Derek Lovitch’s Mystery Gull

How To Be A Better BirderDerek Lovitch, author of How to Be a Better Birder and blogger for Maine Birding Field Notes, spent another chilly week out and about birding before Migration Season comes to an end. While he’s always avidly posting on his Facebook page, he also recently posted to his blog to report some of his more recent findings, including a mystery bird!


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.


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