I recommend eBird. It’s great for keeping your records, including notes &
photos. It’s great for researching where birds have been found and when. And
eBird is helpful for finding birds. You can pull up a bar chart for all the
eBird records in a county. For Tompkins County it shows that the best period to
find Bonaparte’s Gulls is from the last week of March through the first week of
If you want to keep on top of what is being observed, or you really crave
encountering the species which other birders have found, you can sign up for
email reports for any county, sent daily or even hourly, of any species which
you have not yet reported yourself this year.
My first Bonaparte’s Gulls this year were on 27 March from Allan H Treman State
Marine Park when I scoped 5 temporarily resting on the Red Lighthouse
Breakwater, which was almost completely flooded as Cayuga Lake’s level is being
raised for the summer (someone else also reported those 5), and at the same
time I scoped 7 more far to the NNE resting together on the lake. By using
eBird’s Explore options you can zoom in on a map, find my report and even read
my notes. Since I submitted that observation I stopped receiving notices of
Bonaparte’s Gull sightings in Tompkins County, because I no longer “need” them
for the year, but I continued reporting my own sightings to add to the database
and help other folks.
What eBird does not tell you is how best to make your behavior cross paths with
Bonaparte’s Gulls’ behavior. During this time we see them as active migrants
along Cayuga Lake. As a simple generalization, if they have a south wind they
will fly north over the lake in the early morning. You best be staring out over
the lake then. If they encounter a north wind, they will stop, rest, and feed.
It’s still a crap-shoot, but there are more options. They will rest on the
water, but being small, are harder to see than other gulls.
On March 30th in the late afternoon I was about to walk to my favorite local
birding area, Allan Treman, but I checked my email first. An acquaintance had
just sent a photograph taken sometime earlier that day at Stewart Park seeking
help with the ID. It was a beautiful view of 23 Bonaparte’s Gulls flying low
over the shoreline, where they dip down to pluck tiny edible items from the
organic matter on the water. Gull ID is intimidating to many folks, so before I
headed out I composed what I hoped was a helpful and reassuring reply,
including the explanation that these new and surprising birds were paused in
migration because the wind was against them.
At Treman I walked the shore clockwise to keep the low sun behind me as I
scoped the lake. When I got to where I could see the water close to Stewart
Park I saw a couple Bonaparte’s Gulls flying, some resting on the water, and
some standing or walking along the shore’s wrack of leaf-and-stick smithereens.
The sun was going down, so I hustled to the best spot to view the entire scene
from northeast of the marina. Scoping past the Cayuga Inlet mouth and the White
Lighthouse Jetty, I could see most of the Stewart Park shoreline and offshore
waters. And there were a lot of Bonaparte’s Gulls, not moving much, and still
in excellent light, even though I was in already West Hill’s shadow. In a
single scope sweep I counted 101. When I put this number into my ongoing eBird
report for this walk around the park, eBird replied the equivalent of, “Really?
Are you sure? That’s a lot. Tell us about it.” So I double-checked, again with
a single scope sweep, more slowly, and found 103. A third time I counted,
making sure no one was hiding behind vegetation or other birds, and I got a
most-confident 104, which is the number I kept. All were the same size & shape
with the right field marks, which I described in my eBird notes. I tried to
digiscope some photos to show their shape and some of their number, but they
wouldn’t fit in a single scope view, and my phone had trouble resolving them,
and the sun set on the scene, so the photos were crap. I since added them to
the report anyway.
If eBird had said the species was rare, I would have sent a text rare bird
alert, as I did when I saw a Ross’s Goose arrive there at sundown, prompting
Jay and a few other folks to drive there immediately. But this species is
common and expected during this 6-week window, and I knew Jay had seen it on
the New Year’s Day count. But I was confident that my eBird report would be a
flag for the gung-ho listers who would be up and out at daybreak.
Yet I did not write to CayugaBirds-L about the wonderful phenomenon which I had
seen in the photo. I was even deliberate in deciding not to. Mea culpa. I throw
myself upon the mercy of the court. Why would I do such a thing? Because I knew
that south winds were forecast for the next day, and the Bonaparte’s Gulls
would quickly leave. Indeed Jay, who is always up early to look for such
things, found less than