An immature Franklin’s Gull graced Montrose Beach on May 5. Franklin’s Gulls are uncommon but regular spring migrants at Montrose; most occur in late April and early May. The best way to look for them is to scan the flocks of gulls and terns that gather on the beach. This advice also applies to other, less common gulls, like Laughing, which also start to appear in late spring.
On a related side note, you should think about checking the beach in the afternoon and evening, especially the protected beach. Gulls, terns, and shorebirds settle down later in the day and you could find something unusual among the more common Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. The protected beach is fenced off on all sides and inaccessible to people and dogs, so the birds that end up there feel safer and tend to hang around.
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.
An impressive flight of Franklin’s Gulls took place at Montrose on November 12. Multiple flocks were flying fast down the lakefront, totaling about 150 birds. Some were flying over Lake Michigan, but most were passing right over the Point. Large numbers of Franklin’s aren’t unexpected in mid November and considering the powerful fall storm that moved through northern Illinois. I also had a Black Scoter inside the fishing pier.
A strong cold front will move through Chicago over the weekend of November 12 – 14. Daily high temperatures will be in the low 40s and winds will be westerly, at least for Saturday and Sunday, and in the 10 to 15 mile per hour range. This is an excellent setup for a late fall push of birds. These conditions often produce Short-eared Owls and Franklin’s Gulls, and we could see a few hawks migrating down Lake Michigan, especially Northern Harriers. Sandhill Cranes also move on these conditions, though we rarely see large numbers of them at Montrose. There’s always the possibility of something extraordinary showing up – it is November after all.
Snow Buntings at Montrose Dunes, fall 2020. (click to see the larger version)
November is one of the most exciting months of the year at Montrose. The list of rarities found there in November is long and distinguished. As examples, an Ancient Murrelet, just the fourth record for Illinois, made an appearance in 2019, and in 2020 the fourth state record Cassin’s Sparrow delighted birders. General birding can be good too. Here are a few November birding tips:
Check the beach and Dunes for Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. The buntings favor the more open areas of the Dunes, and the longspurs are usually flying over. Both will sometimes feed out in the open on the beach or even in the algae that washes up on the beach.
On days with brisk west winds, Short-eared Owls are a good bet in the Dunes. They usually kick up out of the denser vegetation and fly out over Lake Michigan.
With a little effort and luck, Northern Saw-whet and Long-eared Owls can be found in the peripheral plantings. Look for whitewash and listen for scolding, excited Black-capped Chickadees.
The fishing pier is an excellent place to scan Lake Michigan for loons, grebes, and waterfowl, either resting on the surface or in flight. Overcast days with light winds offer the best viewing conditions.
Northern Shrikes like the Dunes and more open areas of the Point. Look for them perched in the tops of trees or flying through, flashing their white wing and tail spots.
Black-legged Kittiwakes sometimes turn up, especially on days with northeast winds. They aren’t a sure bet but if you’re at Montrose on a day with easterly winds, pay attention to the gulls flying by. This applies for jaegers too.