03 January 2017

'Tis The Season For Gull-watching


              Inhabiting all of the Earth’s continents, gulls are a diverse group of some fifty-two species, yet they’ve likely spawned more identification debates than the rest of the world’s bird taxa combined. Some larids, mainly subadults, can’t be bothered with conforming to the plates and photos used in our field guides. A remarkable amount of variation at the species level elicits a wide range of feelings among birders, from anger and despair to thrilling gratification. A love-hate relationship is my best way of describing the situation.
There’s a certain subculture that exists in birding that generally sways birders from delving into this group altogether. Beginning birders are often given the impression that they’re to stay away from the dark abyss of gulls—namely four-year gulls (so-called large white-headed gulls). Those species are said to be the work of the devil. Countless times I’ve heard birders remark that “gulls are impossible” and “too hard” to identify. After hearing this enough times, a birder can be overcome with a defeatist attitude, and sadly some—including birders with decades of experience—never get around to sufficiently learning how to identify the gulls they see.
Large gulls often get a bad rap because of their propensity for hybridizing (catalysts of evolution, if you will). Remarkably, various hybrid combinations can at times do a good job of mimicking other species (and at times they might look like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of a grassy field). As I was writing this essay, I was interrupted by an urgent message with the subject “North America’s First-Record Mediterranean Gull.” It took only a few seconds of looking over the photos to see that, instead, the photographer had found a ring-billed × black-headed gull hybrid. Adrenaline rush over.
These crossbreeds drive some birders nuts for one of two reasons: (1) hybrids are perceived as a “waste” because they don’t “count” on checklists, and (2) hybrids create a level of discomfort for observers because they can’t be pigeonholed in a neat “species box.” To the former I say, feel free to make addenda to your lists. It’s okay. To the latter, know that nature and living organisms in particular are far more than a set of disjoint boxes. Nature evolves, and hybridization (or lack thereof) is a key ingredient. But the truth is, most gulls are comfortably identifiable as to species.
Experienced gull watchers and pro-ninja birders are moved by anomalous individuals that don’t fit the norm. Enthusiastic disputations on size, structure, and feather pattern minutiae can quickly confuse someone new to gulls, but this shouldn’t discourage you. Your commitment to learning how to identify gulls doesn’t have to be centered around these nuances (unless this piques your interest). Identifying gulls is analytic in nature, and to this end there’s something here for birders of every skill level. Skills learned through gull ID can be applied to other families of birds, and this contributes to becoming a better birder.
When I first began to develop an interest in watching gulls, I asked a trusted expert in the field what advice he had for taking on this challenging family of birds. His response was simple: “Commit yourself to the common species first—learn them well and be keen on aging them.” This guidance was insightful and proved to be momentous. It’s easy to look past species that we see in abundance (for me, those species are ring-billed gull and herring gull), but they are, in fact, the best way to become comfortable with gull identification. Get intimately familiar with your common species if you want a solid footing!
Finding gulls is relatively easy. Their ability to capitalize on nearly all habitats and food sources—including their willingness to avail themselves of our waste at landfills—makes them hard to miss. I recommend starting with exercises as simple as sitting in your car and studying your local flock in a mall parking lot or beachfront. Inland reservoirs and dams are other great sites to consider. It will take a certain level of discipline to force yourself to spend time watching common species. The idea behind this is to know your local gulls so well that you’ll immediately be able to spot something out of the ordinary. Rare gulls are almost always found in flocks of common gulls, and your charge is to pick out the diamond in the rough.
For many, a big part of the fascination with gulls is the ability to “age” them with some degree of accuracy. Sooner or later, you’ll encounter an ID that hinges on being able to first properly age the bird in question. Begin by focusing on adult birds, as this age group is mostly cohesive and shows the least amount of variation when compared to the other age groups. Then take on first-cycle birds. Having a basic knowledge of feather topography and molt cycles will make the experience of watching gulls (and birds in general) much more rewarding. Although it’s not a prerequisite, this basic knowledge aids in our ability to communicate and allows us to read identification literature with more ease. Attending a gull field trip where you can see these species and their different age groups pointed out to you in the field will be of great benefit and lots of fun.

TIPS
For the most part, gulls are accommodating, loafing in the open for long periods of time. They’re much easier to study than small birds skulking in the bush. With adequate exposure and time invested, it is possible to learn how to identify most of the gulls that we encounter. Let’s summarize with a few key points:
·        Get as close as you can—with some patience, you’ll find gulls often allow close approach.
·         Focus on your most common species first, preferably adults.
·         Learn feather topography and molt.
·         Join others in watching gulls.
·         Think of gull ID as an opportunity to become a better birder.

01 January 2017

Monthly Notables December 2016

  • Iceland Gull (1st cycle). Fairbanks NS County, Alaska. 01 December 2016.
    • Possible nominate, glaucoides.
  • Franklin's Gull (1st cycle). Barnstable County, Massachusetts. 04 December 2016.
    • A first cycle bird with dark brown upperwings and nearly absent PA molt.
  • Glaucous Gull (1st cycle). Washington County, Vermont. 07 December 2016.
    • First record for central Vermont.
  • Ivory Gull (adult). St. John's County, Newfoundland. 09 December 2016.
    • Seen with a "clean" puncture wound on the right side of its neck.
  • Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile). Brown County, Wisconsin, 10 December 2016.
    • Second consecutive year this species has appeared at this site.
  • California Gull (adult). Cuyahoga County, Ohio. 10 December 2016.
  • Common Gull (adult). Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia. 10 December 2016.
    • Wingtip pattern close to Kamchatka but paler upperparts suggestive of a canus outlier. 
  • Mew Gull (adult). Kings County, New York. 12 December 2016.
  • Slaty-backed Gull (adult). Pierce County, Washington. 17 December 2016.
    • Continuing.
  • Black-headed Gull (1st cycle). Volusia County, Florida. 18 December 2016.
  • Thayer's Gull (1st cycle). Oswego County, New York. 21 December 2016.
  • Kumlien's Gull (1st cycle). Salt Lake County, Utah. 18 December 2016.
    • Continuing from November.
  • California Gull (1st cycle). Yalobusha County, Mississippi. 21 December 2016.
  • Sabine's Gull (1st cycle). Brevard County, Florida. 22 December 2016.
    • A tattered and sickly looking bird with worn upperparts. Interestingly, the bird showed a bluish tibia similar to many Herrings on the Atlantic coast.
  • Slaty-backed Gull (adult). Polk County, Iowa. 23 December 2016.
    • First county record.
  • KELP GULL (adult). St. John's County, Newfoundland. 23 December 2016.
    • Undoubtedly the rarest and most unexpected gull sighting of the month, if not the entire year! First province record. Now the northern most occurrence for this species, worldwide. Relocated briefly on Christmas Day but not seen since.
  • Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile). Mohave County, Arizona. 24 December 2016.
  • Ivory Gull (1st cycle). Delaware County, Ohio. 29 December 2016.
    • 2nd State Record. A one-day wonder seen and photographed by a single observer.


Miscellaneous Notes:

  1. Just south of the ABA area, a 1st cycle Audouin's Gull was found and photographed on 10 December 2016 in Trinidad. Not only is this a 1st record for the island, it's a 1st record for all of the New World. Certainly not a species that was on anyone's radar.
  2. A first cycle kumlieni type was observed for a couple of days in Chatham-Kent County, Ontario before being found dead on 01 December 2016. Jermey Hatt salvaged the specimen and delivered it to the Royal Ontario Museum.  
  3. A putative Laughing x Ring-billed Gull was photographed and observed by many in Michigan City, Indiana (LaPorte County) on 03 December 2016. Although notably smaller than purported hybrid individuals of this combination, the wingtip and basic plumage head pattern do match up to LAGU x RBGU. Photos here.
  4. Cathy Sheeter documented via video a pair of 1st cycle Herring Gulls begging an adult for over 30 minutes. The adult gull subsequently regurgitated food for them. 10 December 2016. New Jersey. 
  5. An apparent European Herring x Glaucous Gull (so-called Viking Gull) was observed in St. John's, Newfoundland on 18 December 2016 (Alvan Buckley, Bruce Mactavish). Plumage was entirely juvenile.
  6. At least 3 reasonable candidates for nominate glaucoides Iceland Gull occurred this month.
    • First cycle from Fairbanks NS County, Alaska. 01 December 2016. 
    • Adult from Simcoe County, Ontario. 03 December 2016.
    • Adult from Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. 17 December 2016.

December 2016 Quiz


Age: Widely spaced bars on the lower scapulars and lesser/median coverts, along with marbled greater coverts, and rounded primary tips suggest a 2nd cycle large gull.

Identification: This dopey-eyed bird with a dark post-ocular line, bicolored bill and noticeable downward gape, should look familiar to birders from the western half of the continent.The long wings and attenuated rear, with medium gray scapulars coming in readily push the ID in favor of one species: California Gull. This month's quiz bird - a 2nd cycle CAGU - was photographed in San Mateo County, California in mid-September.

Thayer's the Iceland Gull - One Species

To my readers near and afar,

After much consideration, I recently announced a drastic change in my position regarding the Thayer's-Kumlien's-Iceland gull complex. I have given this taxonomic conundrum countless hours of thought, both in the field and at my desk. The subject is not one that I take lightly as it has troubled me from almost the start of my interest in gulls. It wasn't until early last year, however, when I was preparing an article to be published on separating Thayer's and Kumlien's Gulls, that I candidly began to question my own pedagogy on this topic. I effectively abandoned the manuscript as I could not faithfully reconcile the identification of these forms without more clarity on their taxonomy.

Based on my experience here on the wintering grounds, and careful review of all the literature, I have resolved to following Godfrey et al (1986) who classified Thayer's as the darkest subspecies of Iceland Gull. Given all the information that is currently available, I believe that this is the most sound and practical approach.

Going forward, I now treat all 3 taxa as conspecifics:
  • Iceland Gull (L. glaucoides glaucoides)
  • Kumlien's Iceland Gull (L.g. kumlieni
  • Thayer's Iceland Gull (L.g. thayeri).

My usage of "Kumlien's" and "Thayer's" is no more than an abbreviation of the common names above. Iceland is a broad name that can refer to all 3 subspecies collectively, or specifically nominate depending on the context. Note that this classification is by no means novel, having been employed by various workers, ornithological unions, and records committees around the world for some time.

The premise of this grouping is that the subspecies are clinal, with upperparts and primary patterns from palest to darkestBetter presented, perhaps, is that no evidence is sufficiently convincing to the contrary -- this is at the crux of the matter.

Gaps, Gaps and More Gaps

Consequently, until we have proper knowledge of what a Kumlien's Gull is, the argument for a two-species solution will remain flawed.

For those who champion the current two-species classification held by the AOU, what justification can be given for treating Kumlien's exclusively as a subspecies of Iceland Gull? That is, why not classify it as the paler subspecies of Thayer's Gull? I reiterate - verbatim - the question asked by Howell and Elliott: "At what point do Thayer's become reliably separable from Kumlien's?" Are we aimlessly trying to separate a paler form of a species from its darker form (or vice versa)? Or are we trying to distinguish hybrid populations from their parent species? These are critical questions that should not be underplayed via constructs that we've developed on the wintering grounds.

It is not very difficult to summarize what typical adult thayeri look like in California, or what many winter glaucoides should look like in Iceland. I don't deny these forms are real and identifiable. In fact, we've become so adept at field identification that we've even formulated an "operational" definition for wintering Kumlien's Gulls in Newfoundland. But spend a few winters on Lake Michigan or Lake Superior and the pieces soon begin to crumble.

A continuum of phenotypes is on display in the Great Lakes region where conjuring a line to separate dark-end Kumlien's and pale Thayer's can't be done with much satisfaction. Arbitrary decisions are often made when these "problematic" birds are found by cognizant observers. The need to assign a name to what we see is desirable, but to pretend we have genuine knowledge of what labels these individuals should be given, is futile (I myself have been guilty of engaging in this mangled labeling). To try to remedy this confusion we've readily come up with names to band-aid this problem: Tweener, Thiceland, Lake Michigan Gull, and so on and so forth. I ask, rhetorically, if Thayer's and Kumlien's have the potential to overlap in every observable field character - and they supposedly do have the potential to overlap in every observable field character - then what is to prevent someone from labeling the majority of "Thayer's" seen on the Great Lakes as dark-end Kumlien's? This is the big elephant in the room and it is pivotal to my argument.

A similar conundrum exists with presumed pale Kumlien's and nominate Icelands wintering in the North Atlantic Ocean (particularly between eastern Greenland and the western UK). Kumlien's is increasing annually in this region and there is no shortage of birds that appear to be nominate glaucoides, less than a small amount of faint peppering on the outer 1-2 primaries (see this example from southwest Iceland in late winter). Unsettling is presumed kumlieni with entirely white wingtips found on both continents. Some of these individuals have pale gray upperparts similar to Glaucous Gull, while others have upperparts that appear to be similar to American Herring Gull or slightly paler. Circular reasoning abounds, yet we are told to either chalk it up to a highly variable taxon that overlaps with both thayeri and glaucoides, or to embrace the uncertainties inherent in this complex.

I beg the question, why can't we admit that at this time there's an existing phenomenon that is beyond our reach? How is it acceptable that we not have a clear understanding of what a species looks and sounds like throughout its breeding range, and what relation - if any - exists among the taxa it purportedly interbreeds with?? What harm is done, then, in accepting a white-winged subspecies on one end, a black-winged subspecies on the other, and an intermediate form that suitably bridges the two? If there are no lines that can be objectively drawn, then those who insist on the current undeveloped split take on a great burden of proof. Prove away. 

At any rate, as information continues to be shared - easier and faster than ever - we're learning that these confusing birds appear to be increasing, and they're inconveniently turning up in places that weren't known to harbor them with any frequency just two decades ago (and these are just the individuals being reported!). I've indicated to a number of people whom I've discussed this topic with, we're either becoming better at recognizing problematic birds, or the "lines" on both ends are becoming blurrier. In due time, it behooves us to recognize and appreciate this remarkable cline. 


West Coast Thayer's - East Coast Kumlien's


Problem birds regularly have the potential of taking on two different labels depending on the regional observer casting a vote. Conservative records committees have only added to the bewilderment. As one records committee member from Washington state tried to explain to me, "The range maps don't lie, Kumlien's doesn't winter on the Pacific Coast". Ultimately, these committees have the job of making "yes" or "no" decisions, and to that end, I don't lay much blame on any one organization. After all, most committees admit that they await clarification on this taxonomy from the AOU.

The AOU's decision to remove Thayer's Gull from the Herring complex in 1973 was well supported. The two do not breed in sympatry and isolating mechanisms are discernible (see Macpherson 1961). But an obvious void in our knowledge persists. Thayer's, as a taxonomic unit, was never defined with rigor or consistency. Regrettably, the AOU was ill-informed about the relatedness of thayeri and kumlieni, relying on Neal Smith's erroneous study as its bedrock of information (Smith 1966). Sutton and others have unmasked Smith's study which shrouded the taxonomy of Thayer's in much confusion.

Accordingly, qualifying Thayer's Gull as distinct and separate from Kumlien's Gull was never substantiated on the breeding grounds. We now know that two forms - darker-winged and paler-winged birds - appear to interbreed randomly (nonassortative mating) to an unknown degree (Gaston & Deceker 1985). Admittedly, whether these darker birds are Thayer's or dark Kumlien's is uncertain. It seems the authors who have visited these sites where reported interbreeding occurs (South Hampton Island & Baffin Island) didn't systematically define the breeding adults they observed. In fact therein lies the problem: Very little work has been invested in thoroughly studying these taxa on the breeding grounds (and understandably so). Conflicting accounts and obscure reports of what the general phenotypes look like throughout the ranges of the Iceland complex keep us in want. Ambiguity is an understatement here.

Hybrid Swarm?

Naturally, a simple fix for Kumlien's Gull is to peg it a hybrid form, using its vast array of primary patterns as evidence. The chief paper supporting the 'hybrid swarm' theory deserves close scrutiny and I encourage you to read this thought-provoking piece (Weir et al. 2000). The arbitrary definitions we know from the wintering grounds are precisely what the authors use as their starting point, perpetuating more circular reasoning. Table 1 in Weir presents us with morphological overlap among the three taxa and "marginal separation" of the museum specimens used in their analysis. This is not surprising. The authors don't rely on any data that they collected from the breeding colonies, and the paper does not address any genetic relationships. In many ways, the authors make just as much the case for the "one species" theory as they do for the "hybrid swarm" theory.

Others have used the widely known Western x Glaucous-winged Gull hybrid phenomenon to argue Kumlien's is a hybrid form. This comparison, in my opinion, is poorly devised. Western and Glaucous-winged Gull have settled differences that are well known. They differ genetically (Pons et al 2005), they differ vocally, and they have yellow versus pink colored orbital rings. One is somewhat migratory while the other is mostly sedentary. There's also contrasting preferences for nesting habitat; Glaucous-winged Gull prefers estuaries and fjords, whereas Western Gull does best along California's coastal upwelling. Hence, there is some ecogeographic isolation that prevents either parent species from being swamped (Hoffman 1978, Bell 1997, Moncrieff 2012). The hybrid swarm in the Pacific Northwest is a fascinating event, but nonetheless it's a contained hybrid swarm in the breeding season.

On the other hand with thayeri, kumlieni and glaucoides, unique taxonomic units have not been adequately delineated -- this is undeniable. All are cliff nesters, all wear the same color orbitals and there is no compelling evidence from the breeding colonies that they have different voices (although some preliminary information from the wintering grounds might prove they do have distinct voices). There's a complete absence of molecular data from birds retrieved on the breeding grounds - this is most troubling. The genetic work that has been done consists of small sample sizes - 3 thayeri and 1 glaucoides - all of birds taken on the wintering grounds. We're not told how or why those specimens were selected, and the experimental design aimed to place these "species" in a phylogeny, makes no obvious effort to prevent false negatives. Add to this the uncertainty regarding how far north thayeri and glaucoides breed, and whether or not there is currently any contact between the two, and it becomes clear that our understanding of this complex is still emerging, at best. Although kumlieni may very well prove to be a large hybrid population, to say it is one without any evidence is bad science.
  

Concluding Remarks

The puzzle that surrounds this complex is presently beyond all of us. To declare that "the cline" is unequivocally true, is untenable. But with all due respect, to insist unique biological entities exist is simply premature. Too many unanswered questions loom, and if we are honest with ourselves the null hypothesis is the fresh start that's needed in order to make progress.

Dissent is healthy and I do lament relinquishing one species from my checklist. I will gladly reverse my view in the future if convincing research becomes available. For now, I maintain that Iceland Gull is a highly variable polymorphic species with what appears to be 3 subspecies.

Addendum

I would be remiss if I did not mention Ron Pittaway's excellent article on the history and taxonomy of "Thayer's Gull". Pittaway's paper has summarized this conundrum better than any other existing source that I know of.  



References
Gaston, A.J. and R. Decker. 1985. Interbreeding of Thayer’s Gull, Larus thayeri, and Kumlien’s Gull, Larus glaucoides kumlieni, on Southampton Island, Northwest Territories. Canadian Field-Naturalist 99.

Godfrey, W .E. 1986. The Birds of Canada. Revised Edition. National Museums of Canada, Ottawa.

Macpherson, A.H. 1961. Observations on Canadian Arctic Larus gulls, and on the taxonomy of L. thayeri Brooks. Arctic Institute of North America.

Pittaway, R. 1999. "Taxonomic History of Thayer's Gull". Ontario Birds 17(1):1-13.

Pons, J.M., P.A. Crochet, A Hassanin. 2005. Phylogenetic relationships within the Laridae (Charadriiformes: Aves) inferred from mitochondrial markers. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 37.

Smith, N.G. 1966. Evolution of some arctic gulls (Larus): an experimental study of isolating mechanisms. Ornithological Monographs 4. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

Snell, R.R. 1989. Status of Larus Gulls at Home Bay, Baffin Island. Colonial Waterbirds 12(1).

Weir, D.N., R.Y. McGown, A.C. Kitchener, S. McOrist, B. Zonfrillo and M. Heubeck. 1995. Iceland Gulls from the Braerdisaster, Shetland 1993. British Birds 88.

28 December 2016

Banded 1st & 4th Cycle American Herrings

A couple of more known-age, known-origin Herrings to close the 2016 calendar year.

Kane County, Illinois. 22 December 2016.

At the end of its hatch year, this 1st cycle shows complete post-juvenile scapular molt. This appears to be a typical molt state for our Great Lakes Herrings, sometimes taking place by early to mid-September. A single lesser upperwing covert has been adventitiously replaced.

Band number: 1176-41708. Banded as a flightless chick on 19 June 2016. Door County, WI.


In its first "adult" plumage, this 4th cycle (i.e., 4th basic plumage) cooperated for a full band read.
Band number: 1106-27454. Banded as a flightless chick on 25 June 2013. Door County, WI.


The underwing pattern shows extensive black, even for a Great Lakes Herring.


P10 mirror is relatively small and does not extend across the entire outer web. P4 shows a distinct spot on the outer vane, something shown by a minority (< 15%) of the adult type Herrings I see.


The most telling sub-adult-like feature is the marked outer greater primary coverts. We regularly see individuals like this and assume they are young adults. Such an assumption appear to be generally true.

30 November 2016

Monthly Notables November 2016

    • Black-legged Kittiwake (adult). Pueblo County, Colorado. 01 November 2016.
      • Continuing from last week of October.
    • Little Gull (adult). Union County, Indiana. 03 November 2016.
    • Black-headed Gull (adult). Accomack County, Virginia. 05 November 2016.
    • Yellow-legged Gull (adult). St. John's County, Newfoundland. 06 November 2016.
      • Continuing.
    • Thayer's Gull (adult). Nome County, Alaska. 06 November 2016.
      • Late. Very rare. 13th Fall Record for Nome.
    • Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile). Lake County, Minnesota. 07 November 2016.
    • Laughing Gull (adult type). Mahoning County, Ohio. 07 November 2016.
    • Sabine's Gull (juvenile). Ketchikan Gateway County, Alaska. 09 November 2016.
      • Late. First November record for Ketchikan.
    • Lesser Black-backed Gull (2nd cycle). Portage la Prairie Area Co, Manitoba. 10 November 2016.
      • Continuing from June 2016.
    • Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult). Santa Clara County, California. 10 November 2016.
    • Western Gull (1st cycle). Salt Lake County, Utah. 11 November 2016.
      • Continuing from October 2016.
    • Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile). Palm Beach County, Florida. 12 November 2016.
    • Ring-billed Gull (adult). Juneau County, Alaska. 13 November 2016.
    • Great Black-backed Gull (adult). Pueblo County, Colorado. 18 November 2016.
      • Believed to be the same returning adult for the 23rd year!
    • Glaucous Gull (juvenile). Power County, Idaho. 19 November 2016.
    • Vega Gull (adult). Santa Clara County, California. 22 November 2016.
      • Photos of a very promising individual with all the correct field marks. No open wing.
    • Slaty-backed Gull (adult type). St.John's County, Newfoundland. 23 November 2016.
    • Little Gull (1st cycle). Ventura County, California. 23 November 2016.
      • 3rd county record. First in 27 years for Ventura County!
    • Sabine's Gull (juvenile). Haines County, Alaska. 23 November 2016.
      • Late.
    • Slaty-backed Gull (adult). Pierce County, Washington. 24 November 2016.
      • Reoccurring at this site.
    • Iceland Gull (1st cycle). Salt Lake County, Utah. 24 November 2016.
      • Apparent Kumlien's Gull.
    • Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult). Riverside County, California. 26 November 2016.
    • Slaty-backed Gull (3rd cycle). Metro Vancouver County, British Columbia. 27 November 2016.
    • Black-headed Gull (adult). Butler County, Pennsylvania. 29 November 2016.
      • Presumably returning to this site since 2008.

    Miscellaneous Notes.
    1. Reported early this month was an intriguing 1st cycle bird from Superior, Wisconsin (observed in September). Plumage entirely juvenile. Body size, bill size and structure all seemed perfect for Ring-billed Gull which it was associating with. However, the inner primaries and greater coverts were plain and uniformly dark like a Lesser Black-backed Gull (and this is what the observers initially identified it as). After some discussion on North American Gulls (NAG), the bird was thought to either be a RBGU x LBBG or a melanistic Ring-billed. There is some precendence for the hybrid theory (see photos here of a Spanish bird suspected of this mix). It's important to emphasize that this pairing has never been verified in the wild - no courting or nesting evidence. As for melanistic Ring-billed Gull, melanism in gulls usually expresses itself unevenly and tends to be more blotchy. The Superior gull was "perfectly" pigmented like a fresh juvenile LBBG. The most likely explanation is a juvenile Ring-billed packed with a high dose of melanin. Observers: Robbye Johnson, Thomas Shultz and others. 
    2. A banded adult type Lesser Black-backed Gull was reported on the Mississippi River at Lock & Dam 3 in Goodhue County, Minnesota. The bird was sporting a black field-readable band on its right leg with 3 white characters. It also wore a metal band on its left leg. Unfortunately, the 3 characters on the black band can not be read clearly, but the combination matches none from North America. The only LBBG banding program using a similar field-readable is from the UK. Observer: Alex Franzen.
    3. Continuing the trend of increasing reports, putative Herring x Lesser Black-backeds were reported from several regions this month (Michigan, New York, several from New Foundland and Florida). All reports/photos represent adult birds.
    4. A very interesting adult gull with Taimyr/Mongolian-like attributes was photographed in Alameda County, California on 10 November 2016. The bird does not resemble any taxon or putative hybrid that regularly occurs in North America (photos here). Observer: Noah Arthur.

    November 2016 Quiz


    Age: Pointed primaries, patterned wing coverts and some apparent juvenile scapulars assist in aging this gull as a 1st cycle individual. Most of the lower scapulars are juvenile (=1st basic), but the faint gray upper scapulars are non-juvenile (=formative or 1st alternate).

    Identification: The uniform paleness to this bird suggests a large 4-year white-winger. Our white-wingers are Glaucous, Glaucous-winged, Thayer's and Iceland Gull. The mostly black bill pattern would be inconsistent with Glaucous Gull, especially one that has already renewed some scapulars. The primaries are too pale for a Thayer's Gull. This leaves us with Glaucous-winged and Iceland Gull.

    A few features should immediately jump out at the observer as pro Glaucous-winged: This is a bulgy gull with a short wing projection and a long/strong bill. Iceland Gulls tends to show more petite bills, longer wings, and proportionally larger eyes placed lower on the face.

    This month's quiz bird was identified as a 1st cycle Glaucous-winged Gull. This age group regularly shows variable scapular molt early in its hatch year. The molt can be absent to extensive. The bill pattern also varies from all-dark to paling around the base. Interestingly, some hatch year Glaucous-winged Gulls show this "mismatched" whitish head against a darker body. Whether this is due to bleaching, an early molt restricted to the head/neck, or just natural variation isn't clear.

    January. San Mateo County, California.

    24 November 2016

    Putative Chandeleur Gull, California and Thiceland Gull

    Michigan City, Indiana. 20 November 2016.


    Chandeleur Gull

    Sunday was my first genuine attempt at finding large gulls this season. Southern Lake Michigan's putative Kelp x Herring Gull (Chandeleur Gull) was holding to its regular post at Michigan City.




    Always a late prebasic molt, p-molt is only about 1/2 way completed. The mirror on p10 is still relatively small (as it has been for years) with a squarish shape.



    Mantle color tending toward Kelp, being a couple of shades paler than the primary tips. The head is blocky and the bill is hefty - similar to many Kelps.
    I've now committed this bird's distinct voice to memory and this is how I was alerted to its presence. The long call doesn't sound like Herring Gull at all. Back in 2014 I also found this bird via its long call. After listening to multiple Kelp recordings, I've concluded that the voice is about as close of a match as one could expect for a bird that presumably has mixed genes.

    The assumption here is that this individual associates with Herrings, and likely breeds (or attempts to breed) in Herring colonies. This also implies that it probably summers to our north (as opposed to our south), moving in with the first big waves of Herring Gulls that arrive on Lake Michigan in the Fall.




    The underside to the flight feathers is dark gray (not black), and the legs are variably greenish-gray with very faint hints of pink, particularly around the webbing of the feet.


    California Gull

    Moving on, a continuing adult California Gull also brightened up the day. It's believed this bird has been in the area since late August.



    The upperparts are darker than most CAGUs I've seen in these parts, but the bill is longer and "stronger" than average. I'm not sure how useful it is to try to assign these out-of-range birds to a specific subspecies. Interestingly, California Gulls banded as chicks in the Great Basin - presumably nominate californicus - have been recorded in the Lake Michigan region.

    Thiceland Gull

    No Lake Michigan day of gulling would be complete without a "tweener". At rest on the water the bird looked like it was going to be a Thayer's Gull:


    But...


    Take a look at it in flight...


    The wingtips looked paler than expected, and the markings were limited to the outer webs.


    Fine, we'll call it a Kumlien's or whatever suits your fancy...

    01 November 2016

    Monthly Notables October 2016

    • Glaucous Gull (2nd cycle type). Essex County, Ontario. 04 October 2016.
      • Continuing since at least July!
    • California Gull (2nd cycle). New Haven County, Connecticut. 04 October 2016.
    • Great Black-backed Gull (juvenile). Galveston County, Texas. 07 October 2016.
      • Only the second time this species has been recorded in Texas in October.
    • Chandeleur Gull (adult). Mobile County, Alabama. 08 October 2016.
      • Tending toward Kelp. Associating with Herrings on Pelican Island.
    • Chandeleur Gull (adult). LaPorte County, Indiana. 09 October 2016.
      • Reoccurring southern Lake Michigan hybrid.
    • Mew Gull (1st cycle). Nome County, Alaska. 09 October 2016.
      • Apparent Kamchatka Gull in Gambell.
    • Black-legged Kittiwake (2nd cycle type). Johnson County, Iowa. 10 October 2016.
    • Slaty-backed Gull (adult). Pierce County, Washington. 12 October 2016.
      • Continuing. This individual now a regular in the Gog Le-Hi-Te Wetlands area.
    • Iceland Gull (adult). Salt Lake County, Utah. 13 October 2016.
      • Kumlien's. First October record and earliest Fall arrival for Utah. Previous to this the earliest arrival was 04 November 2008.
    • Black-headed Gull (presumed adult type). Marion County, Kansas. 15 October 2016.
      • Photos of a red-billed bird were very promising but bird was not relocated.
    • California Gull (3rd cycle type). Rock Island County, Illinois. 18 October 2016. 
      • Recorded on the Mississippi River, moving between Illinois and Iowa.
    • Yellow-legged Gull (adult). St. John's County, Newfoundland. 21 October 2016.
      • The only location in all of North America where the species is expected.
    • Western Gull (2nd cycle). Morgan County, Colorado. 21 October 2016
      • Banded. Likely the same individual first found in Washington County in June. 
    • Little Gull (1st cycle). Oklahoma County, Oklahoma. 22 October 2016.
    • Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile). Clark County, Nevada. 23 October 2016.
      • Less than 10 records for the entire state.
    • California Gull (adult). LaPorte County, Indiana. 24 October 2016.
      • In the area since late August.
    • Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile). Ralls County, Missouri. 26 October 2016.
    • Little Gull (adult). Lake County, Indiana. 29 October 2016.
    • Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile). Cook County, Illinois. 30 October 2016.

    Miscellaneous Notes
    1. Lesser Black-backed numbers begin to build in coastal Florida in October. On 17 October 2016, Michael Brothers observed F:003 in Volusia County, FL. This individual, banded on 20 March 2015 in the same county, is more evidence that Florida's growing LBBG population exhibits some winter site fidelity.
    2. Putative Chandeleur Gulls (Kelp x Herring hybrids) have not vanished from the earth. October has become the month that these hybrids are reported with more frequency, especially on the Gulf Coast. Two were recorded this month (Indiana and Alabama) with a third candidate in Texas (Galveston County; 12 Oct 2016). Note that roughly 30 hybrid types were found back on the islands in the breeding season of 2015. I do wonder why more pure Kelp Gulls are not being reported in the ABA area. Perhaps some are being overlooked as large Lesser Black-backs, or, most are programmed to "winter" south of the equator.

    31 October 2016

    October 2016 Quiz



    Age: The adult-like gray scapulars down the middle of the back and lightly marked uppertail coverts immediately suggest a 2nd cycle type. Also, the solid black tertials with relatively wide white edges support a bird not in its 1st plumage cycle.

    Identification: The largely uniform brown wings and dark gray central scapulars point to a dark-backed species. The checkered lesser and median coverts are suggestive of Lesser Black-backed Gull. The lightly barred/marbled region in the tail feathers (specifically the partition between the black tail band and white uppertail coverts) also resembles LBBG, and that's what this month's quiz bird was identified as.

    Berrien County, Michigan. September.

    Here's a more detailed photo of this rather "large" Lesser: