Braving the Cold for Winter Birds: 06 January 2018

Gull Rescue

Gull rescue featuring Josh Vardous - Photo Jenny Bowman

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl – Photo Jackie Fedak

January 6th was cold. The thermometer in my car read two degrees Fahrenheit below zero when I pulled in to meet the brave souls who decided to join us for a trip to Lake Erie. We had another two birders meet us on the way for a total of seven, and we found ourselves at Wendy Park around 10:00 am. It didn’t take long for us to find our target bird: a handsome Snowy Owl! Even this bird born on the arctic tundra was hunkered down between storage crates on the docks, trying to get out of the wind!

I pulled out my phone to start an eBird checklist, and saw that I had a missed a call from Josh Vardous of Lorain County. Along with the missed call was a text: “I have a Saw-whet if you were interested.” Of course we were! I asked Josh to keep the bird staked out for us, and the group raced over to the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve. Josh led us two by two through a tangle of grapevines to where the diminutive owl was roosting, tucked into a pine tree.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl hiding in a tree – Photo James Muller

With our two target birds easily acquired, I asked the group, and Josh, if they had any interest in looking at gulls from Merwin’s Wharf on the banks of the Cuyahoga River. Everyone was in high spirits, so we made our way over to the flats to look through the group of birds congregating in the little bit of water that was still free of ice. We were able to find Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed gulls with ease, and saw American Coots and both Greater and Lesser Scaup among the crowd of Red-breasted Mergansers.

While we were scanning, Josh realized that a couple of the gulls sitting on the docks were stuck there! Their breast feathers had frozen beneath them, locking them in place. Josh sprang into action, using his car keys to chip away the ice that held the poor birds in place. Our group got to see him free the first Herring Gull which looked calm as could be tucked under his arm. We got amazing close-up looks at the bird while we waited for Janice, another Lorain County birder and rehabber, to arrive. She transported this gull and another to the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center for some R&R.

Gull Rescue

Gull rescue featuring Josh Vardous – Photo Jenny Bowman

Gull Rescue

Gull rescue featuring Josh Vardous – Photo Jenny Bowman

Our trip was already winding down when a massive freighter plowed up the river, scattering the gulls and ducks. A Peregrine Falcon raced past, and Jerry Cairo was able to pick out a Glaucous Gull in the chaos, but otherwise this signaled the end of the trip. We said our goodbyes and headed for home to thaw out after a great day of winter birding!

To fresh up on your gull identifications, check out the national Audubon web pages on gulls and terns.