2 1/2 Birders, 3,384 Photographs, and 1 Lifer

The Bird Call Blog by Scot Duncan. Photos by Charles Grisham.

I recently promised to write up the account of our finding the Little Gull.  I got kinda’ carried away.  Here ’tis, anyway…

249. How could I end the year at 249 species seen in Alabama for the year, when a modestly respectable and numerically well-rounded number was just one bird away? This was the question preoccupying my mind lately in the few spare moments of each week when I had the brief occasion to think “what would I do if I had a day just for ME!” I’d been slogging through what seemed like several unending weeks of paper grading, exam scoring, and committee meetings. I was ready for a birding adventure.

I was mostly convinced that I’d take a trip to northern Alabama to chase a few birds, any one of which could be the 250th for the year. There were a few uncommon but likely species that were embarrassingly absent from my year list, including Canvasback, Greater Scaup, and Red-breasted Merganser, plus a decent chance at a few less likely species that have been recently spotted in North Alabama by Damien Simbeck and Amber Hart such as Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Pacific Loon, respectively.

But a trip to North Alabama seemed elusive given the workload, and a bit self-indulgent. Nevertheless, I’d already mentioned to Charles Grisham, the famous bird photographer from Huntsville (see his galleries at http://www.alabamabirder.com/), that I was itching for a trip to the Tennessee Valley to chase birds, and he was willing to stretch his schedule to find a time for us to bird together.

Now, everyone birds for different reasons, and for usually more than one reason. Charles and I both enjoy the challenges of birding, especially pushing our limits to detect ever more uncommon or cryptic species. We also enjoy the camaraderie of birding with others who also find awe and wonder when exploring the natural world. Both of us are goal-oriented when we bird – working towards a target species total or finding a particular rarity.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve been birding since I was in utero, and Charles is relatively new to the addiction. I might have more experience, but Charles works magic with his camera, and his observational skills are supremely honed. Plus, Charles’s enthusiasm for birding and life in general is unbridled, and wonderfully contagious.

A recent fixation had been besting my previous best Alabama year list. But I blew past that total back in September, so I was striving for 250. Charles’ fixation is to photograph every species in North America. I’ll leave it for history to judge how reasonable and sustainable his goals are – at 473 species photographed, he’s over half way there.

Little Gull by Charles Grisham. Wilson Dam, December 2015.

Little Gull with Bonaparte’s Gulls by Charles Grisham. Wilson Dam, December 2015.

Damien Simbeck posted recently that TVA was releasing a lot of water from Wilson Dam, and that there were thousands of gulls present, including Lesser black-backed and Franklin’s, the former being a year-bird for me. Charles and I began setting our sights on the dams on the Tennessee River and gulls. He started researching what gulls were possible that would be new for him. During our next conversation…

“What about a California?  Wasn’t there one at Guntersville recently?” Charles asked.

I replied “Yeah, a few years ago one returned for a couple years in a row. Hasn’t been seen lately.”

Charles pressed on, “What about a Small Gull?  I was reading that those can show up anywhere.”

“A what?” I asked. “Oh!” now chuckling, “You mean a Little Gull. Yeah right. Slim chance.”

“Little Gull, yeah, that’s what I said.”

“I know” I replied.

We have many conversations like that.

We realized that the weekend of Dec 12/13 would really be the only time we could for sure take a day to bird together before the end of the year. But I had to finish grading exams and term papers that weekend, since grades were due from professors at 9 am the following Monday (or else!).  But I pulled some long hours and at about 345 pm on Saturday, I’d submitted my last grades. Next, I checked in with my wife, who graciously agreed to cover the home front while went off on a feathered boondoggle. I then texted Charles “Done with grading! Wife says OK! Let’s do it!” Charles texted back “Ok, I will find a way too.” He soon called to say that he could spend the day birding, but he’d probably have to take one or more of his boys with him. “Fine” I said “kids are great.  I’m used to birding with kids around.” We then talked logistics and I promptly forgot about any mention of children.

Our plan was to hit Wilson Dam early to nail the Lesser Black-backed, then stopping by Town Creek Marsh and Wheeler Dam, then a short visit to the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center, then finishing the day in Guntersville chasing the Pacific Loon and a few stray ducks I need. These unrealistic plans were fueled (for me) by lots of high-octane coffee and a poor grasp of how rapidly one can traverse the Tennessee Valley without an Interstate and (for Charles) an unlimited supply of the utmost optimism and contagious enthusiasm that I mentioned above.

So, at 7:15 a.m. on Sunday the 13th we rendezvoused at the entrance to the wildlife refuge Visitor Center in Decatur, then drove to a nearby commercialized area for me to leave my car for the day. It went without saying that Charles would drive, as I’ve got a dinky fuel-efficient car, while Charles has a monstrous pickup with more power than a Star Wars TIE fighter. When I opened the back door of his truck to toss in my spotting scope, I was confronted with piles of tools, blankets, briefcases, a sports jacket or two, and one pink tie. Then I noticed movement right in front of me. It was a small boy strapped into a car seat and shyly trying to hide underneath a blanket.

“Oh!  Hello!  You are …..ahhh what’s your name? You remember me from when we birded at the botanical gardens?” Charles interjected “No, this is Jonas, You met Hudson.” “Oh, right,” I said. I peered around warily to see if any other children were stashed in the cab. Seeing none, I laid my scope atop a pile of stuff, tossed my boots in the back, and we sped off. I believe the tires actually squealed – Charles was rearin’ to go.

We headed for Wilson Dam straight away, though we were detained briefly by a flock of blackbirds through which we unsuccessfully scanned for Brewer’s – another species on my target list. After driving for what seemed like an eternity we arrived at Wilson Dam. Our first stop was on the overlook of the reservoir from the south side. Out on the calm open water there was a floating carpet of gulls. It was a dazzling sight. Not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands of gulls. The three of us hopped out of the truck. I set up my spotting scope, Charles fired off a few dozens clicks from his camera, and Jonas went about searching for fossils among random parking lot pebbles and collecting wood for a bonfire he was planning for later. The gulls were mostly Bonaparte’s and Ring-billeds. A few Herring Gulls were perched strategically on guard rails and buoys. All were far away, and it was difficult to sort through them. Nevertheless I found a Lesser Black-backed Gull at a distance of over half a mile away floating with some Ring-billeds. “That’ll do, 250!  Yay!” I thought.

We next headed to the other side of the dam, still on the south shore. There is an observation trail on the bluff overlooking the spillway and rock piles below the dam. From here we could see thousands of birds, but most of them were feeding and in constant motion. Feathered chaos. Several hundred Bonaparte’s swirled below the bluff, while over the center of the channel there were at least a thousand more. For the most part, the Bonaparte’s fed in what appeared to be a random fashion, with individual birds turning in all directions looking for the dead fish and other animals that drift up to the surface after being pulverized during their passage through the dam. Several hundred White Pelicans were loafing on the rock piles, with the occasional odd one drifting out on its own to feed. Hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants adorned the bedraggled trees rimming the channel’s center island and nearby rocks. Ring-billed and Herring Gulls of all the various confusing plumages occasionally fed with the Bonaparte’s, or loafed on the dam’s edifices. What looked from afar like an entire herd of Great-Blue Herons in taught fishing poses worked the shallows around the rocks. Minutes past as we scanned the panorama watching for something different.

Then it happened.  Midway across the river, at a distance I later measured with Google Earth to be a half-mile, I spotted through the telescope a small gull feeding with the Bonaparte’s that had dramatically darker primaries and scapulars than the typical black-trimmed plumage of a first-year Bonaparte’s.

“Uuuuuuhhhhhh……Charles, I think I got something!”

“What? Where?”

“See the second wall out there…. a small gull, like a Bonaparte’s….too much black on the upper wings.”

Little gull and Bonaparte's Gulls by Charles Grisham. Wilson Dam, December 2015.

Little gull and Bonaparte’s Gulls by Charles Grisham. Wilson Dam, December 2015.

Charles doesn’t use binoculars or a scope, for it slows him down. So knowing that he wouldn’t be able to see this bird with just his eyes, I advised “Just start shooting the area at the end of that wall!” I dictated where to shoot as best I could, while Charles shot furiously at that area. I thought the bird looked smaller than the Bonaparte’s, and for a fleeting moment it seemed to have a pinkish tint to it. But the bird soon disappeared, and no amount of intensive scanning could conjure it up.

Charles retrieved my old copy of Sibley from the truck while I scanned, and then we poured over the gull plates. Extensively dark primaries and scapulars, plus small size all lead to the same conclusion: first-year Little Gull. Hmmm…..I’d never seen a Little Gull before. I was pretty certain about what I saw, but reluctant to “call it” and proclaim I had witnessed one. I wanted a better look, especially for a “lifer” and a bird that others might travel here to see. For now, the best I could muster was “probable” Little Gull.

So, it was back to the scope and scanning. Meanwhile Charles was on high-alert. He’d walked down the slope to the edge of the fence atop the cliff to survey the close gulls working in the corner. He got great shots of an adult Franklin’s Gull that slipped by under my nose, though later I found a second-winter Franklin’s. Damien Simbeck had reported both in the post that triggered this adventure. Ordinarily I’d be thrilled to see a Franklin’s but my attention was riveted on re-finding the Little Gull. One thing all the scanning did reveal, and that is that none of the first-year Bonaparte’s Gulls with their black trim around their wing and narrow scapular bar had a plumage anything like the mystery bird I had seen.

After a while, a woman with came down the path exiting the TVA fortress that sits above the dam. She unlocked the last of the gates with a chain of keys that must have weighed five pounds. I got the sense that we were in some sort of trouble. The look in her eye confirmed it when she approached me. Turns out her name was Jamie, and she was very sweet. But she was worried about Charles and Jonas being down in the grassy zone by the fence and close to the cliff edge. While the chain-link fence was eight-feet tall and appeared solid, Jamie explained that there were a few spots at its base where the soil had eroded away and a small child might slip through. Yikes!  “HEY CHARLES!” I shouted “Y’ALL NEED TO BE UP HERE!” Charles bounded up the slope – Jonas had already come up carrying yet another piece of woody debris for that bonfire.

Charles chatted with Jamie while I continued scanning. And he turned on his charm. Soon, Jamie was calling fellow employee “Dino” who manned the shipping lock on the north side of the dam and asked if we could have permission to walk out on the lock walls to survey the birds on the other side. The lock had been closed to the public due to forth-coming repairs. Dino said to come on over.

After thanking Jamie, hauling Jonas and his sticks back to the truck, we headed off to the lock. On the way across the river, I sent out a hurried email on AL Birds to get the word out for any local birders who wanted to take a chance for a “possible Little Gull.”

Dino opened the gate for us and we drove in and parked. Dino seemed excited to have some visitors and showed us where we could walk. But while the close up view of the water spilling through the dam was itself a powerful experience, and the view 100-feet down into the lock was dizzying, the view of the gull flocks below was absolutely lousy. With the low-hanging December sunlight in our faces, the billowing mists, and strong gusts of wind, it was nigh impossible to identify rare gulls. So, after a few photographs and a bit of gawking, we thanked Dino and sped off to find for Jonas a Burger King “cheeseburger with catchup only”.

En route back to the dam, Damien Simbeck emailed to say that birders in Mississippi had had a Little Gull at Pickwick Dam in Tennessee the day before. This was only about 50 miles away. But their bird had been an adult. This bolstered my confidence that the first bird was a Little Gull. But still I wanted a better look, and I used my Sibley app to refresh my knowledge of how to ID an adult bird.

We returned to the south side of the dam, but drove into the Rockpile Recreation Area along the south shore below the dam (NABT site #7). We parked as close to the dam as we could, then hustled down the road to the base of the dam. We were now face to face with the swarm of Bonaparte’s that we had been looking down on before. With a view of much more of the river, it became clear that there were many more thousands of Bonaparte’s Gulls than we’d appreciated. In fact, it was ginormous Bonaparte’s gull conveyor belt. The birds would feed just below the dam, then when full or tired, they’d alight on the water and drift downstream. Meanwhile, there was a constant flow of other gulls flying upstream to replace them. Occasionally a very large flock of Bonaparte’s would stream past, allowing for many to be scanned at once for the tell-tale markings of a Little Gull or something else. At other times I’d had the scope fixed on one position in the river and just watched the gulls float through the field of view.

An hour had passed. Charles had taken Jonas down to the playground which was along the riverbank, so Charles could scan the river while Jonas took a break from gathering bonfire material and play with other kids. I was up by the dam, contentedly mesmerized with the gull conveyor Belt. I spotted the adult Franklin’s Gull that had made an appearance earlier, but otherwise it was just Bonaparte’s streaming past, hundreds at a time.

But then while scanning a large flock of several hundred flying upstream, I detected a flash of dark coloration that instantly disappeared. And then another flash of the same. And then I saw it rise above the rest of the flock – an adult Little Gull! Its gorgeous slate-gray underwing lining flashed with each wing beat. And with the white trim on the trailing wing edge, this was a very handsome bird! Wow!! It moved farther up the river, so I took my eyes off it to call Charles on my cell phone.

Soon he was racing up the walkway with poor Jonas in tow. We scanned, watched, and waited  – nothing. The bird could have been right in front of us, but hidden amongst the hundreds of birds flying or floating in all directions.

After a long while, Jonas insisted on returning to the playground, which was a reasonable request.  Jonas had been a trooper all day long, despite having to get up at 0-dark-thirty. He had been patiently entertaining himself for most the day by gathering wood for that bonfire, or scraping dirt and rocks together into piles, or decapitating dandelions. So Charles headed back to the playground while I stuck it out a bit longer.

About thirty minutes later the Little Gull flew past in yet another flock. Now the pattern seemed clear: feed, float, fly upstream and repeat. This time I ran back to get Charles. He was in the truck with Jonas, coming to get me so we’d have time to stop by Wheeler Dam on the way back. But I insisted that he leave me with the truck and Jonas, and run ahead for the bird. He muttered something and headed out. I locked his truck and took care of Jonas. Jonas had long since gotten over his shyness with me a few hours earlier. I imagine his four-year-old brain calculating “How dangerous this guy be? He does nothing but stare through that scope?” With his consent, I hoisted Jonas on my shoulders. I said “This must be like riding an elephant!”. Without missing a beat he said “Or a giraffe.” So I pretended to be a giraffe, and we headed giggling back up to the dam to join his dad.

Charles was sitting down scanning the flocks. I lowered Jonas and plopped down next to Charles. Jonas reflexively fell back to making piles out of dirt and gravel. After about 10 minutes I spotted the Little Gull flying past again. As before, it was in a tight flock with several hundred Bonaparte’s at a distance of about two-tenths of a mile away. But this time we were ready. Charles had previously shifted to sit behind my right shoulder so that he could see where I was scanning with my binoculars. As I tracked the gull, I told where Charles to shoot and he fired away. The passersby must have thought we were completely bonkers. “Below the tower! Off the point! Above the pelican! Just dove into the water! Up again! Flying right, now left, now right again….” And so on for a frantic minute or so.

Eventually the gull disappeared and we agreed that if Charles didn’t have a photo by now, it would never happen. We had been at the dam for about six hours, and he had to be home soon. I scooped up Jonas and hoisted him up on my shoulders again. But instead of walking back to the truck, Charles stood transfixed, scrolling through his shots, hoping to find what it was I had been seeing all day long. Moments later he showed me the camera screen “Is this it?” “YES!” I shouted. “You got it!  We did it!!!” It was a pretty good feeling. We hooted and hollered a bit, and even Jonas was laughing with all our self-congratulatory merriment.

On the ride back to Decatur and my car, we replayed the events over and over, both of us incredulous of our good fortune. We laughed about our prescient conversation about the “Small Gull” that I thought was completely unlikely. Jonas ate the second cheeseburger that he’d been saving, plus a Skittle he found on the floor of the truck (I hope it was a Skittle). Charles stopped in Muscle Shoals and bought us all ice-cream sandwiches. Jonas inhaled his then promptly fell into a toddler’s coma.

At one point on the drive back Charles asked “Where’s that gull from, anyway?” “Uhh… Canada, I think” I said with practiced professorial uncertainty. That turned out to be only slightly correct. It is a Eurasian species that seems to be increasing in numbers in the U.S. According to the Birds of North America Online, the first detected breeding of it on the continent was in the 1960s, and there’d been 67 confirmed or probable breeding attempts by the end of the century, with most being around the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, and the St Lawrence River.

Later that evening while I was still driving home to Birmingham, Charles called. He had begun uploading his shots from the camera. “Guess how many shots I took today.” I quickly did some calculations based on how often I heard his camera clicking and how long we were out. “400-600” I stated smugly. “Higher” he said.  “700?”  “Higher.” “900?”  Higher. This went on a few more rounds until he gave up on me. He’d taken no fewer than 3,384 shots (that’s not a typo, you just read 3,384). Still, he was able to hone in on some of the best, and post them on his website that evening. You can see them here: http://www.alabamabirder.com/Birds/Birds-by-Location/Birds-in-Alabama/2015-North-Alabama-Winter-Bird/

Late that night while admiring the shots from home with a celebratory cold beverage, I noticed that in all three images, the gull seemed to have a pinkish cast to the belly. Steve McConnell posted that he noticed it too. And then I remembered that I thought there had been a pinkish cast to the first year Little Gull that I saw at mid-river. From observations and citations from Harold Peterson and Steve McConnell, it seems that the phenomenon of gulls with a pinkish cast is widespread across about 13 gull species (see http://www.anythinglarus.com/2012/03/pink-coloration-in-gulls.html ).

There is much speculation about its causes and consequences. Most, if not all, hypotheses tie it to diet. Some believe that the phenomenon is increasingly common in some gull populations, and that its frequency increased a few years ago when salmon farms started using a bait that was laced with red dyes. The dyes wind up in the flesh and cause the fish meat to be pinker. Apparently we humans pay more for pinker salmon. I wonder if those who eat a lot of farmed salmon are getting pinker, too. One more reason to stick to wild-caught.

Over the next two days, December 14 and 15, Sue Moske and Milton Harris have re-found both the first-year bird and the adult at the dam. While I’d been pretty darn sure about my sighting of the first-year Little Gull, it was nice to have Sue confirm one with full certainty.

Finally, I want to thank Damien Simbeck for getting this whole thing started. Happy Holidays everyone, and Happy New Year Listing!

Dr. Scot Duncan is an ecologist and author living in Birmingham, Alabama. He can be reached at sduncan@bsc.edu.