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Overcoming gull-ID phobia

At 30 inches long, Great Black-backed Gull is the largest gull in North America. Photo by Martin Fowler/Shutterstock

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Who’s afraid of the big bad gull?

Everyone, it appears. Ask any birder to name the bird group that daunts them most, and to a man, woman, and tour leader, they will shout “gulls.”

What is it about this bird group that afflicts observers with identification paralysis? In fact, so dismissive are birders about gulls that many observers, when confronted by a feathered brown miscreant on the beach, don’t even look at it.

What a misfortune. To categorically ignore gulls deprives birders of insight into one of the planet’s most entertaining, socially complex, successful, and intelligent bird families.

Of course, you have to like gray.

And brown and black and white: all colors donned by gulls as they go through successive molts en route to adulthood. And yes, the plumages change and many species share similar plumage traits.

But look at the bright side.

Gulls come with built-in advan­tages, too.

First, most are easily identified as gulls, falling immediately into a definable category, limited in North America to a manageable 26 possibilities. That’s two fewer options than raptors and 22 less than sparrows. What’s more, several of our 26 gull species are unlikely to be encountered outside their prescribed range — among them Yellow-footed Gull and Red-legged Kittiwake.

Gulls are also large enough to easily note field marks such as eye color, leg color, bill shape, and plumage pattern. In addition, gulls typically stand or sit in the open, where they are easily studied and where they become habituated to people, allowing prolonged scrutiny and close approach. In other words, unlike sparrows, gulls play fair.

Gregarious birds, it is common for multiple species to be grouped together, facilitating comparison between familiar species and less-familiar ones.

And while gulls range widely in size from the 11-inch Little Gull to the 30-inch Great Black-backed Gull, when we can compare them directly, the relative size of gulls is a boon to identification.

In fact, if you know where you are and can establish the ranges of the gulls you are studying, you will find that many North American gull species are separable by size and overt traits alone. I’ll bet nobody ever told you that.

What this means is that if you are standing on a beach in New Jersey and you see a black-backed gull that is much larger than the silvery gray-backed Herring Gull standing nearby, it’s a Great Black-backed Gull. If it is smaller than the Herring Gull, it’s a Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Read about Maine’s celebrity Lesser Black-backed Gull

And, yes, large white-headed gulls do hybridize, producing young with traits of both parent species. The classic example is Glaucous-winged and Western Gulls. But don’t get all wrapped around the axle about this. Accept the fact that not every gull you encounter in the field is going to be identified. When you see a gull that defies identification, turn and walk away; run if you like, or take a picture or three and submit them to experts. In my opinion, a “mostly Western Gull” is as good an end point as a starting point.

Even if you don’t pin a name to a gull, this doesn’t mean that you cannot be fascinated by it or appreciate it as an element of the natural matrix.

Ever wonder why Ring-billed Gulls hang around parking lots and Herring Gulls typically do not? Watch them. Ring-billed Gulls are nimble afoot, thus able to exploit a land-based food source. Herring Gulls are more aquatic, preferring to swim to acquire food.

On the other hand, Herring Gulls are intelligent enough to drop mollusks onto hard surfaces to decant the gastronomic delights within. I’ve never seen a Ring-billed Gull use this technique. Removing sesame-seed buns from their outer wrapping appears to be their intellectual limit.

If you watch the birds long enough, you’ll note that Herring Gulls and Ring-billeds walk differently. Ring-billeds move with quick, mincing steps. Herring Gulls stride with a rolling, hind-end swinging sailor’s gait and much prefer to swim, anyway.

In truth, I misidentified the very first gull I tried to identify. The dead immature (or first-winter) gull I found floating in the Brickyard Ponds in northern New Jersey one snowy April day was initially identified by me as a “Herring Gull,” the only gull species pictured in my pocket-size 1949 Golden Nature Guide (the one with robins on the cover). Ring-billed and California Gull were mentioned in the text but not depicted. It just stood to reason that the bird honored with an illustration was the most likely candidate, so in my ledger I wrote “Herring Gull.”

Luckily, the bird was banded, and, via the Bird Banding Laboratory, my banded bird, ringed the previous year, proved to be a Ring-billed, which is, I have come to understand, the expected late winter/early spring gull in interior portions of New Jersey. Breeding on the shores of the Great Lakes, Ring-billed Gulls regularly commute to the Jersey shore for the winter, unless they short stop at an attractive fast-food parking lot along the way. My reliance upon probability was apt, it just wasn’t informed.

Despite an early start, my now-acute appreciation of gulls was slow to awaken. It was only after completing a book on gull ID with photographer Kevin Karlson that I came to appreciate this amazing bird group. The book, Gulls Simplified, is now in the publisher’s hand. What now? Well, for my part, I plan to head out to the nearby fishing village of Bivalve and study Herring Gulls in assorted plum­ages. Ring-billeds? They tend to avoid crowds, especially when the crowd is comprised of much larger Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls.

So, who’s afraid of the big bad gull? Ring-billed Gull, for one.


This article, from Pete Dunne’s “Birder at Large” column, appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of BirdWatching.

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Pete Dunne on birding in late summer

  Originally Published

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Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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