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  • Writer's pictureGregg Severson

Getting going again with a Glaucous Gull

After the Harris's Sparrow sighting I was coming up on a day with a lot of significance for my big year - I was scheduled for hernia surgery. While any surgery is a big deal, this one had a particularly big impact on my big year as the surgeon told me that I wouldn't be able to bike for a month afterwards! That takes a big chunk of time away from a biking big year. I had the surgery in late October. The day before I went under the knife I made one last attempt to get a new species. I put out a call for suggestions, and the best bet that I could find was going to Coon Rapids Dam to see if we could get an American Black Duck or Northern Shrike, both of which had been seen recently. The route up there is almost due north from my house, and much of it is along the Mississippi River. Kellie and I biked the roughly 16 miles to get up there, and stopped along the way at a recent controlled burn area in North Mississippi Regional Park to see if a Pipit might be in there.

Then, we got up to the Coon Rapids Dam Regional park and went to the spot where Adam Roesch indicated that he had seen the Black Duck recently. There were a number of ducks in the water, including Mallards, Gadwall, American Wigeon, and Wood Ducks. Some were hidden amongst the vegetation, so we waited and scanned a bit to see if the Black Duck would come out. Adam Roesch came by with some of his family, and Dave Elwood biked over from his house to help in the search. Those two live near the Dam, and so were very familiar with the local birds and their habits. Roughly the same wetland area where the Black Duck was seen was where the Shrikes regularly hang out in winter (and where Adam had seen the Shrike recently), so we also scanned around for evidence of the shrike. After a while, when we didn't see either species, Adam and his family left on a hike, and Dave went for a bike ride around the park. They both agreed they'd text me if they found either of my targets, and Kellie and I commenced a walk around the wetland to see if we could find the birds ourselves. The park is really nice, and it was a beautiful fall day for nature walk, but we did not find the Shrike or the Black Duck.

After that I had a big hiatus while I recovered from surgery. For three weeks, there wasn't anything much for me to do for my big year, except wait and heal. Finally, in my final week of bikelessness, the gulls really showed up at Lake Harriet. Lake Harriet is only about 1.5 miles from my house, so it is walking distance and something that I could do before I was allowed to bike. During the fall migration gulls gather in large numbers in the metro area and the city lakes in Minneapolis are some of the main spots that the gulls use for roosting at night. The vast majority of these gulls are Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls, but there are often a couple of other species mixed in there, too. To see the gulls you generally go late in the afternoon and watch the gathering crowd of gulls and hope that the species you are interested in show up before it gets too dark to see them!

On November 11th, Glaucous, Lesser Black-Backed, and Iceland Gulls were all reported on Lake Harriet - all of which I hadn't seen yet this year. I made plans to walk out there on the 12th, hoping those species would return. I had an eye doctor appointment in the afternoon at a strip mall just north of Bde Maka Ska. After that appointment I started walking south along the lake, scanning for birds. I didn't see many gulls at all, but I did notice that there were swans on the lake, and I hoped that one of them would turn out to be a Tundra Swan. As I got closer, I could see that they were all Trumpeters. But one of them had a neck band, so I took a zoomed-in photo where I could read the number. Later, I entered the number from that neck band to A day later, they got back to me and I found out a bit of the life history of that Trumpeter Swan. It was banded in 2011 as a chick, so it is 8 years old now! It was from Douglas County, WI - about 120 miles to our northeast. I love field-readable bands that allow birders to take photos of a bird or read the info through optics and report that information without having to capture the bird. It is cool to learn life history information about a bird you see in the wild.

Two Trumpeter Swans, one with a yellow neck band reading "59E"
Trumpeter Swan 59E (and friend)

An image of a certificate of appreciation from the USGS for reporting the banding data.  It says that bird was banded on 8/31/2011 when it was still too young to fly near Dairyland, Douglas County, WI.
This is the certificate they sent me for reporting the information about the banded Trumpeter Swan at Bde Maka Ska.

By this time it was getting close to dark, and since I wasn't seeing any gulls, I walked towards Lake Harriet, hoping there would be more gulls over there. I saw Doug Kieser as he was headed towards Harriet, and he said he'd text me if he saw anything good. Just as I got to Harriet, Kellie arrived on her bike. She had generously agreed to help me find the gulls, knowing that she could travel faster on her bike than I could. It was a cold and windy day, and Kellie does not like looking in the cold and the wind at distant gulls that look almost identical, but had volunteered to come out to help me with my birding goals - so nice!

We could see that the gulls were roosting on the east side of the lake right when we got there, but then as we watched they all took off into the air (this is a common occurrence when a Bald Eagle or other predator flies over). I tried to predict where they would come down, and it seemed like they might be heading for the middle or the southwest corner, so I elected to start heading that way. Kellie biked ahead of me to find the birds and report back. Unfortunately, the gulls never seemed to settle down - some would land, but then take off again. I walked a ways down the shore, and Kellie biked farther, but neither of us were able to see much. Before long we decided that more efforts were futile as the gulls were moving too much and we were losing light, so we walked home.

The next day, I headed out in the afternoon to look for gulls again. This time, I headed out earlier and I went straight for Lake Harriet. I was also in communication with Frank Fabbro, who was going to be looking for the gulls that night. I got to the northeast corner of the lake and looked out and saw that the gulls seemed to be almost exactly in the middle of the lake. Frank said he was over on the west side of the lake, scoping them out, so I headed that way (as the sun sets, the west side usually has the best light for viewing). As I was walking along, I noticed a different looking gull fly by, and then land in the water close to shore and start swimming. It was a Bonaparte's Gull! I already had seen them for the green big half year, but it was cool to see one again in the fall. It was also quite close, so I got a pretty good picture of it.

Bonaparte's Gull swimming on the water with its reflection in the water
Bonaparte's Gull

I let Frank know about the Bonaparte's I had spotted, and then he let me know that they had found a Glaucous Gull out amongst the flock of gulls in the middle of the lake. I started walking as fast as I possibly could, to get to where Frank was. He said he'd keep the scope on the Glaucous to keep track of it so when I arrived I'd be able to see it. It only took me a couple of minutes to get down there, and he told me to take a look through his scope. There is was - a first-cycle Glaucous Gull! Then I set up my scope and commenced looking at the gulls, getting more views of the Glaucous (there turned out to be two first-cycle Glaucous Gulls in the flock) and seeing if we could find any other species mixed in. We were not successful in finding any other species that night. The gulls were far away and the lighting was not great, so it is possible they were there and we just couldn't spot them. In any case, I was very happy to get the Glaucous Gull on my list, but I knew I'd have to try again to get more of the gull species.

Mile biked on the Glaucous Gull trip: 0 (I walked!)

Miles biked during this time (since the last new bird species): 118.7

Miles biked year to date: 3,171.9

Species count (MN): 228

Species count (overall): 229

My bike birding eBird profile: (Please note that you need a free eBird account to see profiles in eBird)

Fundraising links for the two organizations I am supporting with this green big half year. These causes are really important and they could really use your dollars to do a lot of good!

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