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.
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.