The search was on for a bird along Lake Michigan’s shoreline at Holland State Park and Lake Macatawa. A birder spotted it and posted the rare sighting on the ebird website. It drew bird watchers from great distances to see a bird in Michigan that normally is found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The Black-legged Kittiwake is a small gull that breeds in the far north where it nests on cliffs. It migrates south over the oceans where it commonly stays far out to sea and out of sight of shores. It flies over the oceans in search of small fish and squid near the surface and sleeps floating on the water.
Sometimes a young bird will venture over land and ends up at the Great Lakes. This winter, one has been present at Lake Michigan where it was found among hundreds if not thousands of gulls. This juvenile bird, when found among the gulls, can be distinguished by having black feathers along the leading edge of the wing.
When in flight, the dark feathers appear as a dark inverted V along the front wing edge. The bird’s wing bends in the middle causing the black band to make the V shape. If the wing were held straight the black band would be straight. When standing on ice, the gull’s dark line is straight on the folded wing from shoulder to wing tip. The young kittiwake has dark feathers on the back of the neck and a dark ear patch behind the eye.
It is a distinctive pattern but finding the bird among massive numbers of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls in not an easy task. Three of us armed with spotting scopes were scanning through untold numbers of gulls at Lake Macatawa where this rare visitor to the Great Lakes was last seen. Other birders were present with scopes and binoculars hoping to see this individual without taking a boat trip into the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.
While searching through the gulls, we were fortunate to find both the Greater and Lesser Black-backed Gulls that are uncommon birds here. A Bald Eagle flew through the area. Long-tailed Ducks and others were present.
Apparently, the kittiwake is finding adequate food to survive but the winter is not over. Will there be enough small fish near the water’s surface to meet its needs? At least near shore it can dive to find some mollusks or aquatic worms. The Great Lakes are probably not ideal habitat for its nature niche. No small squids or other oceanic species from its normal menu will be found.
Perhaps the species rarely comes to the Great Lakes because of the long over land flight or maybe those coming do not survive to return to breeding grounds and their genes are removed from the gene pool.
We saw the Kittiwake flying back and forth with gulls on a cold windy day when the temperature was in the single digits. We were warmly bundled but our feet were chilled. We discussed why the birds were flying back and forth in what appeared to be a waste of energy. They were not feeding or even flying near the open water surface where they could find food. Burning energy for no useful purpose could be deadly.
When I got home I posed the question to Karen and she offered a reasonable answer that had not crossed my mind. She suggested the birds might have been chilled in the very low temperatures while standing still on the ice. Flying takes energy like any physical activity and warms the body.
Flight will consume stored energy that might be needed later but for now the bird will not get hypothermia and die. Staying alive until tomorrow is a priority. Hopefully finding food will replenish consumed fat tissue. Gulls will visit garbage dumps or restaurants parking lots where people drop food. Kittiwakes do not. If they do not find enough food in the lake, they perish.
It is fun to see an unusual bird visiting Michigan, but it is dangerous for it to be away from habitat for its adaptations.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at firstname.lastname@example.org – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.