Thursday, February 28, 2013

Gull Worshippers: The Cult of Larophilia

Thayer's Gull, generally a west coast specialty, is a species many birders struggle with. Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA.

It all starts simply and innocently enough. When you are a nonbirder, they are all seagulls. Case closed. But as you fall deeper and deeper in love with birding, you realize there are many gull species. They are similar, but should be easy enough to tell apart, right? But after that overly optimistic assessment, other, more experienced birders inevitably correct the IDs you are attempting. Gulls are not what they seem. You eavesdrop on gull conversations that include unfamiliar words like webs, mirrors, gonydeal angles, bleaching, backcrosses. You look at photos of strange birds online that appear telling to some, but mean absolutely nothing to you. You might as well be trying to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. Suddenly, you have the horrible realization that gull identification is extremely messy and complex. You become daunted, weak in the will you ever master this perplexing group of birds?

From here, birders go one one of two ways. Either they become extremely intimidated by gulls and refuse to master identifying them, or they obsessively begin gobbling information about them and spend long, cold hours in the field staring at gull flocks intently (although rarely contentedly). The majority of birders go the former route, at least temporarily. There are a lot of other birds out there that need to be seen that are more interesting, more unique, more attractive, don't hybridize and at the very least can be identified by the sounds they make. The fact that many great gull-watching sites happen to be dumps and landfills is nott very appealing either.

In California's bay area, gull-watchers often convene at the sites where herring spawn, in mid to late winter. Spectacular concentrations of gulls that gather to feed on herring roe hold a few rarities more often than not. Photographed near Fort Baker, CA.

Even the smaller, "hooded" gulls regularly cause complications for people. Franklin's Gull (above) vs. Laughing Gull is a regular struggle for many birders. Photographed at Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, CA.

In fact, some birders find "gulling" to be such a difficult and unappealing activity that they fail to see the attraction of it at all. This post is for them. There are, in fact, a number of reasons to get into gull mode, for good or ill.

1) Rarities. There are a large number of gull species out there, they readily form mixed flocks, and they often migrate long distances. This means that they frequently turn up outside of their normal range and are highly prone to wandering...this includes everything from the diminutive Ross's Gull to the hulking Great Black-backed Gull. Birders love a rarity, and in the sometimes dull winter months (depending on where you live), if you want to find a rare bird, looking at gull flocks is a good idea. In fact, aside from a few species that occur across the continent (i.e. "American" Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Bonaparte's Gull), the majority of gull species common in one part of the country are likely to occur as a vagrant somewhere else. Add species from other continents in to the mix (i.e. Kelp Gull, Black-tailed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Slaty-backed Gull), and the possibilities of what you can find are almost endless...provided you know an uncommon bird when you see one.

If you are one of the people who want to begin (correctly) putting names to the gulls they see, this is a good "starter gull" for you west coasters. Adult Mew Gull is a very easy bird to ID and doesn't readily hybridize...they are also cute. Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.

Two "Olympic" Gulls (Glausous-winged X Western hybrids) and a Western Gull loiter next to a dump in San Leandro, CA. Olympic Gull is not only a common hybrid, its a common bird in general on the coast from central California north into British Columbia. A good "starter hybrid", I guess.

2) For birders who have been around for a long time, gulls often remain the most challenging group of birds to master. The amount to learn about their appearance, molt cycles, habits, variation and hybrids is practically limitless. If you love learning about bird identification, then dipping into gulls will keep you on your toes for the rest of your life.

3) The fact that large gulls are so prone to hybridizing raises a number of issues regarding taxonomy and species limits, which some find fascinating. Case in point is the Kumlien's Gull...the (almost) definitive gull book by Howell and Dunn treat it as its own species, but most high-ranking birders either consider it a subspecies of Iceland Gull or part of a massive hybrid swarm between Iceland Gull (glaucoides) and Thayer's Gull. The word on the street is that significant doubt has been cast on the study that proclaims Kumlien's to be a definitive species, but there has apparently been absolutely no followup on the genetic relationships of the Thayer's/Kumlien's/Iceland complex. Crazy shit, I'll leave it at that.

Speaking of funky taxonomy, this bird used to be lumped with Western Gull. Now you may think that all gulls are prone to vagrancy and grinding cloacas with different species...well, not this one! Yellow-footed Gulls are endemic to Mexico's Sea of Cortez, but wander in sizable numbers to California's Salton Sea. In the U.S., they have been recorded remarkably few times away from this lake, so if you want to see one in the ABA Area, there is only one place to go...more on the Salton Sea's special gulls in this post. Oh, they have never been documented hybridizing either.

Here in coastal California, young gulls can become exceptionally whitish by late winter. By summer, some young Herring Gulls that stay in the state essentially turn white, where they are inevitably misidentified as Glaucous Gulls. This eyecatching second-cycle Herring Gull is a very pale bird, no doubt colored in part by the California sun. Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline, Richmond, CA.

4) Prestige and Elitism. No explanation needed. If you know your gulls well, you will be worshipped as a birding Jedi. Become a gull warrior and you will start getting messages from gull wizards that youve never spoken to before, looking for your highly-valued gull opinions. Other birders will seek your consul and bombard you with gull pictures for you to identify. You will experience Raw Power like you have never felt before.

5) Variability. As mentioned above, there are so many factors that could cause a gull's appearance to be "abnormal" that it is really hard to get bored with gulls if you are trying to correctly age them and identify them to a species or particular hybrid combination. Put 100 gulls of the same age and species next to each other and you will be amazed at the differences between them...field guides don't get this point across, just time in the field.

This is what I call a first-cycle-late-winter-really-worn-and-or-bleached-bird-that-I-am-pretty-certain-is-a-Thayer's Gull-but-in-the-east-I-bet-they-would-call-it a Kumlien's Iceland Gull. I've seen a few of these birds in the bay area the last two winters. Photographed at Lake Merced, San Francisco, CA.

What the hell is this thing? I don't know. I can tell you some things it is definitely not, I can tell you some things it is probably not, and that is about it. I believe that's a Herring Gull (somewhere between 2nd and 3rd cycle) sitting behind it. San Leandro, CA.

6) Community. Top gullers are well known to other folks who are into gulling, and there are multiple gull-based listservs (and a pretty active Facebook group) out there so people can reach out for help and bounce prospective ID's off each other. Its nice because everyone is pretty open to learning and somewhat at the same level of ID skill. Having this network available is a great tool...and who doesn't like being part of a community? Aren't we all birders because normal communities shunned us anyway?

And that's it, straight from the source, one Seagull Steve. Hopefully you now have an understanding, and can sympathize with, the sickness they call Larophilia.

My favorite Larid! Red-legged Kittiwakes are one of the most lovable birds I've gotten to work with...if you have gotten to see this declining and charismatic seabird, consider yourself lucky. Buldir Island, Alaska.


  1. Replies
    1. Some people drool at the thought of rare gulls. Most drool from boredom.

  2. This is a pretty intense post you've got, Tucker. Also, I'm pretty sure that first photo isn't real. I mean, really? Come one. Real good stuff, real good.