A (mostly) friendly competition between 2 avid birdwatchers that are also friends/co-workers. Who can observe more bird species in Idaho in 2009? Will they still be friends at year's end? ;-)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Day at the Dump! (or, "finally some exciting gulls")

On Monday around noon I got a call from Cliff Weisse - a birder from Island Park who was on this side of the state on business and doing some birding. In the years since I first met Cliff and starting birding with him and/or exchanging notes on bird identification, I've learned that when he calls out of the blue, it usually means he's found something good. Thus, given that I had tons of work to do and not enough time in which to do it, when the phone rang & I saw his name, I got that sinking feeling that said, "Here's another pot-shot at my productivity ....". I was right, he had just seen a potential Iceland Gull (a species with 11 prior reports in the state and none since 2002) at the Canyon County landfill (Pickle's Butte) which sits just a few miles S of Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge and a few miles E of the Snake River. Thus, (if you're a gull :-) the dump is a great place to grab a quick bite of something tasty and then head to a body of water to wash it down!

potential Iceland Gull at Pickle's Butte, Feb 23, 2009 - photo by Cliff Weisse
please feel free to post comments on the ID of this bird

Fortunately for me, Cliff said the gulls had just gotten up and flown away so no need to rush out there. That gave me the rest of Monday and into the late night hours to finish editing a manuscript (officially accepted Wednesday!!!) and finish writing the exam I'd be giving to my Conservation Biology class on Tuesday afternoon. I wasn't sure until I woke up on Tuesday whether I was going to go 'chase the bird' or not. The thing is ... birding in a landfill is a lot harder to justify playing hooky for than birding in the mountains or desert or other natural area. After all, most of us get into birding for aesthetic reasons - fascination with and/or love for nature and b/c it's an outlet for connecting with nature - and I don't really 'peace out' or do a lot of 'bonding with the scenery' at the dump! Thus, even for an Iceland Gull (a bird I've wanted to see out West for a long time), I really had to twist my arm .....

I met Cliff out there on Tuesday AM and he said he'd already seen 'the bird' as well as a few pretty pale Thayer's Gulls (the closest look-alike and closest relative for an Iceland) so we set to looking for it. Cliff also mentioned having seen a 1st-winter Mew Gull and I quickly was able to pick that out (no pics - too preoccupied with finding 'the bird'). Pretty soon, Cliff called out, "Here's a Glaucous!" and, though it took me a few moments, I was able to locate a 1st-winter Glaucous Gull as it flew around with other gulls. We were able to enjoy many good looks at this bird over the next hour. Even though this is one of the more frequent of the 'rare' gulls to appear in Idaho, this is only the 2nd I've seen in the state!! Thus, worth the trip already ...
1st-winter Glaucous Gull (center - photo by Jay Carlisle) - note the pale wingtips and the long pink bill with the dark tip

another view of the same Glaucous Gull - photo by Jay Carlisle

In spite of the very gusty winds (it really was a challenge to stay focused with shaking scopes and all!) and even though it left with a large groups of gulls after about 30 minutes (maybe because it had just swallowed a HUGE landfill morsel that we saw it gorge down while taking flight at one point), we were able to get several views of the potential Iceland - both perched and in flight. I say 'potential Iceland' b/c this is a tough ID and Cliff & I (the only ones to have decent, if any, views of this bird) are still uncertain if we can rule out a hybrid with Thayer's Gull. That said, at one point I could see the potential Iceland on the ground near the Glaucous and both appeared similarly pale (the Glaucous maybe being a touch paler). The big issue for me is that the primaries appear darker than the body and that's not seen on most Icelands (although some similar-looking birds from within the normal range of Iceland Gulls can be found at this link: http://www.pbase.com/jpkln/kumliens_1). Thus, more research .... and hopefully more views of the bird.

.... AND, back to that aesthetic aspect of birding, into the evening on Tuesday I was still removing sand (yes, landfill sand!) from my ears as the wind caused a frequent sand-blasting effect!

Aside from the gulls, we also ran into fellow bird-nuts Cheryl Huizinga, RL Rowland, and Mark Collie out at Pickle's Butte.... Assuming this does turn out to be an Iceland, we saw 7 gull species on Tues, including a 1st winter Glaucous, a 1st winter Mew, several Thayer's, several Herring, and the hordes of California and Ring-billed. Also a potential Glaucous-winged/Herring hybrid ...

But, I haven't counted the Iceland for my list so Heidi still has a portion of the lead (as the Glaucous Gull brought me to a tie!) ....



  1. the mere sight of gulls is enough to make me want to cry. even with nice photos sitting next to a bird guide, I simply cannot figure them out.
    I guess what I'm trying to say is, "congrats!"

  2. I find scanning a flock of gulls at a landfill to be the among the ultimate zen moments in birding. I love it.

    That's a tough bird. Do you have any more shots? The wingtips seem to me to be in line with both a pale Thayer's and a dark Iceland (including Kumlien's). What I can see of the tertials look relatively dark-centered, pointing towards Thayer's and away from Kumlien's. It is certainly a very pale bird overall, but this late in winter, I imagine a Thayer's could get pretty bleached. (I'd feel better about calling this an Iceland in November than in late February.) I think shots of the tail and spread wing could help a lot. The size of the bill also doesn't help the case for Iceland, being slightly on the larger side, but I don't think it would lead me to rule out Iceland either. At the moment I'd lean toward Thayer's, but that's pending photos of the spread wing and tail.

  3. Marissa - sorry to make you want to cry (Heidi's mom was trying to do that to me w/ her comment below - did you see that?:)

    Ryan - 'bout time you chimed in - here are the rest of the shots - none do justice to the wings or tertials (which appeared pretty patterned and not so dark-centered):
    http://www.octoberweb.com/birds/Possible Iceland Gull/ (can't make it a hyperlink and have to get ready for class ;-)

  4. Jay you forgot to remind Ryan that in leaning towards a thayers he is keeping you out of the lead! some friend.... ;)

  5. Did you guys go to New York yet? I thought I saw you guys in this video -

  6. yeah, maybe we were in the background somewhere (I was doing the 'Prairie Warbler' call they thought they heard) .... I'm thinking that, unless it brought in donations enough to single-handedly complete the Lucky Peak fall budget, I don't want to go birding with Conan anytime soon (sorry Conan if you're reading this!)

  7. I dunno, I think we should invite Conan to come birding with us when he starts up with the tonight show...international fame, baby! ;)
    (I wonder if it's only NY birders who have those 'special' binoculars??)