Saturday, November 28, 2009

What are these gulls???

When I went out shooting Plan B last week, three gulls caught my eye. The front gull I recognized, the gull to the left looked familiar but the gull to the right seemed odd. What are they?

©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

Now that I have a rainy day to put this post together, it is time to take a look at what we have here. So that all my research is not wasted and maybe I can encourage others to become brave and learn to identify gulls, I'll put my reputation on the line for the whole world to see.

When I was learning how to bird in my twenties, I had a birding buddy named Peter from Pasadena, CA. Two things I remember Peter saying, "Don't trust any air you can't see" (it's a Pasadena thing) and "I'm going to put off learning how to identify gulls in my dotage." Living and birding in California and Colorado, strange gulls were more of a pain in the ass and I wouldn't fool anything but breading adults.

Adult Herring Gull
©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

Adult Great Black-backed Gull
©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

Well, the years go by and as I approach my dotage, I find myself living on the ocean without the comfort of songbirds flocking to my feeders giving me reassurance that I am a master birder because I can distinguish a Pygmy Nuthatch from a Pine Siskin. No, nature doesn't take kindly to fools and now I find myself surrounded by thousands of gulls. This gives me the opportunity to grow in character.

Gulls are bothersome in the fact that there are two year and four year gulls, meaning that they mature in two years and four years receptively. Two of our four year gulls here on Cape Ann are the Herring Gull and the Great Black-backed gull. The Herring gulls are found throughout the northern hemisphere and the Great Black-backed gull is found on the East Coast and along the Northern Atlantic coast along and in Western Europe, in Iceland, Greenland, and Northern Africa. So I suspect that the intimidation of gull identification is a international problem.

So either I will help solve a common problem or create an international incident. Since I'm not afraid to create big effects, here I go.

First up is a recently fledged Herring gull. Note the brown plumage, the pink and black bill and pay attention to the face and patterns on the back. As the season progresses, the bill will turn all black as shown in the first picture above.

Fledged Herring Gull©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

This is one gull that wasn't found in any of my field guides. This is fledgling Great Black-backed gull that was shot in August. It has a lighter face pattern and an all black bill.

Fledgling Great Black-backed gull
©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

Next we have a second winter Great Black-backed gull. The face is much whiter and the back is more checkered than the Herring. The easy field mark is the white face. The back in this gull is turning black, but they can still be on the brown side.

Second Winter Great Black-backed Gull©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

Next is the second winter Herring Gull. We still have the brown finely checkered wings, but the bill is now pied pink and black. There is a hint of grey in the showing on the back.

Second winter Herring Gull
©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

As the Great Black-backed gull matures, he becomes grayer in his third year. Note that the bill is black and has a gray tip.

Third year Great Black-backed Gull©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

The third winter Herring Gull looks like this. The bill is turning yellow and still has a deal of black in it. The back becomes gray but he still has much of the brown secondary feathers. His head is streaked.

Third Winter Herring Gull
©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

As the Herring Gull matures, he develops the characteristic Herring Gull look. This is a non-breading adult.

Non-breading adult Herring Gull©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

And then you can get something in between. I suspect that this bird is coming into his adult plumage because I shot him in April. I throw this in not to put you in apathy, but to warn you, the field guides will not show you this stage and you must be prepared to do some thinking on your feet.

Herring Gull coming into adult plumage
©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

Finally, your field guides will talk about bill spots. (This is the same bird as the previous photo.)

Herring Gull
©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

Below are three mature Great Black-backed Gulls. Note that the bill patterns are all different. Your filed guides cannot possibly put in all the variations. Once again, just be prepared to think on your feet.

Great Black-backed Gulls
©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

Great Black-backed Gulls
©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

Great Black-backed Gulls
©2009 ShootingMyUniverse

With all that said, you are now armed with all the data you need to identify the three birds in the first photo. Easy-Peasy.

©2009 ShootingMyUniverseSo don’t be afraid to get out there and look at those gulls. Get to know the gulls in your area. And if something blows in from out of town like this Glaucous Gull. You will be able to quickly realize it isn’t one of the locals. You can shoot first and ask questions later.

And if you think one field guide is going to just hand you an answer, you are sadly mistaken. For this post, I used National Geographic’s Filed Guide to Birds of North America, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, and Peter Harrison’s Seabirds, an Identification Guide. Oh, and then I pulled out a 25 year old copy of Peterson's East Coast.

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P.S. I spent about five hours putting this post together, yes five freaking hours! After that I was going down through my blog roll and over on Kim's blog she pointed a blog dedicated to gulls which lead me to another one. Looking at them, I realized that they are a wonderful resource so I set up a new blog roll to the right, "Strictly for the Gulls".


Anonymous said...

I'm only confident with the adult birds - if it looks grumpy I put it down as herring gull, if it's very grumpy it's a black-backed gull. If it's shyer than the others it gets called a black headed gull. And all the other stages? = "Sea gulls".

Do you have any gulls only found in America? I always find it depressing that just when I'm getting a handle on the British birds, I discover a whole host of American and continental European birds that I don't have a clue about. But at least the gulls seem fairly ubiquitous..

Anonymous said...

Oh - I forgot to thank you for taking the time with all the photos in this post! I really do need practise at identification - so yes, I like the idea of shooting first and thinking later :)

Steve Borichevsky said...

HI Kitty, We have the California Gull and the Western Gull that seem to be North American gulls. I'm glad you follow this blog. Without my followers, this would not be any fun.

John Theberge said...

Great lessons and great samples to go along with them.

Jenny said...

Fantastic post Steve, thanks for taking the time to sort it all out. I love gulls, they're such charismatic birds. I'm still getting to grips with them, specially the non adult ones. At my local patch, I've just found an adult Mediterranean Gull for the first time. A lovely white winged gull (as an adult that is) (-: We occasionally get an American Herring Gull over here, which is an interesting ID problem! (-:

Steve Borichevsky said...

Hey John, Where the hell have you been? It's good to see you back!

Hi Jenny. We get the odd Black-headed gull here in winter which becomes a head scratcher. I was surprised to find that the GBB is widespread throughout Western Europe.

Martha in PA said...

Fabulous post with awesome photos! A job well done!!!


This Is My Blog - fishing guy said...

Steve: Wonderful captures of the gulls, I love the one with the boats in the background best.

onangelwings said...

That is a collection of fabulous shots. Such great color in those birds, especially around the eyes.

Snap said...

Steve, these shots are wonderful. What an education in gulls you gave us (short form)!!!! I do love shore birds and gulls. Pesky little guys, but I love watching them. Thanks for the blog roll!

Ladynred said...

Wow! 5 hours ha! Well you did a great job. The pictures are beautiful and very informative. I have no idea about what kind of gulls are there. I do have tons of gulls in my hard drive.

Barb said...

Hi Steve, I know nothing about gulls, but certainly enjoyed viewing your photos and learning more about them. Also, try saying "Great Black-backed Gull" three times fast! Does the "Herring Gull coming into adult plumage" only have one leg or is the other pulled up?

Anonymous said...

Whatever you say Steve, I believe you.
Gulls are a weird sub culture to me.?? I ask Jenny.
Thanks for the lesson anyway.

We love Luna said...

Congratulations, this post is really beautiful.You are very talent!
purrs and love and Happy Camera Critters

Chris said...

Hi Steve,
I cannot help you neither as this is my worse ID group!!! But you did a beautiful post on several adult and young phase of them! Beautiful!

Jeanne said...

I'm saving this post. Whenever we get down to Old Saybrook or out to Rockport/Gloucester I love to take pictures of the gulls. Now I'll know what kind they are.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for this post. Your great black-backed gulls have quite the eye ring.

I live near San Francisco and I just picked up the Nat'l Geographic Birds of Western North America mostly to help me identify the gulls. I'm still having trouble distinguishing between Western, Thayer, Herring, Western Glaucous, etc. The only one that I can 100% identify is the Heermann's Gull because he has a red beak and grey body. I'm having a lot of fun with the learning process, though. I'll have to check out your gull blogroll.

Arija said...

Waterbirds can be so confusing, as are other birds. A bit like people. Compare the pictures of a baby, toddler eight year old teen and an adult so ofen they could be five different people.
My eyesight is no longer reliable enought to either manually focur or identify anything at a distance, so it is always shoot first and ask questions later. You trawl through a dozen inconclusive bird books of note and months later stumble on a simple source that shows what you are looking for in great and unmistakable detail. It is just the luck of the draw.

A really useful and beautifully presented post...pity we don't have your gulls though.

chubskulit said...

Oh my, you made my eyes so full of your magnificent captures of the bird. I love the one where the bird looks like singing hehehe.

Magpie is my entry.

Wilma said...

Very much enjoyed this post, Steve. You made it entirely painless to ID the juvies. The fine quality of your photographs was especially helpful. Even if one couldn't care less about IDing your trio, just looking at the photos is a treat.


ellen said...

Nice catch! Mine is up. Hope you can drop by to view my very first entry. Your visit is a blessing. God Bless!

jabblog said...

Fabulous photographs! Are you going to publish your own bird identification guide? I think you could/should. I have learnt much about gulls from your sequence but doubt I'll remember it all when next on the sea. I do appreciate gulls though - such noisy, greedy creatures!

The Early Birder said...

Excellent Steve. I will admit to not paying them too much attention BUT maybe after this I should visit the local playing fields and scope the daily Black-headed roost for interlopers? FAB

eileeninmd said...

Wonderful post on the gulls. I am a birder but I gave up trying to id gulls right now maybe later. Your photos do help with id-ing the juvies. Great photos.

Chris Petrak said...

The amount of work you put into this is obvious - and you have gotten the ages of those common ones with good photos. I wish I had my library at hand to work on the right hand bird - looks familiar, but I don't have enough opportunity to view gulls to be easily confident with them. Thanks for a good post.

Quilt Works said...

I love your photo of the screaming gull! Great capture. The other close ups are very nice too! I am your follower now, I really like your photos :-)

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