Encounter with a Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

After Saturday’s rather dull outing I decided to get up early on Sunday and hit the storm water ponds before heading out to Jack Pine Trail. I wanted to look for warblers and water birds – particularly shorebirds – before checking Jack Pine for warblers, thrushes, and other forest birds. If time permitted, I hoped to stop in at the Richmond Lagoons to see if the recent rains had refilled the ponds there. Unfortunately for my plans I had such a fabulous time at the storm water ponds that I didn’t make it to the other spots.

I entered via one of the small paths from the subdivision and immediately found a flock of small songbirds in a dead ash tree. I saw the usual goldfinches, a few Chipping Sparrows looking quite drab in their non-breeding and first winter plumages, and a surprise juvenile White-crowned Sparrow. It perched on a branch long enough for me to get a look at the brown and white stripes on the head and gentle expression; eBird flagged it as rare, so I was glad to get a prolonged look at the bird before it vanished. A few warblers were foraging higher up, and I identified a Northern Parula, a Magnolia Warbler, a couple of Yellow-rumped warblers and a Blackpoll Warbler. The Blackpoll must have been an adult transitioning into non-breeding plumage; although it still had most of its black cap, it appeared yellowish with some black streaks still showing on its sides. I would have loved to have gotten a photo of this bird as it was quite a neat-looking plumage.

Once the flock moved on I walked up the small path to look at the new floodplain that runs from the road (Emerald Meadows) to the large central pond. I was happy to see a Spotted Sandpiper working its way around the rocky edges of the circular retention pond and a juvenile Green Heron perching in the opening of the concrete wall that separates the pond from the floodplain.

Green Heron (juvenile)

Green Heron (juvenile)

Last week the floodplain was dry enough to walk down to the water; yesterday the water was higher, with lots of large puddles and mucky areas that looked great for shorebirds. I saw a few yellowlegs dashing about in the puddles and a Solitary Sandpiper working its way south along the water’s edge. A few gulls were roosting on the far shore, but all of them appeared to be Ring-bills. I followed the shoreline and came across a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron, a couple of White-throated Sparrows and several Song Sparrows; the day was so warm that quite a few of the Song Sparrows were singing. A couple of White-throated Sparrows were also moved to sing, but their efforts bore little resemblance to the “Oh sweet Canada” songs of the spring. A couple of Downy Woodpeckers, chickadees, and robins added to the morning’s tally.

I left the floodplain and walked south along the freshly paved path – perhaps the construction work on the ponds is indeed almost finished. I waded through the vegetation to get to the other vantage point that looks west and was happy to see a few bluets still flying. One male was previously identified for me as a Familiar Bluet, and I guessing this is the same species. I’ll have to bring my net and hand lens with me next time to confirm it for myself. I didn’t see any Eastern Forktails, which surprised me a little.

Bluet sp.

Bluet sp.

When I got to the end of the spit I saw several birds sitting on the rocks. The first bird that I noticed was a Double-crested Cormorant – no surprise there – but the second was a gull with a dark gray back. It was lying down with its legs tucked under it, but it didn’t seem large enough or dark enough to be a Great Black-backed Gull. I began to wonder if it was a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a bird I’ve only ever seen from a great distance – either at the Trail Road Dump, the Moodie Drive Quarry, or at Deschenes Rapids. It had a bright white head instead of the streaky head of an adult in non-breeding plumage (the only plumage I’ve ever seen them in here in Ottawa). Then it stood up and showed off its bright yellow legs, confirming my suspicions!

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Traditionally found in northern and western Europe, the Lesser Black-backed Gull expanded its range to Greenland and Iceland in the last century. In 1934 the first known Lesser Black-backed Gull to appear in continental North America showed up on the coast of New Jersey. Since then, North American records have increased dramatically in the latter half of the 20th century, particularly in the winter months (October – April) where individuals have been observed wintering at landfills and along large water bodies that remain open year-round. The expansion of its breeding and wintering ranges coincide with an overall population increase, particularly in North America where it has been recorded in larger numbers on Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts. They now show up in eastern Ontario in small but noticeable numbers each year; although I usually don’t see this species every year, many birders do. Apparently a good number of them are in eastern Ontario right now – five were reported on the same day from Deschenes Rapids, and on Thursday (September 15th) Mark Gawn observed 58 at Lafleche, which he says is his personal high count for Canada!

It was a fantastic find for me, probably my best find of 2016 to date as I have only seen a handful in my 10-year birding career, and never one so close or photographable.

I headed toward the southernmost pond next, hoping to find more shorebirds. I counted 11 Killdeer and 3 Lesser Yellowlegs around the edges of the pond, and found two Greater Yellowlegs in the southern pond. One was right in front of me, and I snapped this photo to show its long bill and relatively robust structure. It would have been nice to get a photo of a Lesser Yellowlegs for comparison, but none were as cooperative as the one I found several weeks ago.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

A Killdeer, a cormorant and a few Ring-billed Gulls were perching on the rocks in the southern pond. I photographed the Killdeer because it seemed unusual to find one perching there like a gull; when I reviewed the photos later, it struck me just how long the wings and tail are on the species. The shape looked almost robin-like, a comparison that has occurred to me before – particularly as both species are extremely alike in how they run along the ground in a crouch, then stop and straighten up before hunching down and running another foot or so.

Killdeer

As there wasn’t much of interest in the southern pond, I headed back to the small peninsula to spend more time with the gull. A Great Blue Heron flew by with a squawk while I was crossing the bridge, and as I stood there watching the gulls swirling around the rocks near the western shore, I heard the soft, sweet call of an American Pipit flying overhead. This call can sometimes be mistaken for a goldfinch, but it has a slightly different tone and calls either “pip” or “pipit” without the variety of other notes thrown in by the goldfinch. The notes grew louder and I managed to spot the pipit flying straight toward me. It got fairly close, then kept flying toward the floodplain. I hoped it would land there as this species often forages in mucky, vegetated areas (for example the mudflats at Andrew Haydon Park and Richmond Lagoons) but it kept going.

When I reached the peninsula I found that the Lesser Black-backed Gull had moved, but was still standing on a rock in the same area.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

A Ring-billed Gull was standing on the rock adjacent to it – this is an adult molting into non-breeding plumage as evidenced by the faint streaking on the head.

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

While I was photographing the gull I noticed a small brown lepidopteran fly by and land in the vegetation. I was surprised to identify it as a duskywing; and as the only species flying right now is the Wild Indigo Duskywing, I sent my photo to the butterfly group for confirmation. I had also based my ID on the presence of a good amount of Crown Vetch growing on the peninsula – in Ottawa, Wild Indigo Duskywing caterpillars feed chiefly on this member of the legume family.

Ross Layberry confirmed my ID, noting that main difference between Ottawa’s late-season species, apart from size, is in the colour of the diffuse light patch just inside of the small patch of white dots on the forewing. In the Columbine Duskywing this is greyish, whereas in the Wild Indigo Duskywing it is a light brownish colour.

Wild Indigo Duskywing

I also noticed a few more bluets in the same area, including a male and female in tandem – hopefully this means good numbers of these pretty damselflies next year!

A Spotted Sandpiper walked by along the rocky shore, oblivious to me as I stood there watching the gulls.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

While I watched the bluets I gradually became aware of the call of a Black-bellied Plover growing louder. I looked up in time to see it fly by directly overhead, the black axillaries or “wing-pits” clearly visible. This field mark is important in distinguishing Black-bellied Plovers from American Golden-Plovers, particularly juvenile birds whose differences are otherwise quite subtle. I watched it swoop down and plummet toward the mudflats, and hurried over to see if I could spot it. There it was, a gorgeous juvenile bird – another new species for this site!

As I was photographing it I spotted a large flock of medium-sized brown birds flying in directly toward the same muddy spit on which the plover was standing. I was astonished when I realized that every last one of them was a Killdeer – there were at least 2 or 3 times the number I had counted earlier! They landed and I managed to count 39 of them, probably the largest flock I had ever seen. The Black-bellied Plover was swallowed up by the noisy flock, but fortunately didn’t fly off when the Killdeer all landed. Its pale gray plumage made it easy to pick out among the brown and salmon colours of the Killdeer.

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

It was starting to cloud over by then, and I realized I had been there for over two hours! I ended up with 38 species, including Northern Flicker, a White-breasted Nuthatch that I heard only, and a single male Red-winged Blackbird flying over. An adult Herring Gull resting on the far shore was the last bird I photographed that morning, looking quite attractive among the Purple Loosestrife flowers and the reddish vegetation in the background.

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

I went home and posted my sighting of the Lesser Black-backed Gull on Facebook. One of my friends, Justin, indicated that he was interested in seeing it, so we met at the ponds after lunch. The Black-bellied Plover was still on the mudflats and the Lesser Black-backed Gull was still hanging out on the rocks, its dark mantle instantly setting it apart from the other birds. We walked down to the water’s edge for a better view and Justin pointed out a second-cycle Herring Gull (aka an immature or sub-adult bird) sitting on the rock in front of it. With the Ring-billed Gull standing on the same rock as the black-backed gull, this gave me the opportunity to get three different species in one photo!

Three Gull Species

The light was much better this afternoon, so I took more photos. I particularly like the ones with these Ring-billed Gulls.

Lesser Black-backed Gull with Ring-billed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull with Ring-billed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull with Ring-billed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull with Ring-billed Gull

I also caught the black-backed gull in mid-yawn:

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Justin was really happy to see the gull so close. Although this wasn’t the closest he’d ever come to one, he said it definitely beat the views of the ones he’d see at Deschenes Rapids – even when he waded out to the island at Mud Lake for a better look.

He also enjoyed watching a Greater Yellowlegs stop to preen itself briefly in front of us and a Turkey Vulture soaring overhead. A Merlin flew by as well, but he missed it; I assume it was the neighbourhood bird, though it’s been a few months since I last saw it.

After spending about 20 minutes with the gull we walked back to his car, spotting this cooperative Clouded Sulphur on the ground.

Clouded Sulphur

Clouded Sulphur

I made one more circuit of the ponds before I left, even though it was getting quite hot. There were now 60 or 70 Canada Geese in the southern pond, and I was amused to see a Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret standing on adjacent rocks.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Egret

Great Egret

The egret stopped to preen, burying its head beneath its wing and showing off its blindingly white feathers.

Great Egret

Great Egret

It was a fantastic day at the ponds, with one new bird for the hotspot (the Black-bellied Plover), one new bird for me (the Lesser Black-backed Gull), an American Pipit, several warblers, and several shorebirds. I had 38 species there in the morning, and added four more in the afternoon on my walk with Justin – numbers that continue to astonish me, given that the ponds are so close to human habitation and don’t have extensive woodlots nearby. It’s amazing how this suburban pond system can attract birds such as the Black-bellied Plover and Lesser Black-backed Gull, and I am so glad I stopped there this morning and saw them both – particularly the gull, as I never expected to have such a fabulous view of this species anywhere in Ottawa.

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