Winter break is a time typically marked by family and friends! Winter break of 2016 was no different for me, but the Philly birding community was in a frenzy when someone reported a Black-headed Gull at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge on Christmas day!
Black-headed Gulls are a species found in Europe and Asia that rarely venture to North America. They have been increasing in frequency in the northern Atlantic region during the 20th century, but they are still considered to be rare, especially in the mid-Atlantic. According to The Annotated List of the Birds of Pennsylvania by Franklin and Barbara Haas, there are 25+ records of this species in the state with more than ten of these records occurring along Lake Erie. That may sound like quite a few records, but in southeastern PA, there are only two; both of which in Philadelphia County. The first record was in December of 2014 near the Walt Whitman Bridge in a less than savory part of town with a large flock of gulls, and the second record ever of this bird in Philadelphia County is this Christmas day surprise!
Our crew gathered first thing Monday morning to search for the bird at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Mike H. had gotten there a bit early and located the bird on the main boardwalk, and as I went to meet with Mike, I ran into it feeding among Mallards right along the edge of the Warbler Woods at Heinz!
Black-headed Gull (2nd from the left) with Ring-billed Gulls. One way to look for unusual gulls in groups is looking for one that is a different size or shape. Notice how the Black-headed Gull is smaller in overall size and more slim in shape.
Chad and Mike D. arrived shortly thereafter, meeting Mike H. and I on the handicap platform. Sweet Chin Music, the name of the four of us when we’re together birding hard, was finally reunited as the Black-headed Gull came in close! The bird treated the four of us to great views as it soared and then dove into the water, catching fish. Then, it swam quite close for all to see!
The Black-headed Gull was actively flying around, diving for fish!
As we stood on the platform, our phones started pinging alerts from other birders that were finding great stuff in Philly. After thorough observation of the Black-headed Gull, we headed to the Navy Yard in South Philly to search for a previously reported flock of Canvasback and a record number of Great Cormorants! When we arrived, the Canvasback were nearly within arms reach as they rested out of the current of the mighty Delaware River. Also among the flock were a few Ruddy Duck and four Lesser Scaup, which were nice added bonuses. Adrian, a fellow birder who was there, then pointed out that among the Ruddy Duck was one female Black Scoter, an unusual find in Philadelphia.
After we had a great collection of ducks, we stopped on our way out at the harbor to search for Great Cormorant! We usually have Double-crested Cormorant in our area year-round, but Great Cormorant are only here in winter as they breed on the rocky shores of Atlantic Canada and spend their winters along the east coast. I’ve only ever seen one or two Great Cormorant at a time so seeing so many at once was exceptional! We had a total of ten at once, but other birders ended up finding eleven. Either way, a huge total!
Great Cormorant are larger, bulkier cormorants in comparison to the Double-crested Cormorant we usually observe. You can see in the above photo a comparison of both species. Of the two cormorants in the water, the bottom is the Double-crested Cormorant and the top is the Great Cormorant, identified by its larger overall size, thicker bill, and white patch below the bill.