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The California Gull

posted by Utah Birders Guest Blogger at
on Wednesday, July 24, 2013 

Guest Post Written by Ernie Allison

California Gull photo by Tim Avery

Known as the state bird of Utah, the California Gull can be spotted anywhere from the coast of California to Colorado. This seemingly run-of-the-mill gull came to prominent status when it came to the aid of Mormon settlers in Utah in 1848. There was an “enormous plague” of grasshoppers destroying the settlers’ crops and with no method of getting rid of them, the settlers faced possible starvation. The story, the “Miracle of the Gulls” tells of a massive horde of gulls appearing on June 9, 1848 and proceeding to devour mass quantities of crickets. Most ornithologists did not see this as all that unusual because the gulls around Salt Lake were known to feast on insects in the adjacent valleys. But the pioneers were so grateful of the gulls assistance that the story was recounted by notable Church leaders such as Orson Pratt and George A. Smith to the masses that came to settle in the future. The traditional story passed down by those in Utah is that the gulls came and devoured all of the insects and ensured the survival of over 4,000 settlers. A Gull Monument was built to commemorate the events of 1848 and thus the California Gull became known as the state bird of Utah.

Description (Adult)

  • Medium-Large size gull
  • Yellow Bill with red spot on the lower mandible and black ring near the tip.
  • White head and underbelly
  • Back is darker gray
  • Wing tips are black with white spots
  • Length: 18-22 inches
  • Wingspan: 48-54 inches
  • Lifespan: upto 24 years
  • Weight: 1-2.3 lbs

A well-travelled bird that typically makes its way to the Pacific coast for the winter, the California Gull is actually only found regularly in western California during this time. Outside of winter they can be spotted as far inland as Minnesota and as far north as Manitoba, Canada.    In Utah they may be found year round.

Mass of California Gulls in Utah photo by Tim Avery

The ideal breeding habitat for these birds is marshes and lakes throughout western United States and southwestern Canada. They nest in colonies and are known to share them with other birds. The nest is generally a shallow in the ground lined with feathers and local vegetation. They usually lay 2 or 3 eggs at a time but can range up to 4. Both the male and the female share responsibility in incubating the eggs as they take turns at 3-4 hour intervals throughout the day. They signal when it is time to rotate nesting duties through “Long Calls” as the non-nesting mate returns. Sometimes the incubator does not get off the nest so quickly when presented with nesting material as a sign that it is time to rotate and has to be physically nudged off.

Copulation feeding photo by Tim Avery

Diet and Feeding
Known to hunt in a variety of places such as lakes, farm fields, pastures, sagebrush, garbage dumps, parking lots, ocean beaches, and open ocean. These gulls are opportunistic scavengers that will eat anything they can catch. Their diet mostly consists of fish, garbage, insects, fruit, grain, and sometimes small mammals. They typically dip for fish in bodies of water and follow plows for insects. Both parents share responsibility in feeding the young ones.

Flock of California Gulls photo by Tim Avery

Estimated anywhere from 600,000-1,000,000 individual birds. Population in the U.S. is estimated to have doubled since the 1930s. They are marked in the lowest category of “Least Concern” on the Conservation Status scale.

Written by Ernie Allison

Ernie Allison is passionate bird watcher who loves to travelling and writing. He enjoys photographing our friends of the sky whether at his bird feeder in the backyard or in their natural habitat.

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When Goshawks Attack - A trip to the Uintas

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Friday, July 19, 2013 

This past Sunday I decided to wake up early and head to the Uinta Mountains. My goal was to hike up the Bald Mountain trail from the East Fork of Blacks Fork trailhead and look for White-tailed Ptarmigan and whatever other adventures came my way. Little did I know that my day would become one of the most memorable encounters with wildlife I've ever had. 

When I started on I-80, east of Park City, the roadway was shrouded in a dense fog. It was impressive and perhaps a harbinger of greatness to come. Through Wyoming and back south into Utah I drove, past Meeks Cabin Reservoir and towards the trailhead. I decided that I should explore some other roads/trails and picked one at random prior to the trailhead. I got out of the car and found a trail of sorts meandering through the woods. I hiked a bit and came upon a Northern Goshawk perched in a tree. I have never seen an adult Gos perched like this before and I was loving life, snapping pictures and enjoying the moment. After satisfying myself with photos, I kept hiking down the trail. After a few steps, the Gos took off and flew to a tree that looked down on me and began calling. I wasn't concerned as there was a good distance between us. I then heard a second Gos and this one was from lower and in front of me. I figured out that based on size, this was likely the female. She had prey in her talons and was also making calls. I took a few more pics & video and then continued my hike. As I walked, the male seemed to follow me, albeit from the tops of the trees and once I was far enough away the pursuit and calling trailed off. I wasn't alarmed as neither bird showed much aggression towards me other than perhaps some over zealous calling. After a bit more hiking I decided it was time to get back to my car and move on down the road to the trail I really came for. I knew I would hike back past the Goshawks and with camera at the ready, made my may back towards them. 

As I approached, the calling began again. Only a few minutes had past since my last encounter and this time, they were ready. Perhaps they realized their previous efforts weren't adequate to drive me away for long and the male flew low and close and menacing, calling all the while. I was bit taken aback as he stared at me, from eye level maybe 15 yards out. I kept hiking. He kept staring and calling. All of a sudden he took off, headed right towards me. I couldn't believe it. Here was this amazing Hawk, wings spread, talons out, headed right at my head. I turned my back and took a few steps and ducked as he whooshed right over me. "HOLY $%^&", I said. He banked and perched close by and continued his stare and scream. I began moving at a quicker pace this time. I heard the female also calling from not too far away. I kept hiking. They kept yelling. I had one eye on the male worried that he'd be lunging at my face again. Sure enough, all of sudden he took off and banked at a spot that gave him a perfect runway down the trail right at me. He came with speed, I ran with speed, I ducked with haste and "whooooooosh". Another narrow miss. It is an odd feeling when you go from awe to fear. And the response is no longer to capture the moment. The response is to get the hell out of there. And that's what I did. In a full sprint. Being pursued all the while by an angry Goshawk. The memories and the story are great and amusing now, but I confess that in the moment, I truly felt the bird's intent to injure me and absolutely believed in its ability to do so. I made it out unscathed and with some great pictures. However, next time I hear the cry of a Goshawk, I will be a bit wiser and more prepared and know that there is no bluff in their calls. I've shared some photos and video below of the Goshawks and some other sights I found around the area. I never did make it to the Ptarmigan as afternoon storms sent me home early, but I'll be heading back soon to try again. 

Edited Video of the Goshawks

The "sentinel"

Female with prey

Female with prey

Nothing scary about a Brown Creeper

A Raven takes exception to a Golden Eagle

American Pipit

The Bald Mountain Trail

Pine Grosbeak

Butterfly Party

Clark's Nutcracker

Rufous Hummingbird

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Vero Beach

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Tuesday, July 16, 2013 

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Vero Beach, Florida with my family. Vero Beach is on the Atlantic side of the state and like most parts of Florida, fantastic for connecting with nature. The birding is incredible, even in the less active and very hot month of June. The toughest decisions I had to make while I was there was where to go explore. I woke up most mornings early enough to watch the sun rise over the ocean and saw the tracks of sea turtles that had crawled in the sand the night before. I made sure I did some inland birding as well. The best spot I found was probably the marshes of the Indian River County Wastewater Treatment Facility but honestly there was stuff to see everywhere I looked. Overall, it was just an awesome experience with a handful of life birds including: Crested Caracara, Gray Kingbird, Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, and King Rail (heard only).  I thought I'd share some of my favorite pictures from my trip but if anyone wants more details about any locations or advice on where to go if you're heading to the area, let me know.

Ghost Crabs were quick to appear and quicker to disappear on the beaches

White Ibis were very common, but I never got sick of seeing them

Obligatory Brown Pelican over the ocean shot

A Willet was a relatively familiar face 

Green Sea Turtle eggs that an awesome Biologist dug up to show me

Pelican Island is the first NWR in the country and they had a boardwalk that lists all of them

A very GREAT Blue Heron (they seemed bigger in Florida)

Roseate Spoonbills are relatively common in this area but they were a lifer for me

Northern Cardinals were in full song quite often and very common

The Supermoon!


Black Vultures were all over the place as well

Common Gallinule chicks

Alligators are common in the right places

Airboat Ride through the gator swamp - highly recommended

Red-shouldered Hawk

Little Blue Heron

Tri-colored Heron

Anhingas are one of my favorite Florida birds

A female Wood Duck gave me a stare down

Green Heron

Crested Caracara was a lifer - finally!

Swallow-tailed Kites are always exciting to find

Sea Turtle tracks were fun to discover in the mornings

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

There were a good variety of Butterflies around

And to end, another sunrise

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Running With Gulls (Movie Trailer)

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Friday, July 12, 2013 

Many of you know Carl Ingwell as a founder of the Utah Birders and a leader in the battle for clean air. However, did you know he is an aspiring actor as well? Let this trailer speak for itself. Enjoy!

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Exploring Utah

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 

Just as I was getting a case of post-spring migration blues last month, I started to feel better remembering that the mountains were starting to open up and I had whole new areas of Utah to explore again.  With only one summer in Utah under my belt, I still have many parts of the state to explore and many mountains to climb.  Last summer I focused mainly on the Salt Lake City area with a lot of hiking in the Wasatch Front area and only found time to make it up the the Uintas once and late in the year at that.  This summer I am hoping to make it up to the Uintas more often, visit new parts of Utah and to hike some new peaks.

Last month, with a rare free weekend and my girlfriend busy working, I had some time for a weekend full of birding.  That Saturday I met Jeff Bilsky up at Silver Lake in Brighton and we hiked a loop from Silver Lake to Twin Lakes Reservoir to Solitude Lake and back to Silver Lake.  Despite the crowds, this spot is one of my favorite places to bird in Utah since it is full of birds and other wildlife.  My first trip of the year up there once again did not disappoint.  Stepping out of the car we could hear Broad-tailed Hummingbirds whizzing by.  Just after the bridge over the creek we were greeted by a MacGillivray's Warbler which was unusually cooperative and gave us some great views.

A surprising viewable MacGillivray's Warbler

The typical montane species put in their appearances.  A pair of Cassin's Finches looking like they were copulating with the female being dominant over the male.  An Olive-sided Flycatcher did what they do best and was seen perched on a dead snag.  Pine Siskins were seen gathering nesting material.  A very photogenic Western Tanager gave close views as it ate a wasp in front of us then continued foraging.  Yellow-rumped Warblers also put in close views, apparently with their attentions more on food and females. Chipping Sparrows were in abundance as well lending their trills to the sounds of the forest.  Another normally skulky bird, a Lincoln's Sparrow gave us killer looks from close.  Near Silver Lake itself we thought we had a new birder when Jeff told him we had a Creeper and he came up to us for better views.  He grew confused when Jeff kept pointing to the base of a nearby tree.  Finally he said that be thought we said "Beaver" and walked away when he found out he was searching for a small brown bird with a curved bill.

Cassin's Finches showing off some yoga poses

 This female was the dominant bird that day

 An Olive-sided Flycatcher wouldn't be complete without a dead snag

This Pine Siskin was working on its nest

Western Tanager Wasp Lunch

 This Western Tanager gave us extended good looks

 A Western Tanager forages while calling

Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warblers are starting to win me over

 Not a beaver but a creeper.

 An unusual view of a Lincoln's Sparrow

Chipping Sparrows were all over

After our hike was over and Jeff had left, I had a funny moment at a hummingbird feeder near the Brighton resort.  As I was walking over to the feeders, a Hairy Woodpecker flew in to the area and then made its way onto the hummingbird feeder much to the distress of the Broad-tailed Hummingbirds and the woodpecker itself.  For the next five minutes, the hummingbirds kept trying to feed and to drive off the woodpecker but the woodpecker would also do his best to keep the feeder his and keep the hummingbirds at bay.  Eventually he got fed up with the constant buzzing around here and took off, much to the delight of the hummingbirds who wanted to feed.

Hairy vs Broad-tailed

The Hairy keeps the hummer at bay

Finally with the Hairy gone, the Broad-taileds were able to feed

The next day I my plan was to make a solo trip to three places in Utah that I have never visited before:  Bear River Meadows, Monte Cristo Campground and North Arm Natural Area at Pineview Reservoir.  This route would make a nice loop around northern Utah and promised many interesting birds.  Bear River Meadows near Randolph was my first destination for the day.  It turns out that I have driven by this great birding location many times driving to and from the Tetons, but I never realized it was here.  In the future, I will make sure to stop by whenever I am heading up there.  My target birds were Black Tern, American Bittern and Eastern Kingbird.  While I missed out on the bittern, I did see many Black Terns and Eastern Kingbirds.  The habitat here was one that I haven't seen too much with both wet and flooded fields to go along with some more typical marsh habitat.

The birding started out great as soon as I turned onto Crawford Mountain Rd as I noticed a Red-tailed Hawk nest near the intersection and at least one fuzzy chick visible as well.

A good start to the day

Bear River Meadows

Driving down Crawford Mountain Road I noticed all the duck species present that I hadn't seen in a month or two.  Species that I saw included Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Canvasback and Redhead.  All but the Gadwall and Pintail were seen in pairs.

These were the first wigeon I had seen in a few months

This photo helps show the differences between Canvasback (front right) and Redhead

This male pintail was starting to molt into eclipse plumage

Other birds I had only seen as migrants in the spring were also here.  I had a large flock of White-faced Ibis, but given the recent report of a Glossy Ibis, I should have scoped the flock more thoroughly.  There were also a decent number of Franklin's Gulls giving their whiny calls.  Two Sandhill Cranes gave a flyby.  A Willow Flycatcher called away in some shrubs but I could never get a view of it. More typical marsh birds were present as well.  A Marsh Wren was doing anything but be typical singing out in the open at the top of a dead tree.  Common Yellowthroats were among the more musical of birds I heard that morning.  Yellow-headed Blackbirds also lended their color to the landscape.

This Marsh Wren was all about breaking stereotypes

A photogenic 1st year male Yellow-headed Blackbird

Shorebirds were well represented for June and I had 6 different species: Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Spotted Sandpiper, Willet and Wilson's Phalarope.  I was particularly excited to see the Willets and the phalaropes since I haven't had too much experience with these species in their breeding grounds (well I assume they breed around here).  One of the phalaropes gave me the best views in my life so far as it preened and did its silly spinning feeding move which makes it look like something is wrong with it about 15 yards away from me. 

This Wilson's Phalarope gave me great views

The phalarope in the middle of its unique surface tension feeding technique

A video of the phalarope showing off its unique feeding techniques

I was hoping to just get to see one Black Tern and Eastern Kingbird, but I ended up seeing several individuals of both species.  Right before I got to a bridge over the Bear River I saw my first or three pairs of Eastern Kingbirds.  They put on their typical show that I would see at my family's house with them being very vocal and flying all over the place.  I only saw one Eastern Kingbird last year in Utah and I am glad that I am seeing many more of them this year.

Eastern Kingbirds have always been one of my favorite flycatchers

A typical vocal Eastern Kingbird

Once I got to the bridge I saw my main target bird, Black Terns, my 319th Utah species!.  They were flying up and down the river hunting often in pairs,  It was fun seeing this oddball of a tern since it is the opposite color of most of the terns one would see in the US.  After getting to watch the terns for a while I decided that I should get moving on since I still had two cool destinations to visit, but I definitely will be coming back to bird this area- I still need American Bittern!  Next stop, Monte Cristo Campground.

 My first Utah Black Tern

A hunting Black Tern

I hopped on Route 39 towards Monte Cristo, but just before I got there, I stopped at Curtis Creek Road.  Despite all of the ATV traffic and noise, I managed to first hear, then see my first Utah Purple Martins.  It is always a treat to see the largest swallow we have in the United States and it is interested to have to go up in the mountains to see them since they are found all over the place back east.  The martins got especially active and vocal when a Cooper's Hawk made the mistake to fly through their territory and they soon mobbed it away.

My first Utah Purple Martin

I was excited to try out the Monte Cristo Campground given all the reports I have read about it.and all the high elevation species that I could see there  Upon getting out of my car, I heard a singing Cordilleran Flycatcher and made my way to where it was singing.  I didn't have too much trouble finding it due to its vocal nature and got to observe it for about ten minutes as it flew back and forth flycatching and singing.

This Cordilleran Flycatcher was quite vocal

The campground loops themselves we not open yet which left me alone to explore them.  The area turned out to be quite birdy with most of the typical mountain birds being present including Hermit Thrushes, Yellow-rumped Warblers and 'Mountain' White-crowned Sparrows and 'Gray-headed' Juncos- the subspecies that we only see in the summer.  Two more species gave me great extended looks, Western Wood-Pewees and Cassin's Finches, the pewee being especially helpful to study for future identifications.

A gorgeous male Cassin's Finch

Our breeding subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco, the Gray-headed

Although Monte Cristo was productive, I did miss two of the more sought after species present- Williamson's Sapsucker and American Three-toed Woodpecker.  I may have looked in the wrong areas but I will have to come back again and try for these species since they are always great to find.  I had one more stop for the day and continued down Route 39 towards the North Arm Natural Area at Pineview Reservoir.

View south of Monte Cristo Campgrounds

I have birded in the Pineview Reservoir area before, but never in the North Arm Natural area.  This area tended to have a riparian and marshy feel to it and had many nice walking trails to thoroughly explore all the habitats.  I first started out heading down south to the marshy areas and soon found myself hearing the alarm calls of Ospreys in stereo with a nest both to my left and right.  Not wanting to disturb the birds, I headed back to the main trail.

Nesting Ospreys aren't a bird to disturb

I later had one of the Ospreys soaring overhead

The next part of my birding involved lots of sounds and some sights.  Two of the birds I wanted to see here the most were Gray Catbirds and Yellow-breasted Chat.  Both of these birds are very vocal, mimicking other bird's calls but both have a desire not to be seen.  This caused me great frustrations while trying to see them, but made it that much sweeter when I was able to eventually get some great albeit brief views of these two skulkers.  I am surprised how habitat limited Gray Catbirds are out west since they can be found in most habitats out east.

You have to take the views chats are going to give you

The same applies to catbirds

The North Arm was probably my most productive spot for the day with many different birds on land, in the water and in the air.  Warm temperatures had many birds soaring overhead included the nesting Ospreys, a Swainson's Hawk and a Turkey Vulture that was molting and let me apply what I have read about molt in the field.

Note the primary (p7) molting in on this Turkey Vulture

In Pineview Reservoir, there were many Western Grebes hanging out despite the presence of all the boats on the water while there were Caspian Terns hunting over the reservoir.  There were several swallow species taking advantage of the water- Barn, Violet-Green and one of the big surprises of the area, Bank Swallows attending to a colony.  It was fun watching these small swallows zoom all around their nesting holes.

A Bank Swallow at its nesting hole

I was hoping to see a Calliope Hummingbird here and thought I may have seen one at the southern part of the area but didn't have good enough looks to count it.  I did have many Broad-tailed Hummingbirds though both feeding at the abundant wildflowers when not aggressively defending them from other hummingbirds.

This Broad-tailed Hummingbird's throat was as bright as any wildflower

The birds here were not only numerous but many allowed close views that really gave me an opportunity to study them.  I felt lucky that some of the best looks I had were of some of the more colorful species of Utah.

A looker and a great singer, the Lazuli Bunting

While Yellow Warblers are common, views like this are not

The subtly beautiful Cedar Waxwing

What Fox Sparrows lack in color they make up for in song

With it getting pretty hot, I decided to call in a day and head home to Salt Lake City.  But what a day it was!  I started in wetlands, then went up to mountain forests at 9000 feet and ended in riparian habitat.  I finished with 88 species while only birding three different spots.  It just shows you all the unique birding habitats Utah has to offer.  Since I birded these areas, I have also gone to Zion National Park and Nebo Loop, two more awesome birds spots in Utah that I hadn't previously explored.  Look for future blog posts detailing my adventures there along with adventures yet to come.  I think I hear the Uintas calling my name...

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