Tag Archives: gulls

Intriguing Apparent Hybrid Gull at Niagara Falls.

Jeannette and I took our annual pre-Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch (starts on Wednesday!) roadtrip this year to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.  We went to Buffalo on a pilgrimage to visit the Anchor Bar – the birthplace of the Buffalo Wing. And we spent the rest of the time in the gull-watching Mecca of Niagara Falls.

On our first day at Niagara, wind gusts over 60mph were ripping over the falls (the local airport recorded a gust of 72 mph!) and birding was brutal at best, but essentially impossible (at least for a vacation). We spent a couple of hours in Niagara Falls State Park, but although it looked pretty that day, it was a day to go to the Anchor Bar! We also checked out the Olmstead-designed Delaware Park while in the big city.
Day 1 falls

The next day (Thursday, 3/9) it was quite a bit colder, but the winds were “only” 15-25mph. It was far from pleasant, but it was most definitely bird-able! And the birding was very good!
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Despite the relatively late date for the peak of “winter” gulling here (despite what it felt like), we sorted through the many thousands of gulls (predominately Herring and Ring-billed, with a small number of Great Black-backed) and conservatively estimated at least 31 Iceland Gulls, 23 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and 8 Glaucous Gulls in and around Goat Island alone.
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Third-cycle “Kumlien’s Iceland Gull

And then there was this one:
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I identified it as a possible or “putative” Laughing Gull x Ring-billed Gull hybrid on account of several features:
– near-complete blackish hood with smudgy white around the eye.
– mantle was 1-2 shades darker than the surrounding Ring-billed Gulls.
– overall size and structure was comparable to Ring-billed Gulls, and didn’t bring one of the smaller hooded gulls to mind.
– large white apical spots on the outer primaries.
– dark orange bill with a blackish band, slightly smaller and thinner than nearby Ring-bills.
– yellow-orange legs

And frankly, it looked a lot like photos I have seen of this presumed pairing, such as this one from Amar Ayyash in Chicago.

Jeannette photographed it and we moved on. We never felt a need to flush it, and the bird clearly was not going to raise its wings on its own for us! But feeling the identification was solid, we enjoyed it, left it alone, and went on our way (perhaps we were simply being ultra-conservative about disturbance after the Great Gray Owl debacles this winter!)

A few minutes later, we ran into another birder, and alerted him to our find. He saw it, got some photos, came back to chat, and then went back to the bird. We continued to bird our way around the island.

I knew I needed to take a look at the photos on the computer, and do some homework. A couple of things really bothered me.  But before I had a chance to study the photos and re-evaluate my initial ID, chatter broke out on the area’s birding listserve. Chris Kundl was the birder we met, and he went back and spent some quality time with the bird, extensively photographing the wing pattern, which we – unforgivably!- did not. He, and several other local birders, then identified it as a (rarer) Black-headed Gull x Ring-billed Gull hybrid, based on the extensive white in the wingtips and the white leading edge to the wing. (His photos are here)

Kevin McGowan posted a link to a basic-plumaged individual of this presumed combination, and it definitely looks similar.

However, as Shai Mitra then pointed out on the listserve, a few things are a bit off for that combination. “(T)o me, this bird looks so unlike a Black-headed Gull that I remain puzzled. Specifically, it looks large, thick-necked, large-headed, broad-winged, and heavy-billed. Black-headed Gull is only half the mass of a Ring-billed Gull and very differently shaped, whereas this bird looks quite similar to Ring-billed Gull in overall size and structure. It is of course possible for hybrids to tilt toward one parent or the other in various ways, as opposed to showing intermediacy, but note that the Sullivan County bird from 2002 showed much more intermediacy in these very features (e.g., more obvious influence of Black-headed Gull in terms of size and shape). Looking more closely at the plumage, I also note that the hood seems to lack any of the brownish tones usually evident in Black-headed Gull, and that the mantle appears subtly darker than those of Ring-billed Gulls (Black-headed Gull is notably pale-mantled).”

The size, structure, shape, blackish (not brownish) hood, and darker mantle was what led me to the call of Laughing x Ring-billed. But how else does one explain that white leading edge to the wing? And the extensive white on the outer primaries? A hybrid Bonaparte’s Gull would explain that (and the black tone of the hood), but that’s even smaller and daintier gull than Black-headed.

So what does this mean? Simply: I don’t know. My initial ID does not explain the wing pattern, and that really bothers me.  So what is this? It looks like I have some more homework to do – and I will be sending this blog around to gather additional insight. I also want to look up when the various hooded gulls acquire their alternate plumage, as this seems incredibly early for a hooded gull to be hooded. Keeping in mind that not all hybrids are perfectly intermediate, that backcrosses occur, and that it’s hard to “prove” parentage, I think this bird is worthy of a little more debate.

Of course, we looked at everything else during our visit, including a couple of Harlequin Ducks off Goat Island, and goodly numbers of a wide variety of ducks (especially Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Buffleheads) at a number of locations. And later, we finally caught up with a “as good as they get” Thayer’s Gull – a spiffy adult at Devil’s Hole State Park (after passing on labeling a couple as such at Goat Island earlier in the day).
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The Niagara River Gorge and the Whirlpool from Whirlpool State Park.

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Redheads

Unfortunately, it was already time to head home on Friday, so after another walk around Niagara Falls State Park, we began the trek eastward, birding Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, the winds were very strong once again and our time was limited, but we thoroughly enjoyed the hundreds of Tundra Swans (it’s been a while since we’ve seen any!), good numbers of many ducks especially Ring-necked, and sorted through many thousands of Canada Geese at the refuge and nearby cornfields (13 Cackling Geese in Gypsum Pond were our only non-Canadas, unfortunately) before beginning the long drive home (made much longer by snow squalls and that darn Norlun trough that set up over southern Maine!).

Our time was far too limited, as always, but it’s time to get ready to count some hawks!  And at least we still have this gull to mull over.
Falls from Goat Island

Yup, More About the “Westbrook Gull.”

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A great day of birding on Friday included new arrivals and migrant waterfowl around Scarborough Marsh (oh yeah, and two more Snowy Owls), continuing good numbers of white-winged gulls in Portland Harbor, and “quality time” with “Westie,” the still unidentified white-winged gull in Westbrook (highlights posted to the store’s Facebook page as usual).

As for this frustrating, fun, and challenging obsession of mine with the “Westbrook Gull,” I won’t rehash the entire story here, but for that please visit this blog entry from January.

During our outing on Friday, Kristen Lindquist and I enjoyed my best photo session of the season with the bird. I’ve posted a variety of photos of the bird into the growing gallery of photos of this bird on our store’s Facebook page, here.

But here I want to discuss a few of the more pertinent images, and explore some of the still-unanswered questions about this bird. First and foremost, and perhaps the single most critical factor in being able to simply dismiss this as an Iceland Gull – likely (due to its pure white wingtips and pale mantle) of the nominate subspecies glaucoides – is the fact (not subject to interpretation) that the wings are short: only two primaries extend beyond the tail, as with Glaucous Gull, and unlike the long, four-primary extension of Iceland Gull of either subspecies. No photo of this bird in four years has shown the typical “long-winged” appearance of Iceland Gull of either subspecies.
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It’s impossible to ignore this significant structural feature, but of course, we never base an identification (or lack thereof!) on any one particular characteristic. Unfortunately, nothing else is this clear and distinct.

As the bird reached adulthood, I had hoped that the orbital ring – the narrow band of bare skin that surrounds the eye – might yield a clue, and now that we are in late spring, the bird’s head is pure white and the brighter bill suggests that it is now in “high breeding” (or at least close to it), the color should be as true as possible. Howell and Dunn list the orbital ring of Larus glaucoides glaucoides as pinkish to red, turning brighter reddish by spring. L.g kumlieni is described as purplish-pink to reddish, brightening by spring. As for Glaucous Gull: orange to pale pink flesh, brightening in spring to “orange or chrome yellow.” As for Westie?
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I call that simply “pink.” But does that only mean that this bird is not in high breeding yet (which is suggested by the still-brightening yellow of the bill)? If this is as colorful as it gets, it’s a significant strike against a Glaucous Gull, or at least a pure one, but it is not clinching for Iceland Gull of either subspecies, either.

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Westie’s dominance of the park leads to aggressive behavior towards other gulls, especially anything of similar size or larger. While the aggressive behavior is more typical of Glaucous Gulls, I think the rather unnatural environment, along with the decided “home-turf’ behavior negates the value of this circumstantial evidence. What it does mean, however, is that it is a royal pain in the ass to get this bird next to something else other than a smaller Ring-bill. I would like to see it next to an adult Herring Gull to compare grayscale, but especially an Iceland Gull of any shape, size, or variety! This was the closest I have come to that goal.
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As for Herring Gulls, this youngster was tolerated for a few seconds.
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In other words, I still don’t know what this is. But at least it gives me something to do in the winter, and offers a really good exercise in studying the finer points of the endless variation in “large white-headed gulls.” Oh yeah, and it’s a pretty bird, too. Might just have to leave it at that…for now.
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DSC_0071_Westie and RBGU 5_edited-1

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And believe it or not, there are other birds at Riverbank Park and the adjacent Westbrook Riverwalk.  On Friday, this included one of the continuing Canvasbacks (a rarity in Maine), and a handful of ultra-cooperative Cedar Waxwings!
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A White-winged Gull Convention in Portland Harbor

On Sunday, Kristen Lindquist and I worked Portland Harbor for gulls.  In my usual routine, I started at the Maine State Pier and worked my way west, checking all of the piers and roosting locations in Old Port.  I was pretty happy with the 4 first-winter Glaucous Gulls and a healthy handful of Iceland Gulls from the state pier, and we continued to see Iceland Gulls here and there as we continued along.

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It was a good day for gulls in the harbor, but we didn’t realize just how good it was until we got to the end of the “Fish Pier.”  There, everywhere we looked we saw white-winged gulls!  Out by the dredging barges there were white-winged gulls.  Feeding at the rips around the channel markers there were white-winged gulls.  And all around the fish pier there were white-winged gulls!

I was very conservative in my counts, and yet tallied an exceptional 12 first-winter Glaucous Gulls – an all-time state high count for me.  But it was the abundance of Iceland Gulls that stole the show; 4 adults (all with completely different wing-tip patterns of course), at least three 2nd-winter, and an astounding (for southern Maine, anyway) THIRTY-TWO 1st-winter birds.  With that many, it was not surprising that the whole range of variation of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls was to be seen, but try as I might, I couldn’t find a single bird that even allowed for an attempted stringing of a Thayer’s.

Despite starting the day by saying, “I am not taking any more first cycle Iceland Gull photos this winter,” with this many birds around, I couldn’t help myself.  Here’s a selection of photos, starting with two phone-scoping using an iPhone 4S, Phone Skope adapter, and a Zeiss Diascope FL, followed by “better” photos using my Nikon D80 with a 300mm lens.

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At the aforementioned outflow pipe.

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1st cycle Iceland Gull feeding storm-petrel style.

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1st/2nd cycle (L) and 2 1st-cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls (R), with a dark 1st winter Herring Gull for contrast.

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Light and darker 1st-cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.

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Worn, late 1st Cycle or early 2nd Cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull.

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Adult “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull.

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Adult and 1st/2nd Cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.

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1st cycle and adult “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.

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Wait, that’s not an Iceland Gull…sorry, I got distracted…

After second breakfast, we checked in at Mill Creek Cove, where the outgoing tide was attracting gulls to the mouth of the creek as usual.  With birds heading to and from the Old Port, we didn’t add to our earlier counts, but there were at least 4 1st-winter Iceland and 2 1st-winter Glaucous Gulls present.  Oh, and this rather confiding female Green-winged Teal was dabbling with the Mallards.

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showing a little more green speculum than usual on one side.

Then we worked the Cape Elizabeth shoreline, highlighted by 3 Greater Scaup at Kettle Cove, 11 Brant at Dyer Point, and these 28 balls of awesomeness (aka Harlequin Ducks; phone-scoped photos).

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But back to those gulls…why so many?  While the number of Herring and Great Black-backed gulls (and the expected relatively small number of Ring-bills) were average (at least by recent winters’ standards), this is by far the most total white-winged gulls that I have seen in PortlandHarbor in the 13 years I’ve lived here.  Some of these gulls are probably northbound migrants, but clearly there was something more at play here.

For one, there’s a dredging operation ongoing in the main channel of Portland Harbor.  While we didn’t see any gulls obviously foraging on the dredge spoils being pumped into the barge, or immediately around the buckets scooping up the muck, there were birds standing around on the new moving “islands.”   I wondered if a lot of these gulls were following/riding the barges in from where they are dumping the dredge spoils seven miles offshore.  But in today’s Portland Press Herald, I read that the occasional dynamiting of underwater bedrock would kill some fish, and then the “seagulls’ (sic… ahem!) were feeding on the dead fish.  That would certainly augment the already-occurring food sources in the harbor.

But most of the Iceland Gulls today were centered around the outflow pipes of various lobster-related facilities, as usual.  Meanwhile, the high tide limited roosting and foraging opportunities along the coast, and here in the harbor.

So my guess is that the time of year (migrants), the dredging operation, and the tides all helped to greatly increase the volume of white-winged gulls present today to numbers not seen in recent years – at least not since Portland had a thriving year-round fishing industry.  Obviously, this is just conjecture, but whatever made it happen, I was happy to be there to enjoy it!

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Also gull-watching:
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Gull Identification Workshop Wrap-Up

You may have noticed that my blog has been a little quiet in the last couple of weeks.  Mostly, that has been due to my birding being mostly about photographing gulls every chance I get! And in between, accumulating and sorting photos from friends.  What was planned to be a 95-slide PowerPoint program became an exhaustive (literally), 180+ slide dissertation.  Not only was I impressed by how many people signed up, but how many stayed until the bitter end – even though I strongly urged people who were new to this to depart before the section on Thayer’s Gulls and hybrids!

Come Sunday morning, 13 people joined me for the field session of the two-day workshop – no doubt reduced by the 12-degree temperatures that greeted us to start the day. We began with close studies of the various ages of Ring-billed Gulls at Back Cove…aided by a little “incentive,” of course.
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Sorting through Herring Gulls was up next, and then we made our way over to the Fish Pier in OldPort, for some “real” gulling.  And it did not disappoint. The endless variation of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls was readily apparent with eleven 1st-winter, two 2nd-winter, and 2 adults – many of them close and in direct contrast with each other. A total of three 1st-winter Glaucous Gulls were added to the mix, along with ample opportunities to practice aging Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls.
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I really couldn’t ask for anything more…well, I could, and of course, did. And shortly thereafter a particular gull-of-interest put in an appearance. Widely being reported as a Thayer’s Gull, this odd individual was a bird I wanted to study closely (Jeannette and I only saw it in the distance on Tuesday), and it was indeed a very instructive bird for a gull workshop.  Having been looking at thousands of gull photos over the last two weeks, I have been a bit negligent with studying and addressing this bird.  Besides, I had not seen it in the field and even some very good photos are of secondary value to time with a bird in the field.

Doug Hitchcox got some decent photos of the bird on Sunday, but the best photos to date have been from Noah Gibb. I will therefore use these photos as our reference.
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One of my take-home messages during my workshop is that a good “guller” has to be able to say “I don’t know,” and leave some individuals as “Gull sp.” This is probably the best answer to this bird, but what I think we can say is that this cannot be “counted” as a Thayer’s Gull.

For better or for worse, Thayer’s Gulls on the East Coast receive extensive scrutiny.  Birds that would be passed over in coastal California are analyzed to death in New England. Likewise, birds that look like “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls on the West Coast get extensive scrutiny, while here in Maine we pass some of these off as typical variation.  And I think this is a good thing – rare birds are rare, and vagrants to opposite coasts should warrant extreme care.

Therefore, this current rash of “Thayer’s Fever” – a common affliction of East Coast gull-watchers – needs to be tempered a bit. There is a reason that there are only two accepted records ever in Maine of this challenging, and variable, species. Therefore, extreme caution is necessary when placing this desirable label on funky gulls.

Like the Shawmut Dam gull reported by many as a Thayer’s a few weeks ago, I believe that the Portland “Thayer’s” is well outside the range of variation of what we can accept as a bona-fide Thayer’s Gull on the East Coast.  While there are a number of characteristics that suggest this bird could be a Thayer’s, there are a number of significant “strikes” against it.  While I think the Shawmut Dam birds suggests a Iceland-Thayer’s intergrade (I am not going to get into the muddled and controversial taxonomy here today), the Portland bird looks to me more like an abnormally dark-winged “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull. Sure there could be Thayer’s genes in there…which there probably are in all Kumlien’s Gulls . . .oh wait, I said I wasn’t going to get into taxonomy.  Never mind.  Moving on.

So where was I? Oh yes… while the dark secondary bar (and upon closer inspection showing a distinct contrast between dark outer webs and pale inner webs) and the similarly distinctly two-toned outer primaries are important Thayer’s features, there are a serious amount of non-Thayer’s like features shown by this bird. Again, like the Shawmut Dam bird, there are just too many things “wrong” with this bird to safely label it a Thayer’s Gull, in my opinion.

First and foremost, there’s the Portland bird’s incredibly white overall appearance. While a first-summer or some 2nd-cycle Thayer’s can look this pale overall, this bird IS a first-cycle bird.  Since no second-cycle feathers are evident (the bird has a very uniformly-marked plumage typical of a bird less than a year old) and none of the feathers suggest any abnormal wear, we cannot call this anything other than a 1st-cycle bird.  It is not overly worn, and bleaching would affect all of the most-exposed parts of the bird – like the mantle, upperwing, and especially the primaries (and it is those primaries that are abnormally dark, not pale). The mostly-dark bill is also highly suggestive of a 1st-cycle bird, as is the fairly dark eye. Perhaps that is a bit of an over-simplification, but for now, that should suffice.

With that (fairly well) established, we can look at this bird more closely.  Again, those outer primaries and “picket-fence” secondaries are very Thayer’s-esque. Unfortunately, the similarities pretty much end there. The bird is not very big, and similar in size to most of the “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls we see it with.  It is also has the somewhat short and thin-billed appearance, with a gently rounded head and large eye that are typical of Iceland Gulls; this bird does not get any subjective gestalt points.  More importantly, in my opinion, are more tangible issues, from head to tail (and in no particular order of importance):
–          The overall pale appearance to the entire bird give that “white” impression at a distance; Thayer’s (THGU) usually look “dirtier” or even “brown.”
–          The pale face doesn’t have that nice dark smudge that we like to see on THGU.
–          The bill is clearly becoming pale at the base already.  The pattern looks good for Iceland (ICGU), and is certainly on one end of the bell curve for THGU.
–          The tertials are wholly marbled, and look perfect for ICGU.  “Classic” THGU show mostly dark tertials with marbled distal ~1/3rd or so.
–          On the folded wing (and on some flight shots), the primaries definitely have dark outer webs, but they also have a pale fringe that not just rounds the tip, but continues down the length of the most of each feather’s outer web. That is more consistent with dark-winged “Kumlien’s” Gulls.
–          While the tail is mostly dark, the bases are fairly extensive white with lots of marbling.  The extent of marbling is a good fit for ICGU.

While absolutely none of these factors eliminate a THGU on their own, the sum of all of them taken together makes for a most unusual THGU.  Considering the range of variation in “Kumlien’s” ICGU combined with hybridization – and by some accounts extensive intergrading – put this bird well outside the possibly-artificially-delineated box that we currently label a Thayer’s Gull.  At the very least, this is far short of a bird that could be “good enough” to constitute a third state record.

Can you see why I was so impressed that so many people stayed to the bitter end of my program on Saturday (and Sunday, for that matter!)?  So there, I said it – the OldPort mystery gull is not a “good” Thayer’s, despite the wishes of many-a-birder!  Sorry.

So anyway, after the Fish Pier, we ventured over to Mill Creek Cove in South Portland.  Two more 1st-winter Iceland and a 1st-winter Glaucous were present (some are all likely birds we saw on the other side of the harbor) to reinforce our new-found skills.
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And finally, some of the group joined me for a field trip extension over to Westbrook to look for the “Westbrook Gull,” a bird that, as I explained in the workshop, still defies identification and therefore is also quite instructive. Unfortunately, it was not present today (I see it less often on the weekend), but we finished up with a great showing for here of 4 Iceland Gulls (three 1st-winter and 1 2nd-winter) with the Herring and Ring-billed Gulls near the falls.  Meanwhile, while we did look at other birds all day, the open water behind downtown Westbrook yielded the surprise of the day – a pair of Ring-necked Duck that has just been found by Colin Chase.  Whether they are southbound, northbound, are somewhere in between, this was a great winter find, and a nice way to bring our workshop to a close.

Some people added Iceland and Glaucous Gull to their life list this day – and I think one person deleted Thayer’s Gull from their life list! – but more importantly, everyone left with a little more knowledge about how to identify gulls, and more importantly, hopefully a new-found appreciation for these remarkable, adaptable, and successful creatures.

With the success of this weekend (and some refinement due to the slide show portion of the program), I think it is safe to say that you can look for this workshop again in the future.  Until then, good gulling everyone!

“The Westbrook Gull” Returns for Year 4…and Remains Unidentified. I think. Maybe.

As you well know by now, I enjoy looking at gulls.  I especially enjoy looking at white-winged gulls in winter here in Maine.  From the seemingly-endless range of variation of first-winter “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls to the stately elegance and dominating demeanor of adult Glaucous Gulls, I can’t get enough.  And there’s one particular white-winged gull that I have studied more than all of the others.

For the fourth year in a row, a relatively-small white-winged gull has spent the winter at Riverbank Park in Westbrook.  This has afforded me the opportunity to study the bird’s progression, and to one day, hopefully, identify it!  Yup, after four winters, I am still not certain as to what it is!  And that is both fun and frustrating.

First of all, I have no doubts that the bird is indeed the same individual – despite the lack of a band or any sort of unique marking – due to the bird’s behavior and overall very pale plumage each year.  While other “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls occasionally visit the river here, most of the birds just head up to the base of the falls for a bath with the other gulls, and then head back down the river.  Once in a while, another Iceland Gull will spend some time at Riverbank, but they don’t tend to linger long.  The bird’s behavior is also more than suggestive – not only does it sit in the same three spots (including a church steeple that rarely has any other gull) whenever it is near the park, but it is the only white-winged gull that is almost always present and comes down to feed on handouts with the contingent of Ring-billed Gulls.  The chance that a similarly-super-pale bird would do exactly the same things for four years in a row at a place that usually doesn’t have any other white-winged gulls seems rather far-fetched.  It also tends to show up at about the same time – early to mid-January each year.  I think it is safe to assume that this is the same bird.

Therefore, what we now have is a record of the bird over four years of life, showing the plumage progression of each year.  Now, I never recommend using only one photo to describe a given bird (in this case, in a given year), especially with gulls, as gray scale in particular changes so much with lighting (and how badly I butchered the ISO) among other factors ranging from time of the season to how recently the bird ate.  Therefore<a href=”http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.350344068328887.95540.198877036808925&type=3“>, I recommend taking a look at the photo gallery on our store’s Facebook page here.

But for sake of conversation, let me simply include one photo from each of the past three winters.
2010-11:
ICGU1, Riverbank Park, Westbrook, 3-14_edited-1

2011-12:
ICGU, Riverbank Park2, 1-19-12_edited-1

2012-13:
1,3-6-13 copy

And now, it has returned, in full-adult plumage.  Here are a series of photos that I took at Riverbank on Monday (1/27):
DSC_0014_WestbrookICGU1,ad,1-27-14_edited-1

DSC_0020_WestbrookICGU-ad3,1-27-14

DSC_0029_WestbrookICGU-ad11-flight2,1-27-14

DSC_0027_WestbrookICGU-ad9-flight1,1-27-14

DSC_0023_WestbrookICGU-ad7-withRBGU,1-27-14

In that aforementioned Facebook gallery, I included some of the thought process that I have had about exactly how old this bird is, and what subspecies of Iceland Gull that it might be.   From an identification perspective, now that is in “adult” plumage, the exact age is moot – all adult plumages look the same, with minor differences between winter (especially streaking on the head and neck) and summer (white head and more vivid bare part coloration).  It is safe to say that this bird is “at least” 4 years old, and now it is in the plumage that should allow us to more-safely identify it to subspecies.  In theory.

But before we delve into the Iceland Gull subspecies question, I think it is worth taking a moment to be sure it is in fact, and Iceland Gull.  The case has been made that this bird could be a runt Glaucous Gull (or one of the very small subspecies) or even an Iceland x Glaucous Gull hybrid.

The basis for the argument has revolved around the exceedingly pale plumage, the bird’s rather bulky size and shape, its dominance over even larger Herring Gulls, and especially the length of the wing.  Here, I blew up a photo from Monday of the primaries.  I extensively manipulated it to try and bring out the detail of the edges of each feather – so ignore the color.
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Iceland Gulls are usually readily identifiable by their longer wings.  Those wings extend well beyond the tail, and usually at least 4 primaries are visible beyond the tail.  Olsen and Larson reference this projection as being “equivalent (to) the bill length or longer.”  It’s not a perfect photo above, but I definitely don’t see four primaries beyond the tail, and the primary projection does not look as long as the bill in any of the photos.  In fact, this “unusually short-winged impression” was consistent in every year that we have seen the bird.  Take a look at the photo gallery over the years – you never see a “long-winged” Iceland Gull with four primaries extending beyond the tail.
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Another clue for Iceland vs. Glaucous is the relatively short legs of Iceland: the tibia (upper part) is usually mostly covered by body feathers, while on Glaucous, the tibia is more exposed – at least when the bird is alert.  To me, this bird sometimes looks short-legged, with little exposed tibia, which is in line with Iceland Gull, but other times looks oddly long-legged, in line with Glaucous (see above and additional photos).  This is a fairly subjective (like so many other gull ID characteristics) point, and one that I am not putting much weight in either way.

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On the Westbrook bird, the forehead usually appears gently rounded, and the eye looks fairly big on the head – as it should on an Iceland Gull.  However, other photos show a very sloping forehead – this feature changes significantly with posture and “attitude,’ but I must say that I have never seen a Glaucous Gull that appeared truly “round-headed.”

While the bill is not dainty, it is not as formidable as Glaucous usually looks, and it shows little in the way of a gonydeal angle.  Howell and Dunn state that Glaucous’s “bill base often has slightly expanded culmen that creates distinctive shape (especially males), with a depth at the base greater than the depth at the gonydeal expansion.”  I don’t see that on this bird.  In fact, their description for Iceland Gull of “relatively short and slender, parallel edged with a shallow to moderate gonydeal expansion,” seems to match this bird much better, although it’s not the most slender, nor the shortest, bill that I have seen on Iceland Gulls.
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The fleshy orbital ring is pink on this bird at the moment.  Howell and Dunn describe Glaucous Gull as having an orange orbital ring, “Kumlien’s” Gull as having it “purplish-pink,” with the nominate Iceland showing a “pink to reddish.”

Of these characteristics, the only thing that suggests that this is not anything other than a pure Iceland Gull of one or the other subspecies is what appears – and has consistently appeared over the years – to be a short wing.  Personally, I have a hard time relying on any one single field mark to rule a species in or out, but I can’t completely ignore how short this wing is.

So assuming for a second that this is indeed an Iceland Gull, it comes down to which subspecies it is: the nominate glaucoides or kumieni.  I’m not going to get into the taxonomic debate here, so I will discuss this based on the current most-widely-used taxonomy that includes two subspecies of Iceland Gull: the nominate glaucoides that breeds in Greenland and winters mostly in Iceland and Northern Europe, while kumlieni breeds on Baffin Island and adjacent areas of northeastern Canada, and winters largely in the Northeastern US and Atlantic Canada.  Birds that seem perfect for glaucoides are regularly seen in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, but in the Northeast US, the conventional wisdom suggests that glaucoides is very rare, and some argue that most if not all birds that appear to be glaucoides are actually just the pale extremes of kumlieni.

The extensively pure white wingtips, very pale gray mantle, and very white appearance as a youngster are all points in favor of glaucoides.  However, most features overlap with kumlieni.  What’s troubling is that the Westbrook bird never appears as small and dainty as a textbook glaucoides; sometimes described as “cuter” with a big eye, more rounded head, and small size than most kumlieni.  This bird is more along the lines of a big kumlieni, which few plumage characteristics at any age have been overly consistent with.

If I saw this bird for the first time this week, I think I would call it a “probable glaucoides” and move on.  But I have spent so much time with this bird over the years (“You are a little obsessed with this bird,” Jeannette just said.) that I prefer to still answer “I don’t know,” that I stubbornly want to keep pondering this bird.  Its appearance in preceding years and those short wings continue to bother me, even though my gut tells me that this is just an Iceland Gull.

Essentially, the problem with this gull for each of the last four years is that it’s never been seen (to my knowledge) side-by-side with another white-winged gull.  We’re therefore left with conjecture, comparing this bird to Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.  What we really need is photos of this bird next to another Iceland-type gull.  A direct comparison would do wonders for figuring this thing out for sure.  Or a DNA test.

Short of that, this is, essentially, only an exercise.  I don’t think anything can be said definitively.  Hopefully, by spring, this bird’s bare part coloration (orbital ring and the bill in particular) will develop a little further, which may shed further light on the birds’ identity.  More importantly, I – and others – will be trying to get more photos of the bird and especially photos of the bird with other Iceland Gulls.  Until then, I will continue to ponder, enjoy, study, and yes, be frustrated by “The Westbrook Gull.”

Now for those who are truly gluttons for punishment, I will be discussing this bird as part of my upcoming Gull Identification Workshop for York County Audubon on February 8th and 9th.  But don’t worry, we’re not going to spend too much time with the unidentifiable…I promise.  Instead, we’ll spend most of our time learning that MOST gulls are actually fairly easy to identify.  I believe the Westbrook Gull is the exciting and challenging exception to the rule.  And once you are comfortable identifying just about every gull just about every time, you’ll be ready to accept and excel such challenges.  I hope you will join me for this workshop.  For more information, and a link to register, visit the Tours, Events, Workshops, and Programs page of our website.

References:
Howell, Steve N.G. and Jon Dunn.  2007.  The Reference Guide to Gulls of the Americas.  Houghton Mifflin Company: New York and Boston.

Olsen, Klaus Malling and Hans Larsson.  2004.  Gulls of North America, Europe, and Asia.  Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.

A Day Along the New Hampshire Seacoast

It was like birding in another world yesterday as Kristen Lindquist and I headed south of the border…to the New Hampshire Seacoast.  For one, we saw birders everywhere!  Well, everywhere where there wasn’t wall-to-wall development.  And goodness, even in winter, there are a lot of people around here (relatively speaking of course). Yup, we weren’t in Maine anymore!

But I have a lifetime listing goal of seeing 200 species in every state, and my goal was to hit that mark in New Hampshire by the end of this year.  This goal is not for any “total ticks” target, or submission to any listing competitions, or anything else other than an excuse and occasional extra motivation to see more parts of the country.  The 200 number seems a reasonable goal to me for most states (I won’t reach it in Hawai’i!) that involves seeing a fair sample of what a state has to offer, and usually in multiple seasons – whether its scenery, food, or other interests (i.e. Rutgers football bowl games!), there’s always a good reason to travel near and far and lots of fun to be had in the process.  And of course I will be birding in between anyway, so long ago I began keeping track of it.

So the 200 goal was born, and it was time to get to know my neighboring state a little better.  Outside of the White Mountains (where I love to bird, hike, and of course, guide), I really didn’t know New Hampshire birding and birding sites very well, and I am happy to say that has changed this year.  While I joked with friends about “never having to bird in NH again!” after the goal was met, I did learn quite a bit about birding the state in the process.  But yeah, I am partial to birding in Maine.

Anyway, I have been watching the NH listserve and plotting my visit.  I needed 5 more species, and I kept an eye on when a handful of uncommon to rare birds joined the more expected species that I “needed.”  Seeing recent reports from the Seacoast – and seeing that my days off will be limited (aka: likely non-existent) from now to Christmas, I decided yesterday would be the day, despite early morning ice that slowed our drive (lots of cars off the Turnpike yet again) and persistent drizzle and occasional light rain.

We began in the Hampton Marsh, where the high tide was pushing Horned Larks to the edges. Check. We then ran into Ben Griffith and Lauren Kras, and then joined them in a Snowy Owl search.  Unfortunately, this was to no avail.

Pulling into Hampton Beach State   Park, the two hen King Eiders (197) performed nicely.  I teased out a few Purple Sandpipers (199) from the flock of 100 or so Dunlin (198), and ran into more friends.
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Compare the “Queen” Eider with the hen Common Eider on the right. Note especially the concavity of the bill, the face pattern, and the cooler, grayer tone to the plumage.

After chatting and enjoying the eiders for a bit, Kristen and I grabbed some lunch and then returned to the coast.  Snowy Owl would make a nice milestone bird.

Shortly thereafter, I received a text from Ben “Nelson’s-type Gull on Eel Pond,” followed by “Correction – possible Thayer’s Gull.”  And off we went.

Arriving at Eel Pond, the bird in question immediately stuck out, and I set about studying and photographing it.  While it seemed that people were at least leaning heavily towards a Thayer’s Gull by this point, I had my doubts.  But, I also have limited experience with 2nd Cycle Thayer’s Gulls.  I also did not have a better explanation for this odd bird at the time.  But Thayer’s Gulls are tough, 2nd Cycle gulls are a pain in the ass, and a rarity like this (potential 6th NH record) of course warranted extra scrutiny.

I began to take notes, and even a little feather-sketching.  I took lots of photos.  Birders came and went.  Ben, Lauren, Jason Lambert, and I continued to work on the bird.  Kristen headed to the car to check on the Patriots and to warm up.  She was clearly the smart one.

There were a series of things that bothered me about this bird being a Thayer’s Gull, and I scribbled those down in my notes:
–          The primaries were multiple shades darker than any other part of the bird.
–          The tertials were extensively marbled.
–          The bill was so extensively pale with such a finely demarcated black tip for a bird that was otherwise not very advanced in plumage.
–          The bill looked rather large and heavy, especially at the tip.
–          The eye color was orange-yellow, not light, but definitely not dark.
– The legs were dingy pinkish-flesh.

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While none of these features really eliminate Thayer’s Gull, they are consistent with “Nelson’s Gull,” the name given to Herring x Glaucous Gull hybrids as well.  But try as we might, we could not get the bird to fly closer.  I never saw it with the wing fully outstretched, but the bird was photographed well in flight earlier.

It was not a big bird, and looked smaller than most – but definitely not all – of the nearby Herring Gulls.  Most Nelson’s I’ve seen are noticeably larger, but large gulls are notoriously variable.  But look at this shot – it sure doesn’t look small compared to the 1st cycle Herring Gull on the left!  And see that deep build?  It doesn’t look at slim and dainty as many Thayer’s look (speaking of variable – and subjective – gull criteria).  The head looks rather blocky, and the bill was rather hefty.
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Meanwhile, shortly after my arrival and the beginnings of ponder the mystery gull, a Carolina Wren sang…number 200!  Yeah, it was pretty obvious to all that my NH birding has mostly been in the mountains, but this was a silly hole that somehow was not filled on previous coastal trips.  Mission accomplished.  So I went back to pondering the gull.  And, with daylight fading and the long drive (especially for Kristen) still ahead of us, we hurried over to RyeState   Park to catch up with a Snowy Owl (201), which was one of our real targets of the day.  With at least 12 birds seen along the coast on Saturday, we were surprised that – despite the amount of birders combing the coast – it took us all day to see a Snowy (it sounds like a total of 2 or 3 were seen along the coast by day’s end).
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Driving home, we listened to the Pats once again stage a come-from-behind victory, and as Kristen departed, I hit our library and the internet for some gull study time.  After reviewing my photos of the standing gull, and comparing that to the photos in references – especially Howell & Dunn – and online, I was definitely leaning more towards Thayer’s Gull, as most of my concerns seemed to be accounted for.  But I needed to see the spread wing.

And then Ben forwarded me Jason’s photos.  My response was simple, “Ewww.”  The extensively dark primaries were as extensive and dark as they appeared in the field.  While darker Thayer’s can show dark shading bleeding onto the inner webs of the outermost primaries, the outer three primaries on the Eel Pond bird were clearly wholly dark, and the dark was extensive on the next two as well.  I just don’t think a Thayer’s can show that.  While no single field mark alone can define any gull, this very well could be enough on its own to eliminate a Thayer’s (or, dare I say it, a pure – whatever the hell that means – one), a bird known for its “picket fence” primaries of dark outer webs contrasting with pale inner webs.  Adding that with the other features – including the structure of the head, bill, and body – I’m unable to call this a Thayer’s Gull.  Short of a DNA sample, it’s a “Nelson’s Gull” to me, although I think there is some argument to be made for this to not be a first-generation hybrid.  I sent the link to Jason’s photos (which are far superior to my own) to a handful of friends, and they have so far concurred that this is a Nelson’s-type gull.  But, gulls are one of those birds that everyone can have a different opinion on, so I await responses from others.  I just hated to rain on the parade, especially since Lauren and Ben were so helpful in my little listing quest that initiated the day.

Ahh, large gulls. The Snowy Owl was easier to identify. I like Snowy Owls.