Most birders have a nemesis group of difficult birds, or two, or three. Flycatchers, sparrows, and winter warblers all come to mind. But I suspect the gulls are the leaders of the flock of baffling bird identifications. I’m even hesitant to label some of my pictures in this post and may end up with egg on my face. It’s not just their similar plumages; it’s hard to admire birds that frequent the dump, crave McDonalds french fries, and steal your hot dog right out of your hand at a Super Bowl tailgate party.
They’re all black, white, and shades of gray. The only color breaking the monotony is the occasional red spot on the bills of some, the pink you see inside their mouths when open (which is often), the shades of yellow, pink, or green on their legs, and the drab brown feathers of the immatures. And these young birds take their own sweet time maturing, some requiring up to four years to don the adult monotones. Add to this the different breeding and non-breeding plumages and you have an identification nightmare. Give me a Cardinal or Blue Jay, thank you very much.
But then I ran across Pete Dunne’s and Kevin Karlson’s new book and decided to give them and the gulls another shot. My first impression was positive; this book is short, only 200 pages. I don’t need another encyclopedic guide to all the variations in first-summer or second-winter plumages, or the subtle field marks of some hybrid gull. Their goal in writing this shorter guide seemed to be KISS (keep it simple stupid), one of my favorite life axioms.
The introduction grabbed my attention. The authors don’t claim to be gull specialists, but rather birding generalists who seek to apply the popular GISS technique (general impression, size, and shape) to the confusing gulls. This strategy features the grosser physical characteristics and behavior over specific field marks, and has been successfully used with raptors and in the popular Crossley guide books. Luckily the gulls are frequently in mixed flocks that allow a direct comparison between the species.
Right off the bat the authors dispel my impression of the gulls being the junkyard dogs of the avian world. They extoll the virtues of the 22 species of regularly occurring gulls in North America as “intelligent, inquisitive, socially complex, and acrobatic aerialists,” well worth our scrutiny. No other birds are so adept “at foraging on land, air, and sea”. Seagulls however, with the exception of the Sabine Gull and kittiwakes, are not real sea birds or pelagics. They are littoral, preferring the margins of rivers, lakes, and the seashore, rather than the open ocean.
The layout of this book is simple and effective. The initial pages are profile shots and silhouettes of the 22 gulls and the introduction and first chapter explain the authors’ GISS approach to the gulls. They caution us to relax and accept that we will not get a definite ID for every bird. Learning the common ones in your area first will make the ID of the less common easier, later on. And forget about all the plumage designations of 2nd and 3rd winter, etc. Dunne and Karlson greatly simplify this to just three: immature, sub-adult, and adult, the latter with breeding and non-breeding varieties unfortunately. I like this “Readers Digest” approach.
Each subsequent chapter is devoted to one gull with many good comparison pictures of the bird in mixed flocks of gulls and other shorebirds. There are 35 quizzes scattered throughout the book but don’t panic. The answers are all given in the back and no one will know if you peek.
There are many advantageous aspects of gull ID. The birds are abundant and worldwide, found on virtually every lake, river, and seashore, as well as on freshly plowed fields, landfills, and McDonald’s parking lots. They are large and generally allow you a close approach to observe their feeding, fighting, and other comical antics. Photography, however does offer some challenges due to their white and dark plumage. I’ll leave that discussion for a later post.
I don’t generally chase rarities, but unusual gulls do turn up, not infrequently. On two occasions I jumped into the car on short notice and was pleasantly surprised to find both birds, just as advertised. The first was a Glaucous Gull reported on an isolated creek off the Chesapeake, about 40 miles south of me on Hooper’s Island, Maryland. This pale, large gull (larger than a Herring Gull) is not a rarity, but still somewhat unusual and a lifer for me. I waited alone at a parking lot of a seafood packing plant for several hours and was just getting ready to leave when it flew in and splashed down within 30 feet. What a surprise and thrill.
The second chase was to Delaware Bay, about 60 miles to the east. A Sabine Gull was reported to be buzzing the Dupont Nature Center several Mays ago. This small, hooded, and fork tailed gull winters in the tropics off South America and Africa and was likely blown ashore as it migrated north over the Atlantic, bound for its breeding site in Greenland or the Canadian Arctic. As opposed to my solitary Glaucous Gull experience, the Sabine drew a large throng of birding paparazzi. This actually was fortunate as I needed help in locating the bird amidst the vast flock of its more common and less famous cousins.
Back to the book. I do recommend it and believe Dunne and Karlson were successful in presenting this new approach to gull ID. I note, however, that even they reverted to the more traditional plumage designations in some of their captions. It will be hard to completely abandon that nomenclature, especially for the hard core gullers. Also the GISS identification process is not really that simple. It takes experience, years of experience, and many hours of observation to get good at it. But I’m gullible and willing to give it a shot. Wish me luck.