Gull Watching at the Essex-Windsor Regional Landfill
Written by Jeremy Hatt for The Egret – Volume 35 Issue 1
The Essex-Windsor Regional Landfill is a great place to look at gulls in Essex County. In the colder months, many gulls migrating south stop over or overwinter in the Great Lakes region including Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River. The landfill provides an alternative food source for these overwintering gulls when food becomes scarcer. Although the actual landfill is not open to the public, the field immediately south of the landfill serves as a loafing place for gulls between meals and provides the best viewing opportunities for birders.
From my experience, the best time for finding gulls at the landfill is from November until the beginning of April. In the coldest periods of the year when both Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie are mostly frozen over, there are sometimes no gulls present at this location. This was the case in 2019. After the polar vortex, hit at the end of January, Lake St. Clair, and Lake Erie experienced almost 100% ice cover, gull numbers at the landfill fell to virtually zero for the rest of January and all of February. Gulls typically roost on open water at night so many gulls likely left the area in search of open water or the landfill was too far from the nearest open water to fly to each day.
The landfill provides a great opportunity to not only study large groups of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, but also to pick out uncommon or rare gulls. Gulls are typically present at the landfill from mid-morning to late afternoon (exact times vary based on the length of day).
It should be warned that this location has a tendency to be hit or miss. Gulls here are often flushed by raptors including Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, and Cooper’s Hawks that also feed around the landfill. There are also days that gulls just are not present, perhaps when waste is not exposed or as previously mentioned, in the coldest periods of the year when the lakes are frozen over.
The Essex-Windsor Regional Landfill is located on County Road 18 between Coulter Side Road and McCormick Road. County Road 18 is often busy and used heavily by semi-trucks. The shoulder of the road is wide enough for a vehicle to pull off but extra caution should be taken to be as safe as possible. The gulls often rest in the middle of the field so a scope is ideal for viewing. It is best to pull over as far as possible, turn on your hazard lights, and use a window mount for your scope. If you do get out of your vehicle, it is recommended you stand in front of it. It is not uncommon for the OPP to stop to ask why you are pulled over.
According to eBird, eight species of gulls have been recorded at the landfill. The following species accounts are based on eBird data as well as my personal experience from three years of occasional visits to the Landfill. Therefore, much of the information should be considered anecdotal until more data is entered into eBird and new patterns emerge. Species accounts pertain to the periods of November-April.
Bonaparte’s Gulls – Bonaparte’s Gulls move south from Essex County during the coldest periods of the winter when Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, and parts of the Detroit River freeze over. At the landfill, they are usually present in low numbers in November and sometimes into December and return in March. The high count for Bonaparte’s Gulls is 31 birds on April 15, 2018 (Pat Schiller).
Ring-billed Gull – Ring-billed Gulls can be present throughout the period from November to April. Most of them are adults with lower numbers of first and second winter birds mixed in. The high count for Ring-billed Gulls according to eBird is an estimated 1,500 on March 3, 2016 (Jeremy L. Hatt). In the colder periods of the year, many Ring-billed Gulls move south out of Essex County and Herring Gulls subsequently outnumber Ring-billed Gulls at the landfill.
Herring Gulls – Herring Gulls can be present throughout the period from November to April and are usually the most abundant gull at the landfill, especially during the colder periods. Most of them are adults with lower numbers of first winter to third winter birds mixed in. The high count for Herring Gulls according to eBird is an estimated 1,500 on March 3, 2016 (Jeremy L. Hatt). It is not unusual to see over 1,000 Herring Gulls loafing in the field and feeding in the landfill. In April, pair bonding and copulation has been observed.
Iceland Gull – Iceland Gull has been reported at the landfill from December to April, though they typically are present in Essex County from about October until May. Both “Kumlien’s” and “Thayer’s” subspecies have been reported at the landfill with most records pertaining to “Kumlien’s”. The high count for Iceland Gulls is six birds on January 23, 2019 (Brandon Holden).
Lesser Black-backed Gull – Lesser Black-backed Gulls have been reported at the landfill from November to April and are present in Essex County in low numbers almost year-round. Sightings mostly pertain to single birds though a high count of three was found on April 6, 2016 (Jeremy Hatt).
Slaty-backed Gull – An adult Slaty-backed Gull was found at the landfill on January 15, 2019 (Jeremy Hatt). It was last reported on January 18, 2019. This was the second record of this species for Essex County. The first record for the county was of a third basic bird that was seen at both Wheatley Harbour and Hillman Marsh from January 22 to January 26, 2006 (Dean Ware).
Glaucous Gull – Glaucous Gull has been reported at the landfill from January to March. All records pertain to single birds. Like Iceland Gull, this species is present in low numbers in Essex County from about October to May when they move south in the colder months.
Great Black-backed Gull – Great Black-backed Gulls have been reported at the landfill from November to March and there are usually at least a few present. The high count for Great Black-backed Gulls was 29 birds on January 15, 2019 (Jeremy Hatt).
Herring x Great Black-backed Gull (“Great Lakes Gull”) – This hybrid gets its nickname from its high frequency of occurrence in the Great Lakes region. There is only one record for the landfill; a single adult on December 29, 2015 (Jeremy Hatt, Kory Renaud).
Noteworthy sightings from November 2018 to February 2019:
Lesser Black-backed Gull – Records include a single bird on November 16 (Ian Woodfield), one adult bird on December 3 (Jeremy Hatt), one adult bird, perhaps the same individual as the one seen on December 3, from January 10-15 (Jeremy Hatt), one third winter bird on January 10 (Jeremy Hatt), and one second winter bird on January 11 (Dave Martin, Linda Wladarski).
Slaty-backed Gull – An adult Slaty-backed Gull was found at the landfill on January 15, 2019 (Jeremy Hatt). It was last reported on January 18, 2019
Iceland Gull – Records all pertain to the “Kumlien’s” subspecies and include one adult bird from January 15-16 (Jeremy Hatt), one third-winter bird on January 15 (Jeremy Bensette), and six birds of various ages on January 23 (Brandon Holden).
Glaucous Gull – The only report was of a single adult present from January 10-17 (Jeremy Hatt).
Great Black-backed Gull – High count for the period was 29 birds on January 15 (Jeremy Hatt).
Ring-billed Gull – High count for the period was an estimated 700 birds on November 7 (Jeremy Hatt).
Herring Gull – High count for the period was an estimated 1,300 Herring Gulls on January 17 (Mark Field, Jeremy Hatt). A leucistic adult was found on January 23 (Jeremy Hatt).