10 September 2018

Kelp Gulls at the John Ball Zoo

I spent last weekend on gull patrol in the Holland, Michigan region, but not without taking a short detour to the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids. Why the John Ball Zoo? It is the last AZA Zoo in North America that has Kelp Gulls in its collection, making this a must visit destination for any gull enthusiast.

Male Kelp Gull - "Sunny".
Upon my arrival I met with David Blasziewicz who has been at the zoo for 22 years. David was a wealth of information and shared with me everything I wanted to know about these birds.

The remaining Kelps - two individuals, Sunny and Max - were actually collected in the wild as eggs on the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, hatched in San Diego, and eventually made their way to JBZ. They are now 35 years old, which almost surely is the longevity record for KEGUs in captivity.

Female Kelp Gull - "Maxine"

I was able to learn through David that the zoo has the birds on a North American photo schedule. The hours of light the birds receive is controlled by a computer, made to mirror what naturally occurs at this latitude. Thus, their molt schedules are on par with local birds in the wild. I asked David if any of the Kelps they've had at the zoo have ever escaped or successfully nested: No to both inquiries.

Here, Sunny is asserting his dominance, breaking out in a long call as he did every 10 minutes or so.

It's inevitable that these birds will eventually perish (from natural causes) and the zoo will in all likelihood not be replacing them. That's unfortunate seeing that this is the most widespread gull species in the southern hemisphere.

A very special thank you to David for taking the time to meet with me and tell me all about these special birds!

01 September 2018

Monthly Notables August 2018


  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (2nd cycle). San Luis Obispo County, California. 03 August 2018.
  • Franklin's Gull (1st summer type). Fairfax County, Virginia. 04 August 2018.
  • Laughing Gull (adult). Lunenberg County, Nova Scotia. 04 August 2018.
  • Laughing Gull (juvenile). Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. 04 August 2018.
  • Sabine's Gull (adult type). Sarasota County, Florida. 11 August 2018.
    • The observer has had 3 Sabine's at this site in 14 months. 
  • Great Black-backed Gull (adult). Sweetwater County, Wyoming. 13 August 2018.
    • Possibly the same individual seen here last August.
  • Mew Gull (2nd cycle). Arapahoe County, Colorado. 13 August 2018.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult). Mendocino County, California. 14 August 2018.
    • Apparently the 3rd LBBG seen in California this summer. 
  • Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile). Hamilton County, Ontario. 20 August 2018.
  • Common Gull (adult). St. John's County, Newfoundland & Labrador. 24 August 2018.
  • Herring Gull (3rd cycle type). San Francisco County, California. 25 August 2018.

Miscellaneous Notes:
  • On 01 August 2018, Jean-Guy Beaulieu found and photographed a banded 1st summer Black-legged Kittiwake in Les Escoumins, Quebec. After doing a little investigating, I received a reply from a French biologist who claimed the bird - apparently the first banded French kittiwake to be found on mainland America. More here.

August 2018 Quiz

Age: Focusing on the two individuals with heads upright, we can be fairly confident these are adult, large white-headed gulls (LWHG).

Identification: The black-backed gull should be the easier to identify from this duo. Given its relative size, we should readily dismiss Great Black-backed Gull. This appears to be a slim and long-winged gull. The red gonys spot is enlarged and the bill itself is relatively straight with virtually no expansion at the gonys. The streaking on the face is made up of thin, pencil-like, streaks. All of these features make this yellow-eyed critter a Lesser Black-backed Gull  

The noticeably larger gull to the left with paler gray upperparts is superficially similar to a Herring, but it isn't one. Notice the black on the primaries is not a jet black like the other gulls in the photo. That, along with the extensive white on the primaries should convince us we may have something other than a Herring in view. The darkish eye and greenish tinge to the bill match up nicely with Thayer's Iceland Gull, as does the extent of pigment on the primaries.

Our August Quiz photo is indeed of a Thayer's Gull (left) and Lesser Black-backed Gull (right).
Chicago, Illinois. January.

25 August 2018

Extreme Uppertail Pattern in 1st Cycle California Gulls

Although there is some variation in their plumage aspects and upperpart patterns, 1st cycle California Gulls can usually be pegged down by their darker inner primaries, bicolored bill and relatively small and slender body size (when compared to other large white-headed gulls).

A typical hatch-year individual with bicolored bill, relatively long wing extension and moderate post-juvenile scapular molt. 

San Mateo County, CA. 12 September 2014.

But what about their uppertail pattern? Tail patterns often reveal helpful clues when identifying large 1st cycle gulls. This post was spurred by a hatch year California Gull photographed by Paul Hurtado outside of Reno earlier this month.

Let's first look at tailband patterns that we can expect to see on the majority of young California Gulls.

Typical Tail Patterns

Ordinarily, a rather dark tailband is visible with little barring, recalling American Herring Gull. White tips are usually present when the feathers are fresh before soon being diminished by wear. The uppertail coverts show lancelot patterning with barring up the center of the tail. The uppertail coverts will often have a noticeable bright white ground color that contrasts sharply with the flight feathers. 

San Mateo County, CA. September. 

Berrien County, MI. October. 

Grays Harbor County, WA. August.  Courtesy Nick Dean

Atypical Tail Patterns

Consider this bird posted by Paul Hurtado on North American Gulls:

Washoe County, Nevada. August. Courtesy Paul Hurtrado.

At first glance, the thin tailband and contrasting white uppertail coverts look like something we'd find on a Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Same individual above. 

What makes the Nevada bird a little more challenging to identify is that it has yet to take on the classic bicolored bill pattern, but I think we could agree that the sum of its other parts suggest California Gull, as does the time and location.

The exceedingly white ground color to the uppertail coverts, with perhaps some bright lighting and premature wear at play, could be found in some birds.

Oregon. August. Copyright Greg Gillson. 

Note the white tips to the rectrices and paling white forehead on this Oregon bird. Also found in many hatch year California Gulls is the propensity for the lesser & median coverts to have pale edges and centers that far outdo the darker pigments. The wing coverts take on a frosted appearance here. The uppertail coverts are largely white.

Reeves County, Texas. December. Courtesy Adam Wood.

It was difficult for me to find an example of a California Gull with a tailband similar to Paul's, but this individual from Texas comes close.

Note the frosty median coverts found in some birds. The thin tailband appearance is exacerbated here by the rectrices being completely spread. Overall, however, this isn't a typical tailband pattern on 1st cycle California Gull.

Same individual above. 
Most, if not all, large gull species will now and then present a plumage oddity that doesn't conform to what we're accustomed to seeing. First cycle California Gulls are fairly distinctive in their range and with a little practice, they seldom present identification problems. Documenting the exceptions to the rule not only improve field identification skills for future use, but also helps reinforce limits for what is typical and what is not.

20 August 2018

Banded Black-legged Kittiwake in Quebec Hails from France

On 01 August 2018, Jean-Guy Beaulieu found and photographed a banded 1st summer Black-legged Kittiwake in Les Escoumins, Quebec. I happened on his photo a few days later while looking through eBird data.

1st Summer Black-legged Kittiwake sporting a distinctive leg band combination.
St. Lawrence River in Baie des Escoumins. Courtesy Jean-Guy Beaulieu.

Having never seen a photo of a kittiwake with color bands before, I began to suspect there might be a good story behind this bird. I posted an inquiry on North American Gulls and received zero replies. A couple of weeks later Craig Taylor and Maarten Van Kleinwee directed me to a couple of sites/conctacts that may be of help. I did a little more investigating and eventually received a reply from French biologist Jean-Yves Monnat. Yes. France! Monnat replied back with:

That bird is one of "ours".

V/W/métal - V/R/B (Paris FX25562)

Born : 2017 (12/06 ± 3d.) in pointe du Raz colony (Plogoff, Finistère, Brittany, France : 48°02N - 04°43W)
First flight : 24/07/2017
Last seen on its nest : 03/08/2017
Emancipation period : 11 days

A lot of our birds are captured on western coast of Greenland. Very (very !) few on Newfounland. This sighting is the first one on the mainland of America (our study started in 1979, 40 years ago).
Thanks a lot for that interesting information. JY.

So there you have it - at about 14 months old, this bird is now on the other side of the Atlantic hanging out with a large group of ~800 Black-legged Kittiwakes! Which begs a question that hadn't really occurred to be before this: What degree of gene flow exists between European and North American kittiwakes? Will this bird return to its natal colony or will it now make Canada its new home? Questions like these can only be answered with such bird-banding studies and GPS tracking.

Congratulations to Jean-Guy on a great find. I'm told the bird was relocated at the same site on 14 August 2018. A special thanks to Craig and Maarten for directing me in the right direction.

31 July 2018

Monthly Notables July 2018


  • Black-legged Kittiwake (1st cycle). San Mateo County, California. 02 July 2018.
  • Laughing Gull (1st summer). Clay County, Iowa. 03 July 2018.
    • 1st County Record.
  • Bonaparte's Gull (1st summer). Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. 09 July 2018.
  • Slaty-backed Gull (4th cycle type). Inuvik County, NW Territories. 09 July 2018.
  • Mew Gull (1st summer). San Luis Obispo County, California. 10 July 2018.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (1st summer). San Mateo County, California. 12 July 2018.
    • Possible first local summer record.
  • Franklin's Gull (1st summer). Newport County, Rhode Island. 16 July 2018.
    • 13th State Record.
  • Glaucous Gull (1st summer). Suffolk County, New York. 17 July 2018.
  • Mew Gull (2nd summer type). Humboldt County, California. 19 July 2018.
  • Sabine's Gull (2 first summer individuals). St. John's County, Newfoundland. 19 July 2018.
  • Laughing Gull (adult). Lambton County, Ontario. 21 July 2018.
  • Iceland Gull (1st summer). Chatham-Kent County, Ontario. 22 July 2018.
  • Glaucous Gull (adult). Monroe County, New York. 23 July 2018.
  • Glaucous-winged Gull (1st summer). Kiholo Bay, Hawaii. 23 July 2018.
    •  Continuing from June. 
  • Iceland Gull (3rd summer). Yukon County, Yukon Territory. 26 July 2018.
    • Putative Kumlien's Iceland Gull. 
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (2nd summer). Portage la Prairie County, Manitoba. 27 July 2018.
  • Glaucous Gull (adult). Niagara County, New York. 27 July 2018.
    • Apparently the same out-of-season adult seen in Monroe County on 23 July 2018.
  • Franklin's Gull (adult type). St. John's County, Newfoundland. 28 July 2018.
  • Glaucous-winged Gull (4th cycle type). San Diego County, California. 28 July 2018.
  • Great Black-backed Gull (2nd summer). Oliver County, South Dakota. 29 July 2018.
  • Laughing Gull (adult). Ventura County, California. 31 July 2018.

  • Some promising news with respect to Heermann's Gulls in the state of California. Local birders and conservationists Joanna & Byron Chin documented two separate nesting sites with perhaps up to 11 young successfully fledged in Seaside. Efforts are underway to build and maintain a small man-made island on Roberts Lake. This island will replace the old sunken island that the colony used in the past. Check out this inspiring video by Byron where a drone is used to survey the lake: https://www.facebook.com/SeasideHEEGs/videos/500183813749205/
  • A small Iceland Gull colony of approximately 150 birds was discovered on 17 July 2018 in northern Quebec along the Hudson Strait. The observer who reported the birds, Alexandre Anctil, made the sighting overhead from a helicopter. The adults - rearing young - are described as pale and gray-winged, not dark-winged. Alexandre explained to me that from a distance, he thought the gulls would be the more expected Glaucous Gull. This colony is one of the largest of its kind to be found at such a southern latitude (61.682593N 71.767582O). The age breakdown is estimated to be 100 adults and approximately 50 chicks. 

July 2018 Quiz

Age: The medley of old and new mottled upperparts, along with retained, pointed, outer primaries give the impression of 1st summer gulls. Indeed all three of our July Quiz birds are roughly 1 year of age (now in their 2nd prebasic molts).

Identification: We'll begin with the darkest individual on the far left. The lightly barred undertail coverts and significantly solid dark upperparts suggest a black-backed gull. The defined striations along the nape and neck are found in Lesser Black-backed Gull, and the size and structure agree with that species.

Next, the lighter individual on the far right shows a mixture of pale grays to the new scapulars. These feathers are light enough to steer us away from a dark-backed gull. The heavily marked undertail coverts and body structure fit Herring Gull, and there is little doubt it is any other large pale gull.

The trickiest of our group is the center bird in the back. At first glance one may pass it off as another young messy summer Herring Gull. However, the delicate bill and small rounded head give it a more graceful expression. There are hints of a pale uppertail and pale underside to the left wing (compare this to the darker underside of the Herring Gull's right wing). The smaller and more compact size is also noteworthy. The center gull was identified as a 1st summer Thayer's Iceland Gull. An open wing to seal the deal:

The underside to the primaries are genuinely pale and not strictly due to fading and bleaching.

Our July 2018 Quiz was taken in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin on Lake Michigan. 23 June 2018.