As any birder in North America who hasn’t been living under a rock should know, last weekend saw a massive invasion of Franklin’s gulls to the east of a scale not seen since 1998 (meaning I was 1 month old the last time something like this happened). Saturday November 15th produced a huge number of Franklin’s gulls in the midatlantic as well as in Ohio along Lake Erie. It thus seemed logical that at least a few birds would spill over on Sunday to the small portion of Lake Erie shoreline that Pennsylvania has been blessed with. The storm system which produced the gulls also were good conditions for other western vagrants to move into the area, most notably cave swallows.
Banking on this prediction of Franklin’s gulls and the chance of other good birds, another Pittsburgh young birder, Jack Chaillet, and I headed up to Erie on Sunday to bird at Presque Isle State Park. We left before dawn and as light was coming up, we could see large patches of snow along the sides of the roads, what we hoped was a good sing for an interesting day of birding to come.
Pulling into the parking lot of Erie’s local piece of Canada, a Tim Horton’s, for some sustenance to hold us over while we birded, flocks of common loons flew overhead, whetting our appetite even more for the good birds we hoped to find.
Driving out onto the peninsula that composes Presque Isle State Park, we drove past flocks of bufflehead and other ducks, but didn’t stop, anxious to find Bonaparte’s gull flocks as quickly as possible. We quickly came upon one such flock, a group of maybe 40 Bonies’ sitting on the water and pulled over to scan them. I had barely stepped out of the car before Jack called that he thought he saw a Franklin’s. Pulling out the scope, we confirmed that there was not one, nor two, but three Franklin’s gulls mixed in with their trimmer, paler cousins. Target acquired!
Shocked to have located our number one target so quickly, we enjoyed views of this rarity and then headed on, towards Sunset Point for some lakewatching.
The wind was ferocious as we pulled onto the beach and set up the scope. However, it was well worth it as we began to see large flocks of red-breasted mergansers coming by in streams.
Our main target during our lakewatching stint were red-necked loons, a bird a still needed as a state bird, which are found daily in small numbers along the lake. However, every loon which was coming past, and there were many, ended up being a common.
There was plenty of other birds to keep us occupied though. Lesser scaup were moving in force, and a small flock of surf scoters raised our adrenaline a bit. Presently, Jack decided to take a break from the lakewatch for a couple minutes to locate a restroom. I warned him in vain that something good was guaranteed to appear if he left and this prophecy began to come true as the first common goldeneyes and horned grebes of the morning came past.
However, the bird that would really have him kicking himself came by short on their heels, a single red-throated loon, flying eat towards Ohio.
As he needed this bird as a lifer, he was even more distraught on his return to find he had missed what may very well have been the only one we would see during the day. The next hour or so produced more of the same birds as before, we the addition of a small raft of white-winged scoters which came by. But we never did see another red-throated loon, a fact which I will never let Jack forget.
Our next stop was at one of the piers at the tip of the peninsula. Bonaparte’s gulls were foraging en masse just off the pier and we were able to locate a common tern within them, a welcome late individual.
At another pier, we came across a cooperative pair of fox sparrows as well a flock of unidentified finches which flushed from a grove of trees.
We slowly proceeded back down the peninsula, scanning every gull flock we came across, hoping for a little. No little could be found, but we relocated one of the Franklin’s gulls from earlier.
We then decided to hike along the long trail to Gull Point, a spit of land at the tip of the peninsula. Despite the infamy the trail to the point has gathered for being often flooded and almost impassible and the fact that I had forgotten my boots at my house that morning, we bravely set out, hoping for the best.
The best was not what we got however as large stretches of the trail had degraded into what could only be described as a swamp. After crossing a number of such patches, we approached a particularly bad stretch and decided to spare out shoes by instead backtracking a little bit and heading to the beach, deciding that scrambling over fallen trees, dodging the freezing waves of Lake Erie, and jumping over large chunks of driftwood was preferable to wading through massive puddles. Eventually we did reach the point however and were rewarded with a flock of hooded mergansers which lifted off from a small pond. After the long and mostly birdless hike, the birding gods seemed to be rewarding us as we found a black-bellied plover foraging along the shore as well as a sanderling (another long overdue state bird for me).
As we walked towards the observation tower which is the only landmarked on the otherwise barren and treeless point, three snow buntings flushed, a first of year for me, and gained altitude, borne aloft by the wind to another spot of the point. We climbed the tower and scanned around, eventually picking up the snow buntings again where they had landed.
After a while they took flight again, and we were delighted as they drifted towards us, playing the winds to almost hover over the tower and us for almost ten seconds or so before deciding we weren’t interesting and letting the wind win, blowing them out towards the sand along the lakeshore.
A long tundra swan slowly meandered through the sky above the lake as we headed back along the trail towards the parking lot, another great highlight.
This time through, we decided to stick to the trail which unfortunately resulted in me wading through a pool of water that came up to my calves. However, a few yellow-rumped warblers made up for it slightly.
By the time we got back to the car, we were more or less out of time and unfortunately had to make our way back to Pittsburgh. However, it had been a great trip with a number of great birds, and I was glad to have been able to cash in on the great Franklin’s mania.