Finding a Little Gull in Illinois

Nathan GoldbergBirding, RaritiesLeave a Comment

Three days ago, March 26th, I had only about six hours to go birding. I talked with my friend Andy Sigler to see what would be possible, and we outlined the possibilities. We could go to the Kankakee River (Kankakee County) for White-winged Scoters, go to Dresden Lock and Dam (Grundy County) for White-winged and possibly a Surf Scoter, hit Fermi Lab (DuPage County) for waterfowl, and/or go to West Dundee (Kane County) for the continuing Barrow’s Goldeneye I missed last week. Talking with Jed Hertz in Kankakee, the Scoters were not nearly as reliable as they had been, and would probably take the whole day to find them (if they were even there still). I really wanted to try and get my 16th Illinois County for White-winged Scoter, so Andy and I decided to start at Dresden Lock and Dam and then we would see what time it was and what else we could do.

Dresden is not an easy place to bird, but is super under-birded given the diversity present. Andy and I parked at McKinley Woods in Will County, and walked down a big hill to the I and M channel bike trail. While still in McKinley, we had a Pileated Woodpecker, a rare resident in these woods. This was the final Woodpecker I needed for Will County, so I was very pleased. We also had a Red-headed Woodpecker pecking at some dead snags.

Pileated Woodpecker (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Pileated Woodpecker (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Red-headed Woodpecker (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Red-headed Woodpecker (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Walking out on the trail, the Will/Grundy County line is about .5 miles from McKinley. We walked about .75 to 1 mile, and eventually came to a point jutting out slightly into the Des Plaines River. This point looked out onto the junction of the Kankakee and Des Plaines rivers, where they form the Illinois River. This area has had both Black-legged Kittiwake and Sabine’s Gull in the past, so it always has had promise for something unusual. On the way out, we also had a perched Tree Swallow in Grundy County.

Tree Swallow (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Tree Swallow (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

While scanning for the scoters, I checked the mouth of the Kankakee River, and got a glimpse of a smaller gull feeding like a Bonaparte’s. But in the few seconds I saw it, I could swear I saw a dark underwing. The bird flew behind a point in the river, and I mumbled to Andy, “I swear I just had a Little Gull…” He looked at me, thinking, “Ya right ok.” I didn’t want to let it go, so I ran about 50 yards down the path and set up the scope. Andy took a look, and after scanning a bit, he stated, “Oh jeeze! It actually is a Little Gull!” I couldn’t believe my ears, so I jumped to the scope and easily found the bird. It was a smaller gull, flutter-feeding in the river. But instead of the white underwing a Bonaparte’s Gull should have, it was dark black! ADULT LITTLE GULL!

Over the next 5 minutes, Andy and I made phone calls to the birding community. I called my friend Joshua Little, and he said he would be there in 30 minutes. We immediately got it posted to IBET (thanks Greg Neise). Andy and I felt obligated to sit with the bird and hand it off to the next birder, one reason being the location was so difficult to get to and mildly confusing to find. We took turns watching the gull in the scope, and I took a bunch of horrible photos. This bird was a lifer for me, Illinois 326, ABA 516, World 989.

Adult Little Gull (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult Little Gull (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult Little Gull (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult Little Gull (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult Little Gull (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult Little Gull (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Joshua finally turned the bend, and we could see he had been jogging with all his optics to get to us. He was out of breath, but we made sure he looked in Andy’s scope, and we knew he had it by his ooo’s and aah’s. It was nearing 9:30, and we still had birds to see before returning to Chicago. We left Joshua with the Little Gull, and I believe a few others got it later in the day.

By the time Andy and I made it to the car, it was already 10:00 AM and we would have to deal with traffic getting into the city by 12:00 PM. We still had not found any White-winged Scoters, though I shouldn’t have been complaining. We decided to drive over to the actual Lock and Dam and walk out to the river (another .5 mile walk one way). We made it to the river at 10:30 AM, and I quickly scoped the ducks. I found groups of Lesser Scaup with a few Ring-necked Ducks mixed in, and finally an adult male White-winged Scoter! I called it out to Andy, and he couldn’t believe I actually had found one. There had been a few scoters on the river since the Christmas Bird Counts, but no reports for probably a month.

Lesser Scaup with one adult male Ring-necked Duck (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Lesser Scaup with one adult male Ring-necked Duck (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult male White-winged Scoter (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult male White-winged Scoter (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

This was my 16th White-winged Scoter County, up from a mere 2 at the beginning of this winter. Andy and I had to get back by 12, so we rushed into the city. He dropped me off and we parted ways, and I had been home for only 15 minutes before I got a call from Chicago birder Steve Spitzer saying he had an adult Glaucous Gull at Montrose Harbor. I have needed Glaucous Gull in Cook County for way too long, so I really wanted to get this bird. I quickly called Andy to see how far he was, and he amazingly turned around and came back to pick me up.

We rushed over to Montrose, and saw Steve still there. We looked for a bit and finally found the Glaucous Gull sitting out on one of the star docks. This day couldn’t have gotten any better! This was Cook County bird 284, and one of the few “easy” targets I have left (I still need Iceland Gull, Tundra Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, and others).

Adult Glaucous Gull with Herring and Ring-billed Gulls (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Adult Glaucous Gull with Herring and Ring-billed Gulls (Photo by Nathan Goldberg)

Andy dropped me off, and I thanked him immensely for all the help today. He understandably thought the day would be a bust (no targets were reliable), but it turned out he got a county bird out of it (Little Gull), which almost never happens so close to Chicago. This was my last day of birding in March, and I couldn’t find a better way to end it. I am now on a spring break trip to Southern California with my family, so the next post will be about hot weather and hopefully new birds!