First cycle Great Black-baked Gull at Montrose Beach (click to see the larger version)
One of the more unusual birds we’ve been seeing this winter are Great Black-backed Gulls. An adult and first cycle bird have been hanging around the beach and nearby Lake Michigan since late 2021. On January 4 I saw the young bird loafing on the public beach (gulls will gather on the beach to look for and eat washed up salmon). Great Black-backed Gulls are uncommon but regular in small numbers in the Chicago area in winter. Ducks and gulls are about the only birding game in town now that serious winter cold has set in.
What’s In a Name?
Lots of birds have alternate or colloquial names, like Big Cranky for Great Blue Heron or Camp Robber for Canada Jay. One colloquial name for Great Black-backed Gull is Coffin Carrier, an allusion to the dark back of adults. Some person, somewhere, came up with this name and it caught on, becoming part of the language and culture of a region. Colloquial names often have color or personality in a way that the standard English names don’t. The name Great Black-backed Gull is literal and descriptive, but Coffin Carrier has a different connotation and shows imagination and creative thinking. Maybe an undertaker in Boston came up with the name.
Great Black-backed Gull soaring over the Point (click to see the larger version)
March 2 could have passed for February 2 or even January 2, it was that cold and wintry. The harbor even refroze after being open for a few days. Most of the birds I saw were January or February birds but migrants are trickling in. Red-winged Blackbirds have arrived in small numbers and Horned Larks have been seen the last few days. Both of these species are bona fide and expected early spring migrants, and usually the first spring songbird migrants we see. My most unusual sighting was an adult Great Black-backed Gull soaring high over the Point. The warmer weather and south winds forecast for the next few days should bring in more migrants.
Great Black-backed Gull (click to see the larger version)
Avian activity has slowed considerably at Montrose. I’ve been topping out at about 20 species on my two hour morning visits since December 1. Things won’t improve much until late February when spring migration begins, and if the harbor and Lake Michigan freeze it will only get worse. Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneye, the two main wintering ducks, haven’t arrived yet in numbers because of the mild weather we’ve been experiencing. They’ll start to show up when it gets seriously cold. The big flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers from November have pulled out. Lake Michigan now feels lifeless and empty without them. Common Redpolls are still around but for how long is anyone’s guess. Most of the sparrows from mid-November have left, with only Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows remaining. Despite the doldrums, we have had a few interesting species. An adult light morph Snow Goose has been keeping company with Canada Geese. Scan any group of Canada Geese if you’re looking for it. You could also find other uncommon geese like Cackling or Greater White-fronted by looking through the Canadas. An American Black Duck, an unusual bird for Montrose, has been with Mallards, usually in the harbor. On December 4 I saw an immature Great Black-backed Gull on the public beach. As always, check the Montrose Point eBird Hotspot for current sightings.
Suggestions for Winter Birding at Montrose
I have some suggestions for winter birding at Montrose. As long as the harbor remains open it’s worth checking for waterfowl, gulls, and grebes. Long-tailed Ducks, scoters, Red-necked and Western Grebes, and several unusual gulls have been seen in the harbor in early winter. Once the harbor freezes over this won’t be an option. The hawthorns near the restroom building on the south side of the harbor are full of berries as of early December. On December 4 I had American Robins, European Starlings, and a few House Finches gorging on these berries, and something rare like a Pine Grosbeak or Bohemian Waxwing is possible while the berry supply lasts. Finally, 2020 isn’t shaping up to be a flight year for Snowy Owls but a few could still show up. The best places to look for them are the beach, Dunes, and fishing pier.
A strong movement of northbound waterfowl occurred at Montrose this morning, March 30. Geoff Williamson and I stood at the end of the fishing pier for a couple of hours and watched flock after flock of diving and dabbling ducks moving north along Lake Michigan. Most were scaup and Redheads but we also had small numbers of Canvasbacks (uncommon at Montrose), Northern Pintails, Gadwall, American Wigeon, and smaller numbers of Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teal. We also had a couple of Common Loons and Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls. A group of White-winged Scoters (~12) was still on the lake off the end of the fishing pier. Link to my eBird checklist for the morning below.
I spent a couple hours at Montrose today, February 24. It was a cold morning and the east winds off Lake Michigan made it feel even chillier. I ended up with 23 species for my effort, not particularly impressive, but I did have a few bona fide spring migrants. My highlights include
Cackling Geese – 4 flying north with a group of Canada Geese
White-winged Scoters – 2, 1 in the harbor and the other near the end of the fishing pier
Northern Pintail – 6 flying north over the lake
Gadwall – 3 with the pintails
Great Black-backed Gull – 1 first/second cycle bird at the beach
The fishing pier is now ice-free and the massive ice shelves on the beach have disappeared. Our local wintering Snowy Owl is probably not too thrilled about this.
I spent about 2.5 hours at Montrose this morning, March 19, most of that
time looking at the lake. The visibility was good and there were birds
to look at, both on the water and flying around. Except for blackbirds
and Robins, landbirds were scarce. My highlights (not a complete list):
Gadwall – ~12
American Wigeon – 5
Redhead – ~30
Lesser Scaup – ~20
Greater Scaup – 1
White-winged Scoter – ~20
Common Goldeneye – ~12
Bufflehead – ~7
Common Merganser – 1 adult male flying north
Red-breasted Merganser – ~300
Red-throated Loon – 2 flying north, both in basic type plumage
Common Loon – 1 alternate plumaged bird flying north
Horned Grebe – ~50, most on the lake but a few in the harbor
Eared Grebe – 1 alternate plumaged bird on the lake
Great Black-backed Gull – 1 first cycle
Glaucous/Iceland Gull – 1 near adult flying north
The Eared Grebe was a big surprise. I tried to turn it into something
more expected but everything about the bird said Eared Grebe. Somewhat
surprisingly it was in full alternate plumage; most of the Horned Grebes
today were still in basic plumage or transitioning into alternate
plumage. I also had a meadowlark in the Dunes that looked good for a
Western but I let it go.