dozen Great Black-backed Gulls and no white-winged gulls. A single adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was in the river adjacent to the riverside (Radison?) hotel. Not far away for comparison was a very good candidate for a 2nd yr California Gull, however during our move N of the hotel for potential photos, another eagle induced exodus of gulls off the river re-shuffled the deck. At least 80 Red-breasted Mergansers rested at the mouth of the river, and the same contingent of 500+ Mallards as noted in December were upriver from the Con Agra plant.
2:30 - With several frozen undergrads in tow, we headed south to Oberlin City Reservoir (largely devoid of gulls) before I bid the group farewell as they ventured to Findley State Park for a Black-capped Chickadee.
I find it refreshing to discuss basic ID with new birders as it often causes one to look closely at common every day species that otherwise would not get a second glance. Here are two examples from the day. First is a common adult winter Herring Gull. Those of us who have seen untold numbers of the species know this intuitively, but for a beginner a field guide is the principal source for identification ... and conversely misidentification. For in this particular Herring Gull, we see a couple of contradictory (as regards field guide presentation) characters. The head is almost devoid of the streaking typically illustrated for a winter adult Herring Gull. Fields guides rarely give the specific date guidelines as to when these plumages are to be seen, and when they do (e.g. Sibley) they can be misleading. A new student of field ornithology might interpret Sibley's "Sept - Apr" for the head streaking in adults too literally for example, when the author likely only wishes to indicate the possible, not the probable. As we see here, adult Herring Gulls are losing the head steaking by mid-January. Adding to a novice's confusion may be the presence of the black mark on the bill forward of the gonydeal red spot. This is retention of the bill character of a 3rd winter bird juxtaposed with that of an adult. It is NOT AN UNCOMMON observation in Herring Gulls along the south shore of Lake Erie. Yet, I know of no field guide that illustrates this pattern for a Herring Gull. You will, of course, find this same combination illustrated for one species, and only one species, that of the fairly similar California Gull. Yet this is not a California Gull (oversall size, bill structure, and mantle color are all wrong). This is why I remain quite skeptical of the identification of California Gull in Ohio, despite the documentation of nearly 20 individuals in the state. This remains an area where field guides can improve themselves, identifying the specific types of confusion that is generated by their presentation.
There are several characters used to distinguish American Blacks Ducks from Mallards, hybrids with Mallards, Mexican Ducks, and Mottled Ducks. In this case, we find ourselves examining bill color in American Black Ducks. I recently have surveyed every American field guide (back to the 1949 Pough guides), and a half dozen major monographs presenting plates of the species including European and Canadian sources. There is surprising variation in the important characters that supposedly define the American Black Duck. In the case of bill color, that of the American Black Duck, may be gray green, greenish, greenish-yellow, yellow, bright yellow, or orangish-yellow. It is sometimes clear, smudged, or depicted with a distinct dark saddle across the bridge of the bill. The conditions are variously assigned different ages and sexes yet there appears to be little consensus through the literature, leaving me, let alone a novice, bewildered as to what constitutes an American Black Duck. What do you think? Here are just a couple of birds, which according some sources are perfectly typical American Black Ducks, one (at left) an adult male, and one (at right) a subadult male. But some sources equate such a brightly colored bill on the bird at left with hybrids of the Mallard X American Black Duck or otherwise matches closely that given for Motled Ducks. I hope to address this confusing presentation by the literature separately once I have gathered enough photographic images matching what is illustrated in the literature.
Shaker Hts, OH