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Black-legged Kittiwake - March 24, 2013

Black-legged Kittiwake, Franklin's Gull, and more at Presque Isle State Park, Erie County, PA
The day at Thompson Bay and Beach 11 on Presque Isle State Park 3/24 was the kind that defies all superlatives, the sort of day that birders are lucky to experience once a decade if they're lucky. For the entire week leading up to 3/24, tens of thousands of gulls had been collecting on and around Presque Isle, including upwards of 40,000 Bonaparte's Gulls and at least 28 Little Gulls and perhaps many more. The number of Little Gulls being reported at the park was unprecedented for Erie County or anywhere else in Pennsylvania to my knowledge. There were plenty of other gulls around as well... birders had been reporting 10 species over the course of the week: Bonaparte's, Little, Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Thayer's, Iceland, Glaucous, and one or two Black-headed Gulls.
Little Gull is one of my favorite species of bird to watch and photograph, and so I could not pass up the opportunity to witness nearly 30 of them in one place so close to home. So I headed to Beach 11 on 3/24 in the hopes that I might be able to make some more images of  Little Gull, like I did at the park in 2006 and 2008.
Turned out that by the end of the day, I had all but forgotten that the Little Gulls were even there.
Thompson Bay and the waters off Beach 11 and Gull Point were humming with gull activity all day. There were at least 30 Little Gulls around, upwards of 10,000 Bonaparte's Gulls, a continuing Black-headed Gull, and Iceland, Lesser-black Backed, and Glaucous Gull all in evidence. But the action really got going when Mike Weible, the only other person on the beach with me, picked this bird out of the crowd:

Canon 1DMkIV, 500mm f/4L + 2x TC III, 1/2000 sec. at f/9 (manual), ISO 1000, tripod

Mike and I couldn't believe what we were seeing. Black-legged Kittiwake! Jerry McWilliams, who was only 5 minutes away, quickly joined us and the three of us were able to watch the bird for the next 10 minutes as it flew around, bathed, preened, and ultimately settled down among a thick flock of Ring-billed Gulls and disappeared. Jerry said this represented the first spring record of Black-legged Kittiwake for Erie County. It's also just the second spring record for the entire state. Indeed, Black-legged Kittiwake is very rare anywhere inland in the eastern United States in March.
These next photos show this first winter bird in flight and with outstretched wings (unfortunately one out of focus but sometimes cameras don't cooperate). In addition to the thick half-collar on the back of the bird's neck, the telltale black "M" pattern on the upperside of the wings is clearly visible.

Canon 1DMkIV, 500mm f/4L + 2x TC III, 1/2000 sec. at f/9 (manual), ISO 1000, tripod

Canon 1DMkIV, 500mm f/4L + 2x TC III, 1/2000 sec. at f/9 (manual), ISO 1000, tripod

Canon 1DMkIV, 500mm f/4L + 2x TC III, 1/2000 sec. at f/9 (manual), ISO 1000, tripod

We saw the bird again briefly about 2 hours later, but it and the entire flock of gulls it was with were flushed by a Peregrine Falcon and we did not see the kittiwake again. It was seen at that time by about 4 of the ~10 people who showed up in the time since our first sighting.
The fun wasn't nearly over. About a half-hour later, I was able to find a first cycle Thayer's Gull among the hordes of Ring-billed and Herring. Mike got on it too, and we both stood at 11 species for the day, certainly a record for me. We started joking that we needed to get to 12 while we could, with California and Mew Gull mentioned at the most likely targets for us to get there. We even started throwing out names like Slaty-backed, Ross's, and Ivory. Why not?
One species none of us mentioned as a possibility was Franklin's Gull, so we were all quite shocked when Ben Coulter found exactly that among the large flock of Bonaparte's: an adult Franklin's Gull!!

Canon 1DMkIV, 500mm f/4L + 2x TC III, 1/1600 sec. at f/9 (manual), ISO 1000, tripod

This particular adult, rare enough in Pennsylvania and at the earliest end of its spring occurrence in the state at that, also had a very obvious pink tinge to its underparts.

Canon 1DMkIV, 500mm f/4L + 2x TC III, 1/1600 sec. at f/9 (manual), ISO 1000, tripod

Amazing... 12 species in one day -- unprecedented in Erie County and probably anywhere in the state. I ended up entering the following totals into eBird for the Thompson Bay area 3/24:
Black-legged Kittiwake  1
Bonaparte's Gull  12500
Black-headed Gull  1
Little Gull  30 (probably at least 50 on the park...)
Franklin's Gull  1
Ring-billed Gull  10000
Herring Gull  5000
Thayer's Gull  1
Iceland Gull  4
Lesser Black-backed Gull  10
Glaucous Gull  4
Great Black-backed Gull  500
Oh yeah, and on top of all that, let's not forget the 30 or more Little Gulls. The Little Gull photography was not what I had hoped... the birds were never very close and always moving quickly past, but seriously, who's complaining. Though not a close-up, this nevertheless satisfying image of one Little Gull embedded in a huge flock of Bonaparte's is really emblematic of this whole event anyway -- one that I surely will not forget.

Canon 1DMkIV, 500mm f/4L + 1.4x TC III, 1/1600 sec. at f/9 (manual), ISO 1000, tripod

Unless explicitly indicated otherwise in the photo caption, all photos on this website were taken by and are 2003-2012 by Geoff Malosh. Unauthorized usage of these photographs for any purpose is strictly forbidden. If you are interested in using any photo for publication or if you are interested in purchasing a print, contact me at pomarine -AT- earthlink -DOT- net.