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Gull Frolic

The Gull Frolic is a wonderful late-winter bird festival on the western shore of Lake Michigan near the IL/WI border.

I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the annual Gull Frolic, held at the Winthrop Harbor Yacht Club on the Illinois/Wisconsin border each winter. This invitation came from Amar Ayyash, who I didn’t know and, have to admit, I had not heard of before. Not only had I not know Amar, I hadn’t heard of the Gull Frolic. The invitation came in July, in the middle of a sweltering Alabama summer, and the thought of a chilly winter bird festival focused around northern gulls was irresistible. Plus, I love traveling for birding and giving talks about my ornithological research, so I enthusiastically accepted. It was a good decision because the Gull Frolic is a winner.

A less creative but more descriptive name for the Gull Frolic would be the Western Great Lakes Winter Bird Festival. This is a gathering of over 100 birders and bird enthusiasts (I was told 200 attendees pre-Covid) who come to see old friends, hear a guest speaker, sign up for birding excursions near and far for the next year, and above all enjoy a fine diversity of gulls with great experts to help with ID. Amar, as I would learn, is completing a new guide to gull identification to be published by Princeton University Press in 2023, and he is a fantastic mentor for the endless variation in gull plumages. I learned a lot about gull ID during my day at the frolic.

The Gull Frolic is a great place to meet experts and learn about bird identification and bird photography.

The adventure started on Feb. 19, when Amar picked me up at my hotel at 630 am. It was, to put it kindly, a frosty Chicago morning. My illusions of a “chilly” day of gull watching collided with the reality of a thermometer showing 7F with a stiff wind. The windchill was -16 F—a bit beyond the descriptor “chilly” for someone flying in from an Alabama winter. Fortunately several factors make frigid weather less of a factor at the Gull Frolic than it otherwise might be. First of all, escape is just a few feet away. All of the birding goes on right outside the Yacht Club meeting room so you can just duck inside when the cold gets to be too much. Actually, the clubhouse has huge windows, so you can look at gulls and other birds pretty effectively through the windows. And finally, the best birding is often in the afternoon when gulls leave a nearby landfill and head for the harbor. By 1pm the temp had only risen to 20F, but with a blazing afternoon sun and less wind, it was a manageable cold.

Whenever the cold got to be too much out on the lakeshore, the warm and friendly clubhouse was just a few steps away.

The birds did not disappoint. About 99% of the gulls in and around the harbor were Herring Gulls, but the stars of the show were the Iceland Gulls. Until very recently, the name “Iceland Gull” only applied to what are now referred to as the Kumlien's Gull subspecies of Iceland Gull. Thayer’s Gull, the sister population to Kumlien's Gull, were considered a different species. In xx Kumlien's and Thayer’s Gulls were lumped into the single species “Iceland Gull”. This lumping has not stopped gull enthusiasts, of which there were many at the Gull Frolic, from parsing each Iceland Gull into correct subspecies. Both Kumlien's Gull and Thayer’s Gull always make an appearance at the Gull Frolic, and we had about about 4 Thayer’s and 3 Kumlien’s Gulls around at this year’s frolic. We had several beautiful adult Thayer’s Gulls circling and then swimming right in front of us. We also had a suave first-cycle Kumlein’s Gull, uniform in its unique creamy plumage. Early in the morning when I was too cold to focus well, there was a first cycle Thayer’s Gull which is much darker than the first cycle Kumleins, but I didn’t study that bird very well. All day there was hope that we might see the other gull of the region with light wing tips—Glaucous Gull. And, on cue, after many festival attendees had gone home, a striking adult Glaucous Gull came dropping in from on high and gave us fantastic looks.

A beautiful adult Thayer's Gull was one of the treats of the Gull Frolic.

A very tame first-winter Kumlein’s Gull gave everyone a chance to study and appreciate the subtle plumage pattern of this beautiful species.

Late in the day, an adult Glaucous Gull made an appearance to show us what a light-plumaged gull really looked like.

Gulls are the stars of the show but they are not the only birds to look at in the harbor. About three dozen Common Goldeneyes with Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, a few scaup, and Bufflehead dove in the harbor. As I was setting up for my talk, someone kindly ran in to retrieve me in time to see a male Harlequin Duck swimming along the rock jetty. In the afternoon, we had a pair of White-winged Scoters diving with the goldeneye. Almost all of these birds were new for my Illinois list.

While gulls were the stars of the show, I also enjoyed the great views of Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, and White-winged Scoters. A Harlequin Duck also made a brief appearance.

For anyone living within a few hours drive or for anyone living anywhere who wants to work on gull identification, I strongly recommend the Gull Frolic. It is a wonderful gathering of extremely knowledgeable and very friendly and inviting bird enthusiasts.


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