Monday Morning Birding Basics – No. 8: Getting Gulls
They soar and glide with the grace of our most elegant birds. They are content exploring the high seas for fish or picking through Dumpsters for leftovers. They are approachable and audacious. They even offer us an enduring intellectual challenge.
But please do not call them “seagulls.” It is a dismissive term for a gull, even those spending much of their lives at sea. Gulls are living proof that nature is far more diverse than we know. Earth is home to about 50 gull species. They live on every continent in a medley of habitats. Among the few animals surviving closest to the North Pole is the exquisite Ivory Gull. The Kelp Gull is found on the Antarctic Peninsula. In between, the planet downright is “gullible.” We see a dozen or so species here in New England.
So why watch gulls? Better yet, how can you learn to identify them? Well, the thrushes and warblers are gone. If you want color and birdsong you must wait until spring (or go to the Tropics this winter). This is December, after all. Some of us need fresh reasons to get outside. Gulls teach us by example to enjoy winter. They are content to be in the moment, to sit there on the ice (where we can get good looks at them) or to slice the breezes with dignity. Watching them fly, I am in the upper echelons of jealousy.
Here is a better reason to watch gulls now: sometimes they come here from far away – real far away. Ivory Gulls (below) prefer the arctic but have graced the shores of New England. Slaty-backed Gulls live in Asia but at least one wayward bird has visited a sewage treatment plant in inland New Hampshire. And if anything can motivate a birdwatcher, it is a rare visitor, a vagrant with no business being here. Gulls oblige.
In the presence of a rare Black-tailed Gull in Charlotte, Vermont (it should have been in Asia at the time), I overheard birders ascribing to this gull superlatives normally reserved for the likes of the Resplendent Quetzal, regarded as one of the most beautiful birds on the planet. Like Einstein’s theory equating mass and energy (E=mc2), in the unified field of birdwatching, rarity and beauty are interchangeable and, when combined, exponentially synergistic in effect. An African White-backed Vulture would be drop-dead gorgeous in the White Mountains.
Even so, many birdwatchers don’t bother with gulls. One reason is that they pose some of the greatest identification challenges in all of birding. Many gull species take three or four years before reaching their final adult plumage, which is usually a sharp combination of white, gray and black. During each of their youthful years, many gulls show distinct stages of brown mottling, which can also vary seasonally from summer to winter. The result is that one of these four-year gulls can show eight different plumages. To the novice, it is like identifying snowflakes. But fear not. Here is a five-step approach for the beginning gull-watcher
- Age Before Beauty – Determine if you’ve got an adult or an immature gull. Adults are clean, showing no mottling other than brownish streaks on the head in winter. Their upper sides are either gray or black and their tails are clean white. Leg color (most often pink or yellow) helps with identification. So start with adults. Here is a quick guide to the adults of our three most common species:
- Herring Gull has a clean white body and tail with a uniform gray upper-side, black wingtips with white spots, an orange dot on a yellow bill and pink legs.
- Ring-billed Gull, as an adult, is a smaller version of the Herring Gull except that it has (fittingly) a black ring around its bill and yellow legs.
- Great Black-backed Gull, the largest gull in the world, is slate black above (not gray like most other gulls) and it is unusual in that its head is clean white in winter. Adult Herring and Ring-billed gulls have mottling on their heads in winter.
- Learn Basic Feather Morphology – You cannot find unusual gulls, which often appear as immatures, until you know immature plumages of the common gulls. And learning immature plumage requires some basic knowledge of feather arrangement. I’ve recently blogged on this topic. The vast majority of immature gulls you’ll find out there are “first-winter” birds – gulls that hatched out this past spring and are now heading into the first winter of their lives. They’re now basically about six or seven months old. So learn first-winter plumages first. Then worry about successive immature plumages. Here’s an example of some feather morphology with a first-winter Herring Gull. Consult the front of your field guide.
- Find Your First Odd Gull – Once you know the common species, the odd ones will begin to fly your way. But your best bet for finding them is to get to a winter hotspot. Here in Vermont, that means the Burlington Intervale or the Burlington Waterfront. The Massachusetts coast has attracted everything from Slaty-backed Gull to Ross’s Gull. The commercial Jodfrey State Fish Pier in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and other spots nearby are always worth a winter visit. (I’ve run winter gull workshops there.) Visit and pick out anything that’s not a Herring, Great Black-backed or Ring-billed gull. Iceland Gull and Glaucous Gull can be fairly easy to find at the Fish Pier in Gloucester, for example. Black-headed Gull has put in appearances in recent winters. Among lots of gulls you’ll begin to develop a sense for the unusual.
- Ask Other Birders for Help – It’s tough to learn this alone. So don’t be bashful. Although there are exceptions, most birdwatchers are willing to share their wisdom.
- Get a Gull Guide – In your spare time, begin to study those immature plumages in your field guide. Then, once you’re hooked, consider the Peterson’s Guide to Gulls of the Americas by Steve Howell and Jon Dunn.
- Extra Credit – Crack any field guide and identify the gull pictured at the top of this post. Hint: It’s in breeding plumage. Its winter plumage doesn’t look much this.
So give gulls their due. You need not be like Neil Young, whose nomenclature gaffe we shall forgive (poetic license) when he sang:
“Now I’m livin’ out here on the beach, but those seagulls are still out of reach.”