March has never been my favorite month for an Avid Birders trip. It’s still cold, and by that time of year cold is really getting old; even the birds seem to be getting old, with the species make-up relatively unchanged, and not all that much migration underway. This year we had some excitement, though, with some rarer species rumored to be around, and a warm winter that had gotten things moving a bit ahead of schedule.

Thirteen of us began by listening to a song sparrow—first in memory there—belting out his song from the shrubbery around one of the banks at Worthington Mall on 23 March 2002. No one groaned when I announced we were going to feature gulls on the cold and windy shore of Lake Erie once again this trip, for two or perhaps even three black-headed gulls had been seen for the previous few days in Cleveland. And no one was impolite enough to mention the March trip of two years ago when we stood around all day in the Planet Conneaut waiting for another black-headed gull, which refused to appear until 10 minutes after we’d finally given up and moved on to other things.

We had an appointment on the way to the Lake though, and stopped at a park near Akron to feast our eyes on a very friendly and attractive trio of white-winged crossbills, an obvious family group. So alluring were they that one of our carloads, led by intrepid photographer Bob Royse, decided to dedicate the afternoon to acquiring photos of this adult pair and still-begging youngster in the bright sunlit spruces and crabapple trees they were frequenting. We all continued on to the marina at Cleveland’s East 72nd street’s terminus, where great white swirls of gulls were shifting about in the stiff southwest wind, and a bunch of local birders, bundled up against the cold, were already standing vigil on the breakwall.

There were perhaps five thousand Bonaparte’s gulls wheeling around, many of them afloat in the quieter water of the marina or perched on docks, and among them we searched for the somewhat similar black-headed gulls. Out over the Lake, others were scrutinizing other gulls—eventually distant and brief looks were had at Thayer’s, Iceland, and glaucous gulls—and a few little gulls were around, mostly adults, which moved by quite close, to our considerable delight. Only two great black-backed gulls were around, oddly enough. After a while perhaps thirty birders were on station, perhaps half of us sifting through the Bonies—especially those who’d attained full hoods, like the black-headed gulls reportedly had—whose numbers continued to grow in the marina. After more than two hours, however, it became clear that for some reason—the direction and intensity of the wind, local folks told us, might have driven more of the smaller gulls to shelter on the inaccessible east side of Dike 14—the sought-after birds were not going to appear. Finally someone, it might even have been I, mentioned our last non-encounter with this species on a day just as bright and windy and disappointing, and we gulled an end to this part of our quest.

An hour on the freeway restored our core temperatures, and gave us time to eat and look forward to seeing some waterfowl in Sandusky Bay. Somewhere along the way one of our carloads lost the way, and ended up going far to the west of the main body for the rest of the day. We, for our part, stopped first at Medusa Marsh, which had masses of ducks in a few large leads of unfrozen water, but we’d forgotten that on a sunny day the light is always wretched at Medusa, and the wind was really howling now, with a steady 40-knot blow so you had to hold on to the tripod to keep a scope upright, and lurch against the car door to get it open against the blast. Here and in Bay View along the interrupted bridge we managed to put some respectable numbers on the day list, with a good variety, but very low numbers overall, of waterfowl sheltering on the lee side of anything they could find, often quite close. Our lost car later made it to Medusa, and even though the light was bad thought they might, just might, have had a “Eurasian teal,” the Old-World form of our green-winged—and probably soon to be split*—bobbing around with a small flock of its cousins on the far side of the water.

Our two carloads hoped the punishing wind would abate further inland, and we headed for Killdeer Plains a bit ahead of schedule. Turkey vultures were everywhere, sliding and rocking up in the big headwind, hundreds of them; you could put your binocs up and look anywhere along the horizon inland and pick up birds. After a brief stop at Beaver Creek Reservoir, we arrived at Killdeer, first making the ritual and inevitably bird-free stop at the upground reservoir. Here a lone bird, a bewildered-looking grebe, appeared and disappeared in the unearthly-green waves. We found the small pond a bit further east, the one with the skeletal trees where red-headed woodpeckers can usually be found, had been drained by the DOW for some reason, certainly not for shorebird habitat. All the same, an early lesser yellowlegs was there, and next to it two blackbirds, yes…Brewer’s blackbirds, and later we found a lot of them—49 more to be exact, according to the calculations of staff mathematician Troy Shively—back in the rear of the drying pond-bed.

The wind had subsided to gusts, but waterfowl were hard to find—probably they had retired to the inner ponds where there’s no public access. Nor were we to find Lapland longspurs, except for two brief rattles out in the empty fields along Washburn Road. Other good finds at Killdeer were made, though, with three pectoral sandpipers, two pipits, and two rough-legged hawks, so it was not in utter defeat that we headed home. At last back in the parking lot I finally got my black-headed gull, in the form of three photos Troy gave me of the one he’d seen a few days earlier. I accepted them with thanks. Now I couldn’t say I came back empty-handed. The day’s list of 72 species follows.

* Green-winged teal was split into the following two species in 2000 by the British Ornithological Union (Ibis 143:171-175): Eurasian teal Anas crecca and green-winged teal A. carolinensis. This split was also adopted by J. F. Clements in the 31 December 2000 supplement to Birds of the World: A Checklist. Eurasian teal includes race crecca with range Palearctic region; winters to Africa, India and SE Asia and race nimia with range Aleutian Islands. The range of A. carolinensis is as follows: breeds North America; winters to Mexico and West Indies. This split has not yet been adopted by the American Ornithologists’ Union or the American Birding Association. –JWH

Avid Birders trip list 2002_03_23