Picture Ohio! – Cleveland Lakefront Gullapalooza

Gulls, Cleveland Lakefront
Gulls, Cleveland Lakefront

During cold winters, , when Lake Erie freezes, tens of thousands of gulls gather at warm water outlets of power plants along the edge of the lake, including the CEI plant near E. 72nd Street on the Cleveland Lakefront. The gulls are feeding on fish, mostly gizzard shad. The shad are very sensitive to the temperature of the water, and large numbers of dead fish can be seen along the edge of the rocks as well as floating on the surface of the water.

The vast majority of the thousands of gulls in the area when I visited on January 6 were Herring Gulls and the smaller Ring-billed Gulls. At least a dozen Great Black-backed Gulls and one or two Lesser Black-backed Gulls were also present, together with an occasional Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull or Thayer’s Gull. Several diehard birders, bundled up in heavy coats and armed with binoculars and expensive spotting scopes, constantly scanned the thousands of gulls resting on the ice in search of rarities. One birder told me that as many as five coyotes had been seen hunting on the ice, where sick or injured birds provide easy pickings.

Great Black-backed Gull, Cleveland Lakefront
Great Black-backed Gull, Cleveland Lakefront

The handsome bird above is a Great Black-backed Gull, the largest gull in the world. Up to 30 inches long, with a wingspan of five feet, the Great Black-backed Gull is as big as a small goose, and numero uno in the gull pecking order. Great Black-backed Gulls breed along the east coast of North America, but an increasing number of these handsome birds spend the winter along the shores of the Great Lakes.  The less common Lesser Black-backed Gull is slimmer, a little smaller, and has yellow legs instead of pink legs.

Ring-billed Gull with Shad
Ring-billed Gull with Shad

This Ring-billed Gull has captured a gizzard shad from the surface of the lake. Ring-billed Gulls are the most common species of gull throughout Ohio, and they may be seen in large numbers along the Lake Erie shoreline as well as inland at shopping malls, fast food parking lots and landfills, searching for scraps of food or anything else that is remotely edible. Ring-billed Gulls breed in Ohio, mostly in large colonies on small islands in Lake Erie.

Gizzard Shad
Gizzard Shad
Dead Gizzard Shad
Dead Gizzard Shad

There were thousands of gizzard shad, large and small, swimming in the warm water outlet of the power plant, and thousands more dead fish along the edges of the rocks.

12 Ring-billed Gulls, Cleveland Lakefront
12 Ring-billed Gulls, Cleveland Lakefront
Herring Gull
Herring Gull, Lake Erie

The other common gull in Ohio is the Herring Gull, which is several inches longer than the Ring-billed Gull. Adults have a gray mantle,  pink legs and a bright yellow bill with a red spot near the tip.  Herring Gulls nest on rocky cliffs, including Gibraltar Island in Put-in-Bay, home of Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory. I took the photograph of the nesting Herring Gull, seen below, during a summer visit to the island in 2008 to conduct a weekend photography workshop.

Herring Gull on Nest, Gibraltar Island, Put-in-Bay
Herring Gull on Nest, Gibraltar Island, Put-in-Bay

My favorite lens for photographing these large concentrations of gulls is the Sigma 50-500mm. attached to a Nikon D7000 camera. An ISO setting of 400 provides noise-free images, and this compact lens can be easily hand-held for long periods without fatigue. I use aperture-preferred (A) mode and an aperture of f/8 or f/11, which allows shutter speeds of 1/1000th or 1/1500th of a second, enough to freeze most subject movement. The Sigma 50-500mm is  1-2 f-stops slower than a 500mm or 600mm f/4 Nikon or Canon lens, which are standard equipment for most bird photographers, but these lenses require the use of a heavy duty tripod and are too big to hand-hold for any length of time. The Sigma 50-500mm is also excellent for scenic photography and focuses to an amazingly close distance of five feet at 500mm, and even closer at a 300mm setting, making it suitable for all subjects except for wide-angle landscapes. Although I like to use my tripod-mounted, ultra-sharp Nikon 200-400mm lens whenever possible for bird photography, there is so much action at these huge gatherings of gulls that hand-holding the smaller Sigma 50-500mm lens leads to fewer missed opportunities and more usable photographs.

Birds Spooked by a Predator, Cleveland Lakefront
Birds Spooked by a Predator, Cleveland Lakefront

The gulls, Canada Geese, and Mallards in the photograph above have been spooked by a predator, probably a Peregrine Falcon. When one of these aerial killing machines puts in an appearance, thousands of gulls, ducks, and geese lift off from the ice and fill the skies with a cacophony of alarm calls. As I watched this incredible display of avian aerobatics, I recalled the magnificent music and lyrics of  Neil Diamond’s 1973 ballad, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, an homage to the book by Richard Bach, first published in 1970, which also happened to be the year I graduated from Manchester University in England.

Peregrine Falcon, Florida
Peregrine Falcon, Florida

Here is the likely cause of the avian pandemonium, an adult Peregrine Falcon. I photographed this bird at Merritt Island National Wildlife Area in Florida in the mid-1980s. Peregrine Falcons nest on downtown buildings in Ohio’s major cities as well as occasionally on tall bridges, and they may often be seen perched on the stacks and roof of the CEI power plant near E. 72nd Street on the Cleveland Lakefront.

Cheryl Harner at Cleveland Lakefront
Cheryl Harner at Cleveland Lakefront

The smiling lady in the long black coat in the photo above is Cheryl Harner, President of the Greater Mohican Audubon Society and the principal organizer of Flora-Quest, an annual gathering in early May of many of Ohio’s finest naturalists, who lead guided hikes in search of wildflowers, butterflies, migrating birds and other animals and plants at Shawnee State Forest and the Edge of Appalachia preserves in southern Ohio. I will be at Flora-Quest on May 3-5 to lead a photography hike and present a slide program on my newest book, Trees: A Photographic Celebration. Also participating will be Larry Rosche and Judy Semroc, both field researchers at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and co-authors of an outstanding regional guide, Dragonflies & Damselflies of Northeast Ohio. For more information on Flora-Quest, visit www.flora-quest.com

Larry Rosche is also one of Ohio’s premier birders, and the author of Birds of the Cleveland Region. Cheryl, Larry and Judy were all enjoying the spectacle of gulls at E. 72nd Street when I visited a couple of days ago. Each species of gull takes three or four years to reach adulthood, during which time the gull’s plumage goes through a complex series of changes usually referred to as “cycles.” Couple this with the fact that some gulls, including the Herring Gull, are known to hybridize with other gull species, and it’s easy to see why gulls represent one of the greatest identification challenges in all of birding. My favorite Ohio bird guide is the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America, edited by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer, which includes excellent illustrations of plumage variation for each species of gull. Another excellent reference is The Sibley Guide to Birds, by David Allen Sibley.

If you would like to improve your gull identification skills, hook up with Cleveland naturalist, bird illustrator and birder extraordinaire Jen Brumfield, who offers birding tours of the Cleveland Lakefront through Local Patch Birding Tours. Contact Jen at: elfin_skimmer@hotmail.com or call her at (330)-701-6452.

 

 

 

 

 

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