01 November 2017

Monthly Notables October 2017

  • Western Gull (adult). Skeena-Queen Charlotte County, B.C. 03 October 2017.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (4th cycle type). Pierce County, Washington. 05 October 2017.
  • Sabine's Gull (juvenile). Brevard County, Florida. 07 October 2017.
  • Mew Gull (adult). Laval, Qu├ębec. 10 October 2017.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult type). Portage, Manitoba. 11 October 2017.
  • California Gull (3rd cycle type). Arthabaska County, Quebec. 11 October 2017.
  • Little Gull (adult). Kitsap County, Washington. 13 October 2017.
  • Laughing Gull (1st cycle). Kiowa County, Colorado. 15 October 2017.
  • Little Gull (adult type). Marion County, Iowa. 15 October 2017.
  • Slaty-backed Gull (3rd cycle). Clallam County, Washington. 16 October 2017.
  • Black-legged Kittiwake (adult). Lethbridge County, Alberta. 18 October 2017.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult). San Diego County, California. 19 October 2017.
  • Thayer's [Iceland] Gull (1st cycle). Seneca County, New York. 22 October 201

Miscellaneous Notes
  • The first weekend in October was prime time for Ross's Gulls at Point Barrow, with a high count of 450 reported on 08 October 2017.
  • An apparent Glaucous x Great-blacked hybrid (juvenile) was photographed in Henry County, Tennessee on 07 October 2017. This may be the first record of this hybrid this deep into the interior continental United States. Still being seen up to 21 October.

31 October 2017

October 2017 Quiz

Age: The flight feathers, all-white tail and body feathers point to an adult-type, large white-headed gull (LWHG).

Identification: Our October bird is a black-backed gull with pink legs. In North America, we have two regularly occurring black-backeds with pink legs: Western and Great Black-backed, but this individual is neither.

Structurally, both Western and Great Black-backed Gull have noticeably different bills than what's seen here. Western typically shows a brighter yellow bill with a wider gonys angle - a bulbous-tipped bill, if you will. Great Black-backed's bill is much more stout and thick - a strong bill all throughout with a blunt tip.
Adult Western. Note the bulbous-tip and mustard-yellow orbital ring.
San Luis Obispo County, California. January.

Adult Great Black-backed. The gonys is swollen and the bill is thick throughout.
 Huron County, Ohio. November.

Notice in both of the images above there is very little in the way of head markings. Both of these black-backs average much less head markings than all of our other LWHGs, even in basic plumage. Also, neither possesses the menacing stare of our quiz bird, with eyes that appear to be encircled with mascara.

Perhaps of most importance when identifying this month's quiz gull is the wing pattern. Notice the remarkably thick white trailing edge, a glaring field mark that screams Slaty-backed Gull.

Here's a cropped image of this gull's right wingtip:

The white on the inner primary tips eats into the black edges with a so-called "string of pearls" on the adjacent mid-outer primaries (white tongue tips abutting the black sub-terminal bands on p5-p8).

A species that's generally increasing in North America, particularly on the Great Lakes in winter, this month's Slaty-backed Gull was photographed in Lake County, Illinois. February.

16 October 2017

Franklin's - Miller Beach

Strong westerlies in the Fall - especially October - almost always drop a few Franklin's Gulls on the shores of southern Lake Michigan. Yesterday, while working the gulls at the Miller Beach Lakewatch in Lake County, Indiana, these 3 came barging in from the, yes you guessed it, west!

This adult type Franklin's is most likely a second cycle, per the black spots on the primary coverts as well as the extensive black outer primary pattern. 

An exquisite plumage! Hatch year Franklin's have a certain prestige associated with them that they seem to boast.

The underbody shows a tailband that doesn't extend all the way to the outer edges of the outer rectrices.
Lighting was poor and the 30 mph northwest winds made for a challenging session. The gulls didn't seem to mind!!

09 October 2017

Los Angeles Natural History Museum

Late last month I paid an overdue visit to the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Like a child in a candy shop, I lost myself with a 100 or so trays of both hooded and large white-headed gulls - mainly New World taxa, with a sprinkle of Western Palearctic species.

Here I had the pleasure of finally meeting one of California's birding & ornithology treasures, Kimball Garrett. Kimball has been with the museum since the late 1970s and currently serves as the ornithology collections manager.

The first specimen he was keen to point out to me is California's first record of Red-legged Kittiwake. This male was found emaciated several miles inland in Anaheim, California on 28 February 1996 (Orange County). Like most other records of RLKI that make it to land in the Pacific Northwest, it died shortly after being picked up by rehabbers.

The dark neck shawl is expected in basic plumage. However, the black ink-spot near the alula may be age-related.

While on the subject of kittiwakes, any larophile will appreciate a bird's eye view of both Rissa species, side-by-side. 

Both adult females, the Red-legged was collected on St. George's in July of 1978. The Black-legged Kittiwake is labled as pollicaris, collected in Alaska the same month.

Red-legged Kittiwake has a noticeably shorter bill, upperparts that are a shade darker and a shorter tail.

With the recent Swallow-tailed Gull episode in Washington state, I felt compelled to study the 15 or so specimens housed in the collection. The size difference between both of these fork-tailed gulls is astonishing. Never really having paid much attention to Swallow-tailed Gull's size when reading about them, I passively imagined it to be similar in size to Xema sabini. I should've known better with Sabine's only being 3-4" larger than Little Gull.

Both males, the Swallow-tailed was a fatigued bird collected on the Galapagos in February 1957. The Sabine's is a June bird from Alaska. 

One can appreciate the forked tails from this angle. Note the white-fringed outer scapulars shown by Creagrus furcatus, a feature not shared with sabini. 

Keeping with my tradition when visiting any gull collection, this duo is one I never pass up...

First cycle Little (fm) and Ross's Gull (m). The Little Gull is from Imperial County California; February 1994. It was accompanying an adult and another 1st cycle individual for several days, but was found dead shortly after. The Ross's Gull was collected in Alaska. October.

Moving on to a few large white-headed gulls, an adult female Common Gull (L.c canus) from Denmark (March), with an adult female Mew Gull (L.c.brachyrhynchus) from California ( January).

Although the upperpart coloration isn't appreciably different in this image, the bill thickness is.

This trio of black-backs is intimidating. All females, from left to right: Kelp Gull (Argentina), Great Black-backed Gull (New Brunswick) and Yellow-footed Gull (California). The Kelp is indeed darkest, the Yellow-footed can't be identified without more information and the Great Black-backed is unmistakable.

White-wingers. The jewels of the large white-headed gulls! I was taken aback by how small and svelt this Glaucous Gull is (left). Yes, the bird on the left is a female barrovianus. This is the smallest race, Larus hyperboreous barrovianus, with trinomial associated with Barrow, Alaska. 

Can you guess what species is on the right?
Top: Male Glaucous-winged Gull (Alaska). Bottom: Female Glaucous Gull (Alaska). The black smudging on the bill of the Glaucous is not unexpected for a September juvenile.
An unsexed Thayer's Iceland Gull on top for comparison. Alaska. October. 

Thayer's (?sex), Glaucous (female), Glaucous-winged (male). 

Classic Iceland bill on the Thayer's (left), but the Glaucous bill (center) could easily be confused in this photo - a good lesson when discussing Glaucous Gulls in the Pacific Northwest. 

The same male Glaucous-winged (top), female barrovianus Glaucous (middle) and a first cycle male Western Gull (bottom). Interestingly, the male Glaucous-winged shows a significantly larger and more bulbous-tipped bill than the male Western. The Glaucous-winged, in short, is a male beast!

Amar Ayyash & Kimball Garrett. NHMLA. September 2017.
The rest of my time looking through the collection was devoted to examining Glaucous-winged hybrids (both putative Glaucous-winged x Herrings and Glaucous-winged x Westerns). I'll be visiting British Columbia later this year and hope to put together a post specifically on these hybrids. More on that later. Best regards!

A special thanks to Kimball for his hospitality and sharing his insights on some of the specimens!

03 October 2017

A Note on Primary Molt in Yellow-footed Gulls

Primary molt in North American large white-headed gulls is fairly straight forward. Most species commence p-molt by first dropping the innermost primaries and then distally replacing the remaining feathers until p10 is renewed and fully grown. This typically occurs by way of the prebasic molt.

Quite exceptional is when primaries are actively growing via one molt (i.e., the prebasic molt), when then an independent molt simultaneously crops up and initiates another wave of primary growth. The latter has traditionally been attributed to an extensive prealternate molt.

One large white-headed gull that is thought to undergo this alteration, to some degree, is Yellow-footed Gull (L. livens). Several workers have noted this phenomenon in the literature (Pyle 2008, Howell 2010). However, few exemplars or specifics have been given, particularly from the Fall season when both prebasic and prealternate molts regularly overlap.

Below are several examples of adult-type Yellow-footed Gulls that exhibit two waves of primary growth. All are from the Salton Sea in southern California during the last week of September. It's presumed these birds originated from Baja California where the species breeds and then makes a post-breeding dispersal into the Colorado Desert. No assumptions are made as to whether these individuals have successfully bred and/or their exact ages.

   Individual 1
1A. Primary molt on right wing shows two waves. Wave 1: p5-p10, with p9-p10 growing. Wave 2: p1-p4, with p4 growing.

1B. Similar molt pattern on left wing.

   Individual 2
2A. Primary molt on left wing shows two waves. Wave 1: p5-p10, with p9-p10 growing. Wave 2: p1-p4, with p4 growing. 

2B. Very similar to individual 1 but note p4 is shorter with no black markings.

   Individual 3
3A. Primary molt on left wing shows two waves. Wave 1: p4-p10, with p9-p10 growing. Wave 2: p1-p3, with p3 growing. 

3B. Asymmetric to left wing. Wave 1: p6-p10, with p9-p10 growing. Wave 2: p1-p5, with p5 growing. 
Individual 4
4A. Primary molt on right wing shows two waves. Wave 1: p7-p10, with p9-p10 growing. Wave 2: p1-p6, with p5-p6 growing. 

4B. Asymmetric to left wing. One molt wave with p1-p8 fully grown. p9-p10 growing. Presumably basic primaries.
These photos are meant to provide concrete examples of dual-wave primary molt in Yellow-footed Gulls, as well as stimulate further study on this topic.

A special thanks to Peter Pyle for patiently entertaining my questions on this subject. His knowledge is most inspiring.

30 September 2017

Monthly Notables September 2017

  • Swallow-tailed Gull (adult). Snohomish County, Washington. 01 September 2017.
    • Continued from 31 August 2017. Last seen at Point Wells on Sunday, 10 September.  
  • Little Gull (juvenile). Inyo County, California. 02 September 2017.
    • First county record. 
  • Laughing Gull (juvenile). Taylor County, West Virginia. 02 September 2017.
    • First sighting of the species in WV in nearly a decade.
  • Sabine's Gull (juvenile). Fairfield County, Connecticut. 03 September 2017.
    • 2nd State Record.
  • Laughing Gull (juvenile). Les Basques County, Quebec. 04 September 2017.
  • California Gull (adult). Denton County, Texas. 05 September 2017.
  • Glaucous Gull (3rd cycle type). Kenosha County, Wisconsin. 07 September 2017.
  • Franklin's Gull (adult). Hants County, Nova Scotia. 15 September 2017.
  • Sabine's Gull (juvenile). District of Columbia County, DC. 04 September 2017.
    • First record for Washington DC
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult). Teton County, Wyoming. 16 September 2017.
    • Potential 1st record for Yellowstone NP and surrounding counties.
  • Glaucous Gull (2nd cycle). Barnstable County, Massachusetts. 16 September 2017.
    • First September record for MA.
  • Iceland Gull (3rd cycle type). Suffolk County, New York. 16 September 2017.
    • L.g. kumlieni. Likely summered in the region.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull (2nd cycle). Calgary County, Alberta. 16 September 2017.
  • Great Black-backed Gull (adult).  Keith County, Nebraska. 17 September 2017.
  • Laughing Gull (juvenile). Kiowa County, Colorado. 19 September 2017.
  • Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile). Troup County, Georgia. 20 September 2017.
    • Rare and unseasonal. Storm-driven?

September 2017 Quiz

Age: Both of these gulls appear to be in their first plumage cycle. The overall plumage aspect of the larger bird in front, with lightly checkered wing coverts and lack of gray scapulars support this. What of the smaller bird in the back with gray coming in on the scapulars? This is a 3-year gull, and adult-like gray scapulars is not unexpected in the first cycle.

Identification: These two species happen to be the most expected, year-round, residents on the Great Lakes and much of eastern North America. The smaller individual is a hatch year Ring-billed Gull. The silvery-white greater coverts are helpful with this age group, as is its size and incoming gray scapulars (via preformative or prealternate molt). The larger individual in front with paling bill and nondescript upperparts is a hatch year Herring Gull. Although this age group of Herrings is highly variable, there is no other expected species that bares resemblance to this.

Knowing these two species is a requisite for anyone hoping to learn gull identification in North America. The size difference here is remarkable and should be used as a benchmark for gauging sizes of other taxa.

04 September 2017

Swallow-tailed Gull Twitch

On Thursday, 31 August 2017, Ryan Merrill found an adult Swallow-tailed Gull at Carkeek Park in north Seattle, Washington (King County). The internet went nuts and it didn't take long before dozens of birders descended on the beach to observe this rarity - only the 3rd to be recorded in North America, and certainly the farthest north the species has ever been observed. The gull spent the entire day on the beach with a flock of California Gulls, with intermittent bouts nearby in the water. It was still being seen at sunset, and surely it would be here the next morning. Or would it?

I closely monitored reports for the next 24-36 hours and just about gave up on my plans when the bird wasn't found the next day. That is, until it was relocated around 5:00 pm local time, roughly 7 miles to the north at Richmond Beach, adjacent to an oil refinery. This site is a tad north of the King-Snohomish County line, putting the bird in a new county and adding excitement for local birders. I locked in with flight & rental car reservations and left Chicago at 6:00 am the next morning. I knew there was a good chance the bird wouldn't be found on the 3rd day, and I was perfectly okay taking that chance (read sweaty palms).

A short 4-hour plane ride from Chicago to Seattle.
When my plane landed, I received the reports every birder dreads on a twitch like this: "No bird today". All negative reports from every channel. Crap. Driving north through a more-than-ever congested Seattle on Labor Day weekend didn't ease my worries. That was valuable time I could've used looking for the gull. I finally got up to Kayu Kayu Park after a 1.5 hour commute from the airport to Point wells. I walked out to the oil tanks with much anticipation.
The walk from Kayu Kayu Ac Park to Point Wells is a mile, back and forth.

I found no bird and no other birders here after spending nearly two hours at the refinery. After comng up empty-handed, I made the seemingly long walk back to the car. This was Seattle's hottest day of the summer, yet, 88F. As I passed Kayu Kayu from the RR tracks, I met Dave Irons who was scoping from the park proper. His wife Shawneen was resting in the car as the two had left their home at 4:00 am from Portland. We chatted for a bit and properly exchanged numbers.

I drove north for about 15 minutes to check the marina in Edmonds. I spent over an hour walking around this busy site, resenting the fact so many weekend-goers were out. If the gull did have any taste for resting here, the masses of fishermen and boaters would surely drive it off. The long breakwall there was loaded with gulls and so I took a break to photograph a few Glaucous-winged x Western hybrids and briefly forgot my reason for traveling to Puget Sound.

Just as it was really beginning to look bleak, I received a message from John Puschock at 4:26 pm: It's in Everett. Everett is approximately 20 miles to the north of Edmonds. John and I were talking the night before and he was confident the bird was in the area feeding on squid. His evidence was convincing, with links to fishing reports that showed good squid fishing in the Edmonds area for the last 6 weeks. This variable shouldn't be underestimated as squid is a primary food source in this species' diet. Paying it forward, I immediately called Dave and Shawneen and alerted them. I cleared the estimated 35 minute trip up to Everett in 25 minutes.

When I arrived, I found Shelley Rutkin and Philip Dickinson - two very lucky birders who spotted the gull at Everett Marina - and a couple of other birders standing with scopes and binoculars. They were looking at a group of gulls in the water. The gulls were close. Very close. I pulled up to them "drive-thru" style, raised my binoculars, and there sat the Swallow-tailed Gull about 100 feet out in the water!

Lifer from the car! Swallow-tailed Gull with Glaucous-winged Gulls. Snohomish County, WA. 02 September 2017.

Now I'm not sure what possessed this bird to do what it did next. But less than 2 minutes after me pulling up (I have the time stamps on my images to verify this), the gull got up and flew straight in, landing no more than 20 feet in front of my car along the edge of the parking lot. Without any time to compose myself, I fired off a few shots as it flew by...

Probably more than any birder I know, I've had my share of chumming in gulls (a couple of Black-tailed Gulls and several Slaty-backeds being on my A-list). But this bird was 100% "unchummed". It sat in front of us and put on the most spectacular show I could've hoped for. With perfect lighting and the sun to our back, it began picking up pebbles with its bill, hock-sitting, flapping its wings as if it were just learning how to use them, and occasionally winking at us as it preened. According to my camera, these magical moments lasted for a little over 7 minutes.

The white crescent under the red orbital is only visible when the bird squints or closes its eye.

It was oblivious to our presence...

The largest eye of any gull species -- befitting for a bird completely evolved to nocturnality.

If you're still reading this report, then you surely deserve to see a few more photos...

As more and more birders soon arrived, and boaters continued to pass through with their trucks and trailers, the bird wisely picked up and returned to the water.

Although the upperwing pattern is reminiscent of Sabine's Gull, the black on the primary coverts is limited and never reaches the gray along the wrist.

With all flight feathers intact, it isn't adjusted to a molt schedule similar to our northern larids. This should suggest it hasn't been in the northern hemisphere long. 

Right then as it flew off, I knew that was the closest I'd get to that gull - ever! I lazily backed off and turned my attention to the growing number of birders.