Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Great Glorious Gulling in San Mateo County

You knew it was coming...it was unavoidable. I don't think I've done a gull post since 2016. Is a full-blown Larid post in July appropriate? Not in the slightest, but here it is and here you are reading it. Don't worry, this should be better than a photo study of Ring-billed Gulls or some similar garbage.

The winter of 2016-2017 was quite good for California gullers. While the Ross's Gull was undoubtedly the undisputed highlight, a close second was the Black-tailed Gull that was seen in Monterey County (where Billy and I dipped the day the Ross's died) and then again in San Mateo County. That is what brought me to the mouth of Gazos Creek, where I found Terrills, Michael Park and other unidentified birders, but no Black-tailed. At least there were kittiwakes though.

Last winter was tremendous for Black-legged Kittiwakes in this part of the state, being seen from shore with regularity in many places. This was another bird I had missed entirely in 2016, but they were easy to find early this year. Seeing pelagic birds on shore really feels like cheating.

This was the second time I had dragged Billy and Annabelle (the first time in fetal form) out to dip on this Black-tailed Gull. Hopefully this event won't repeat itself again.

Luckily, kittiwakes were not the lone highlight of the day. This Lesser Black-backed Gull in Princeton Harbor (Denniston Creek Mouth) was a very nice consolation rarity. Despite their abundance in some parts of the continent, this is still a very rare bird in most of California. To give you an idea of how good the gulling was around this time, there were a minimum of 3 individual LBBGs in San Mateo County; in eBird, there is only one record in all prior years.

On another day, I lurked across the bay down to get my usual punishment at Pilarcitos Creek Mouth...this is a legendary gull spot where I have failed to see anything interesting year after year after year. This newly-arrived Allen's Humingbird was next to my car when I got out; a good omen?

I bumped into Ken Schneider, who let me know about a Glaucous Gull at the creek mouth. I arrived just as the bird peaced out to the northeast, possibly to visit one of the inland reservoirs.

I stuck around for a while, hoping something else of interest would stop in; this roost site is well-known for its high turnover of gulls. I felt the old familiar presence of rarities...but where were they? This attractive Glaucous hybrid (presumably Glaucous x Herring) dropped in to the flock, but that was not what I had on my mind.

Finally, a Vague Runt worth writing home about materialized...Laughing Gull! Like Lesser Black-backed, this is a Salton Sea specialty in California. Show me a Laughing Gull anywhere else in the state, and I will show you a damn rare bird.

Ok gull nerds...what do you think the bird in the center is? This is not a quiz, I honestly don't know. Note the bright red orbital ring, red gape, eye color, bill shape and pattern (see below as well). It superficially resembles a Herring Gull, but there are things "wrong" with it. Those are Mew Gulls in front and to the right, and a Western Gull on the left for comparison. The primaries are the typical four-year gull black with white apical spots. I did not see leg color, the bird disappeared almost immediately after I found it, flushed by wankers.

Lots of conflicting weirdness here.

You may have noticed a theme in this blog post so far...no, not the gulls, I'm talking about the shitty photos. Here is a decent kittiwake to help redeem myself. Speaking of shitty photos and redemption, let me betray a photographer's secret to all you noobs (n00bs)...if you want to convince everybody that you were born with a camera in your hand and that you are god's gift to nature photography, don't post shitty photos. Only post good ones. It's that simple. Fortunately for you and me both, I don't pretend to be a photographer, I just take photos. Some are good, most are not, but I will show it all...gross.

This kittiwake was bellowed at by an asshole Western Gull. Luckily, no harm was done.

This kittiwake demonstrated the classic pleasantness and unobtrusive nature characteristic of the species. The kittiwakes that morning were the most confiding I've seen south of Alaska.

It is also worth mentioning that at this site alone, over a couple different visits, I witnessed birders string Laughing Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Glaucous Gull. I appreciate that trying to identify rare gulls is an exercise in self-harm for many, but let's be careful out there friends.

After the unambiguous victory at Pilarcitos Creek (a first for me), I returned to Princeton Harbor to scour the Denniston Creek flock. Unambiguous success quickly turned into ambiguous success though when John Sterling and I got on this nice "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull. Note the lack of a tail band, which the bird was happy to display repeatedly.

The identification of this bird was actually not the ambiguous thing for once - it even has the dark "arrowheads" on the primaries, which don't tend to persist with a lot of wear. It was the classification that was problematic. At the time, rumor had it that Iceland Gull and Thayer's Gull were to be lumped in some fashion, a rumor which proved to be true...the AOS not only lumped them, it smashed the Kumlien's subspecies into oblivion. So, instead of this being a kumlieni Iceland Gull (a Bird Police species in California), officially this bird is now considered an intergrade between the thayeri and glaucoides subspecieseseseseseseses of Iceland Gull.

That's it on the left, showing the tail and wing pattern one would expect on a kumlieni thayeri x glaucoides intergrade. So for now I have put this bird on the shelf, no point in sending it to the Bird Police.

Here is a somewhat bleached Iceland Gull (formerly known as Thayer's...crap, this is going to take some getting used to) with a very white base color, but still showing the contrasting dark secondaries and darker primaries typical of thayeri.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, I spent a great deal of time looking for Slaty-backed Gulls in February and early March without success, but at least I had some other good birds to show for it. The San Mateo County coast offers some of the best gulling in the Lower 48, hopefully next winter can come close to matching the glory of the last. 

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