Birds of a feather ...
"There's the 'feed me' cry," said Robbye Johnson, a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and a birder for more than two decades.
Johnson threw pieces of bread along the beach of Wisconsin Point on a cold October morning as a group of gulls circled offshore. The birds landed a few meters away but didn't come any closer. Their skittish behavior surprised Johnson, but she was far from discouraged. For her, bird watching is as much about watching the sunrise and talking with other birders as it is about spotting that rare bird.
The sun was still low on the horizon when a group of ducks skimmed close to the surface of Lake Superior. Further in the distance, a flock of about 30 gulls rose up from the water. Johnson examined the group through her scope and quickly singled out a slightly smaller bird among the ring-billed and herring gulls.
"I've got a good one here," Johnson said.
Looking more closely at the undersides of the gull's wings, Johnson became excited. She knew the bird was not a Bonaparte's gull, and she suspected she knew what it was.
Johnson studied the gull until it disappeared with the group and then began jotting down on a piece of paper the wing pattern she had seen.
"Oh, Eric's going to be so mad he missed that," Johnson said as she recorded her sighting.
What Johnson believed she had spotted was a black-headed gull. If her identification is correct, her fellow birder who didn't show up will be disappointed indeed.
According to the WSO Web site, only 11 records of the bird have been verified by the society since 1978, and none of those have been in the northwestern region of the state. Most sightings took place in Milwaukee or Manitowoc, with the last black-headed gull reported in 2001. The site identifies the black-headed gull as a casual spotting, meaning no more than one record every one to five years.
Johnson has seen her share of rare birds over the years. Within Douglas and Burnett counties she has filed reports of more than a dozen birds classified by the WSO as rare. Among those are the Pacific loon, white ibis, Artic tern and long-tailed jaeger.
"We get birds that are considered to be rare for this area, birds that are rare for Wisconsin and birds that are hard to get any place else for Wisconsin," Johnson said. "People particularly want Harris's sparrow. This year the sparrows are running late, (but) we're west enough to get those."
Late fall migrations have not been unusual in the past few years.
Johnson said she has also seen arrival dates in the spring change to about two weeks earlier, and fellow birders have told her it is the same across the nation. It is getting more difficult for even the most experienced watchers to judge when each migration will come through. A major factor in the change, Johnson believes, is global warming.
"Global warming really is having an effect," Johnson said. "This spring and this fall we had a leapfrogging effect where some birds were here already and others weren't here yet. They did the same thing this fall, so it's getting harder to figure out when stuff's going to come."
Johnson still has a grasp of the basic time lines for species migrations, though. The best gull watching is in November, when the birds will come in off the lake. Ducks, loons and hawks continue their migrations into October, while warblers overlap sparrows and thrushes in their migrations during mid-September. To be a part of any one of these migrations is a memorable experience.
"It's like standing in a river of living things that are moving by you," Johnson said. "It's absolutely amazing."
At any time, watching for cold fronts will often yield the best birding experience. Johnson said waves of migrating birds can often be found in front of or sometimes behind such fronts.
For Johnson, the Holy Grail of birds is the red phalarope, not to be mistaken for the similar red-necked phalarope, which she saw just a few weeks ago.
"The red phalarope is a shorebird that sits in the water, and they spin around to get their food from the top. It's just a really strange little bird," she said. "It's also different in that the males are the dull ones and the females are bright. The females lay the eggs in the nest and then take off. Then the males sit on the eggs and hatch them."
The golden-crowned sparrow is another bird on Johnson's wish list.
They are common on the west coast of North America, but rarely venture to Wisconsin.
Spotting either bird would be a thrill for Johnson, but being outside and enjoying the experience is just as compelling a reason for her to go birding. One can never be sure when a rare bird might turn up in a flock of ordinary gulls.
Emily Kram covers outdoors for the Superior Telegram. Call her at (715) 395-5018 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.