Tag Archives: Ring-billed Gull

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

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!

A MEW GULL in Thomaston!

On August 3rd, Don Reimer found Maine’s Third State Record of a Mew Gull in a parking lot in Thomaston.  While it was seen in the area for most of the day, it was not seen by anyone on the 4th – myself included – despite extensive searching.  However, a few days later, Don relocated it, and it has been seen regularly since, although it is not always in the same place at the same time, and it seems to feed somewhere unknown at low tide.

After returning from Hawai’i on Friday, I was happy to see the bird has kindly awaited my return.  Today was the first chance I got to head over, and at 7:45 I met Kristen Lindquist in the parking lot behind downtown Thomaston.  Kristen was studying about 30 Ring-billed Gulls in the parking lot until a birder drove by and flushed them.  Apparently, a few gulls from rooftops and/or a nearby field joined the flushed birds, and as they settled back down or flew off, I noticed a single, seemingly darker gray bird sitting atop a basketball hoop in the adjacent playground.

And sure enough!   I snapped a few phone-scoped images, including this one.
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Boy, that was easy, for us anyway (the gull is hard to see atop the basketball hoop here)!

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A short while later, it flew to a nearby field next to the Oceanside High School.  There, a jogger was doing laps around the track.  Although the bird was never too perturbed by this, it did fly a short distance when the jogger would be a little too close for comfort.  This afforded me a perfect opportunity for exactly what I wanted: flight and spread-wing photos. Shortly thereafter, it flew off the field and onto the roof of the elementary school where we left it at about 9:00.

(Click on the photos for a larger image)
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Side-by-side with a Ring-billed Gull:
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So, what is this?  Other than a big, fat, mess?

It’s definitely a bird in the Mew Gull (Larus canus) Complex, which here in the States, we refer to as composing four subspecies. There’s “Mew Gull,” L.c.brachyrhynchus that is common in the west, breeding from Alaska to extreme northwestern Manitoba and south through the coast of British Columbia, and wintering along the Pacific Coast from Washington into Baja California.  However, vagrants that have been recorded on the Eastern Seaboard have mostly (I believe) been assigned to the expanding European population, L.c.canus, or “Common Gull.”  There’s also the “Kamchatka Gull” (L.c. kamtschatsensis) of the Russian Far East that is a regular rarity in Western Alaska, with  perhaps a few claimed elsewhere on the continent (I am vaguely recalling one in Massachusetts?).  Finally, there is L.c.heinei of Siberia, which may just be an intergrade between Common and Kamchatka Gulls and I am unaware of any possible records of this in North America.

In short, the European “Common Gull” actually seems to be more likely on the East Coast than the North American “Mew Gull.”  But most records are from winter, and most birds do not have a plumage as trashed as this individual.

The bird appears small to me, with a relatively thin bill (although it’s on the long side), and a relatively dark mantle, all of which would be points in favor of Mew Gull.  However, the plumage is so ravaged, that it’s hard to even age the bird.  Is it an advanced 2nd cycle, a retarded 3rd cycle, or an adult that had some really bad days?  Intermediate-aged birds in the complex are notoriously, well, complex – and very difficult, at best, to identify.

But what can we actually see?
–          Fairly broad white windows in outer two primaries (primaries 10 + 9)
–          Little to know white between the black and gray on P8 (although this is probably only of value on an adult.
–          P7 is trashed
–          Is that a new P6 growing in? (One primary is definitely missing as well, could it be P1?)
–          The four new primaries have a fairly broad white tip.
–          The legs are dull olive-y (subadult-like).
–          The bill is fairly bright yellow at the tip with an olive-y base (adult-like).
–          The tail is too trashed too look for black spots at the tip (expected in a 2nd cycle Mew Gull, but not in a Common)
–          The eye is fairly dark.

So, we have an odd time of year for a vagrant gull, and we have a trashed plumage.  Can we narrow it down to a probable subspecies?  I will be sending this blog out to those who know various members of the Mew Gull Complex better than I do, and I will let you know what I learn.  Whatever it is, I got myself a state bird today!

REFERENCE:
Howell, Steve N.G. and Jon Dunn. 2007. Gulls of the Americas. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston/New York.