Mark Bennett: Surprise influx of gulls bring sights, sounds of beach to a lake in the city Ring-billed species at Hulman Lake turns onlookers' heads
Winter drives people indoors. Cold air, chilly rain, sideways sleet, blowing snow sends us running for shelter and stoking fireplaces.
Still, sublime sights happen outdoors in December, January and February. Just take a look, and maybe a coat.
Kevin Nichols took a drive along Hulman Lake on Terre Haute’s east side last week and noticed a sky full of white birds circling above the reservoir. Occasionally, one of the hundreds of birds would dive into the water, snatch some type of food and gobble it down. “That was one of the things that caught our eye,” said Nichols, who was riding with his wife.
They weren’t alone. Neighbors of the lake along East Hulman Drive spotted the flock that began assembling around Thanksgiving. Other passersby — like Nichols, whose lived and worked in that area for years — saw them, too.
Then on Saturday, members of the Wabash Valley Audubon Society studied the flock as the group conducted their 60th annual Christmas Bird Count around Terre Haute. Those birders confirmed the birds’ identity as ring-billed gulls, named for the black ring around the tip of their beaks.
Ring-billed gulls aren’t uncommon in Indiana, but they prefer to winter around larger bodies of water in rural areas like Bloomington’s Lake Monroe or Turtle Creek Reservoir in Merom. They also like to scavenge for food at, yes, the towering landfill mountain in southern Vigo County. Yet, their congregation at Hulman Lake on the city’s east side is rare.
“Within Terre Haute, big flocks are uncommon,” said Peter Scott, the retired Indiana State University ecology professor who directs the Christmas Bird Count.
“I check Hulman Lake regularly in the winter for ducks and geese, and this is the first time I’ve seen significant numbers of gulls on a regular basis, which is what the [nearby] Watertree [subdivision] residents and drive-by observers say also,” Scott added. “So, there must be an unusual abundance of some favored prey item.”
Small fish most likely, Scott said. He estimated the size of the gull flock has been between 400 and 1,000 birds.
Visually, the gulls are captivating. I trekked to Hulman Lake on Monday afternoon and watched them swirl above the water through snow flurres until each ring-billed gull peeled off from the airborne klatch to nosedive for a snack. Humans looking skyward will see white on the birds’ undersides. Once the gulls land, they display light gray feathers on their backs and upper wings, Scott said, with a fleck of black on their wings’ tips.
Their sound, though, could be their most enthralling feature, at least for Hoosiers who daydream about tropical weather.
“If you do get out [to Hulman Lake], just close your eyes and listen, and you’re at the beach,” said Carissa Lovett, the naturalist at nearby Dobbs Park.
Ah, the beach ...
And then your eyes open, and it’s 30 degrees and you’re standing in good, old Hoosier slush. A flock of sea gulls — the winged animals, not the ‘80s band with the bizarrely twisted hair — spices up the vista of a lake on the city’s outskirts.
“It really was beautiful,” Lovett said of the sight.
Lovett, Scott and 25 fellow birders conducted Saturday’s Christmas Bird Count, an event conducted by Audubon Society chapters worldwide for the past 120 years. The Terre Haute chapter joined in 1960 and hasn’t missed one since. On Saturday, local birders — ranging from a 15-year-old to college students to retirees — spotted 81 species of birds in a 7 1/2-mile radius around Vigo County’s Courthouse. That total species count matched the annual average of the past decade, Scott said. There were quirks, though.
“It seems like every year there’s something different,” Lovett said.
Terre Haute’s infamous crow roost appears to be dwindling, though that’s always subject to fluctuations. Birders estimated the crows numbered around 15,000. “That’s well below the 40,000 to 50,000 to 60,000 we were getting years ago,” Scott said.
Likewise, the influx of ring-billed gulls at Hulman Lake came as a pleasant surprise. The Cornell University Lab of Ornithology describes ring-billed gulls as sociable creatures who feed together at coastal beaches, but often head inland during winter to forage at golf courses, farm fields and garbage dumps. This group of gulls will stay till the lake ices over and then move on, Scott predicted.
Lovett first noticed the birds three weeks ago around the lake, which the city created in the 1970s as part of the Thompson Ditch flood control plan. “When I first drove down there, I was just, like, ‘Whoa,’ what are all these white birds?’” she recalled.
She’s participated in the holiday bird counts for more than a decade and wonders if extraordinary appearances of certain species of migratory birds have become more common in Vigo County, thanks to the establishment of wetlands preserves such as Wabashiki and Goose Pond fish and wildlife areas. Stopovers at places such at Hulman Lake are “kind of like little rest stops,” she said.
In doing so, the scene the gulls create frequently gets captured in paintings that hang on living-room or dentist-office walls. This year, folks who drive past Hulman Lake get to see it in person.