Bird Fact Friday – Traditional Gull ID Problems

Adapted from pages 20-22 of Gulls Simplified:

Why has gull identification been presented as such a feather-splitting challenge? First, we humans seem obsessed by the need to find and classify differences, whether these have a bearing on species differentiation or not—that is, we like splitting hairs, or in this case, feathers. Fine and well; who doesn’t enjoy a challenge?

This photo shows two common species in the left foreground. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson.

But gulls, because of their complex plumage array, simply overwhelm most observers.

Also exacerbating the challenge of gull identification is the avocational focus on finding birds that are outside their conventional range—that is, “rare birds.” By placing added value on finding Slaty-backed Gulls or Yellow-legged Gulls
among the ranks of far likelier but similar species, we at times complicate the identification challenge. This almost mandates that plumage be the foundation of gull identification insofar as differences between similar species, particularly
those found within an evolving species complex, are mostly feather deep.

But if we embrace the nature of probability and accept that rare and unusual species are unlikely to be encountered, the challenge presented by North American gulls becomes greatly simplified, reduced to telling Ring-billed Gull from Herring Gull and California Gull, birds whose size and structural differences do readily distinguish them. Instead of fighting probability by aspiring to find birds outside their normal range, we advocate embracing probability and letting it work for you, not against you.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday – Iceland Gull

Adapted from page 118-119 of Gulls Simplified:

An adult Iceland Gull has a round head; gentle expression; very pale silver-gray back; short pink legs; and a short, slender, bullet-shaped bill. Photo credit: Lloyd Spitalnik.

The Iceland Gull is a smallish, plumpish-bodied, round-headed, petite-billed, short-legged, uniformly pale gull nestled amid the collage of contrastingly patterned Herring Gulls clustered on the beach.

This medium-large, pleasingly proportioned gull is smaller, plumper breasted, and shorter legged than Herring Gull, and typically distinctly smaller and less bulky than the similarly plumaged Glaucous Gull, from which Iceland may be distinguished by its longer wings that extend well beyond the tail of standing birds (generally a bill length beyond the tail). In adult birds, primaries range from white or light gray to charcoal gray, and to black in Thayer’s Gull, a subspecies of Iceland Gull.

Iceland’s bill ranges from petite and bullet shaped to fairly long, with a decurved tip on larger birds. The bill is mostly dark on immature/1st winter birds, but some birds can show a pinkish to yellowish bill with an ill-defined black tip at this age. Immature Glaucous Gull’s larger bill is richer pink and has a more sharply demarcated dark tip compared to that of immature Iceland. A round head, short neck, and shortish legs
impart a plumpish, pigeon-like impression to many Iceland Gulls (an attribute never applied to the bulky, barrel-chested Glaucous Gull). In winter, the head of adult Iceland shows limited to no streaking, except for the Thayer’s subspecies, which can show a heavily streaked head and neck. In a mixed flock with Herring Gulls, Iceland’s (Kumlien’s) smaller size and plain, pale, uniform plumage stand out.

Thayer’s subspecies of Iceland Gull (thayeri) averages intermediate in size and structure between large Kumlien’s Iceland Gull and small Herring Gull, but its adult plumage is much closer to that of Herring Gull with respect to the gray shading of its upperparts and black wing tips. While many adult Thayer’s have dark eyes, some birds on the Pacific coast have pale to dusky eyes, so this field mark is not absolute. Rather than including extensive ID criteria for the Thayer’s subspecies here, we ask that you please refer to captions in the Thayer’s subspecies section of Iceland Gull at the end of this account for characteristics that distinguish it from Kumlien’s Iceland Gull and Herring Gull.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday — Ross’s Gull

Adapted from page 186 of Gulls Simplified:

Ross’s Gull is a small, pink-breasted gull plucking edible tidbits from the defunct walrus.  Ross’s is only slightly larger than Little Gull, with a longer, more tapered rear body, a petite bill, and more slender and pointier wings that are grayish below, not black as on adult Little Gull. The long, wedge-shaped tail attenuates to a tapered point (Little Gull has a somewhat squarish, slightly wedgeshaped tail). Standing birds appear elegantly long winged, with short, pink to reddish legs set well forward.

An adult breeding Ross’s Gull. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson

Where can you find this gull? You should be so lucky. For many years, one or two pairs famously nested in the vicinity of Churchill, Manitoba, and small to large numbers are noted annually migrating past Barrow, Alaska, from September to mid-October. Most birds winter at sea near pack ice, but rare vagrants to the lower forty-eight states have been found in harbors and sewage-treatment facilities, as well as far offshore. This diminutive, fairylike gull breeds on open tundra in Arctic Canada and Greenland, often close to freshwater lakes, and winters in northern seas, rarely wandering to the lower forty-eight states. When it occurs in the lower forty-eight, it is typically found among flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls and is often mistaken for the similarly plumaged Little Gull.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday — Hybrid Gulls

Adapted from page 189 of Gulls Simplified:

Many gull species are closely related, with their evolutionary divergence fairly recent, and their geographic isolation is not always absolute. In fact, the ranges of some genetically similar species overlap. Because of this fertile combination of genetic similarity and physical proximity, hybridization between similar species currently considered distinct is both likely and problematic.

The offspring of theses hybrid combinations often show traits of both parent species, making identification challenging, or may show the physical traits of one species but some plumage features of the other species. Being themselves fertile, these hybrid gulls may then backcross—that is, breed with either parent species or with another hybrid gull—further muddying the ID picture. Hybrids are not countable as distinct species by any ornithological organization.

The Glaucous-winged × Western Gull has the stocky body and heavy bill typical of Western Gull, as well as the head shape of that species with a bump on the crown. However, the back is gray like that of Glaucous-winged, but the wing tips are too dark for that species. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson

For example, the Glaucous-Winged × Western Gull is the most common hybrid gull encountered in North America, and it occurs mostly on the Pacific coast from California to British Columbia. In certain areas of northern Oregon and southern Washington, hybrids may outnumber pure individuals of both species. Some hybrids resemble Western Gulls,especially in body and bill structure, but show some plumage traits of Glaucous-winged, while others resemble Glaucous-winged in structure and bill shape but show some plumage features of Western Gull.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday — the Ivory Gull

Adapted from page 177 and 182 of Gulls Simplified:

The Ivory Gull is a “Dark Horse Gull” or, a gull you are most unlikely to encounter in North America, but should be aware of. Some of these may be found at appropriate times of year in very remote locations that average birders don’t typically visit, while others are rare vagrants whose presence cannot be predicted.

An immature Ivory Gull, photographed in New Jersey. Credit: Kevin Karlson

Smaller than Iceland Gull, Ivory Gull is slightly smaller than Ring-billed Gull but stockier and plumper overall. Ivory Gull is our only pure white gull with black legs and black eyes (thus eliminating the possibility of albinism in other species).

Ivory Gull is often described as an aggressive and voracious feeder—a trait that serves a bird that lives very literally on the edge. It is somewhat pigeon-like on land but wheeling and nimble in flight, with quick wing beats. Mostly solitary and somewhat nocturnal, it is reported to investigate anything red. It is always found near water, even cattle watering troughs if nothing more suitable is around.

This distinctive but rarely seen all-white Arctic gull is typically found foraging around pack ice, where it makes a decent living scavenging the remains of polar bear kills. Vagrants often feed on fish scraps near fishing piers or docks where boats dump their bycatch.

They are rarely away from their high Arctic breeding locations with pack ice, in Greenland and extreme northern Canada. In winter, they are found almost exclusively near pack ice, with wintering areas in the Bering Sea and Labrador Sea to Davis Strait. Occurs casually to the Canadian Maritimes and is accidental south to New Jersey and other scattered locations. There are a few inland records, including Tennessee, with most clustered around the Great Lakes. It is very rare south of Canada.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

 

Bird Fact Friday — the Great Black-Backed Gull

Adapted from page 155 & 158 of Gulls Simplified:

This very large, menacing-looking gull (it truly is the largest gull in the world) has a big, squarish or oval-shaped head and a heavy bill. This barrel-chested gull is typically noticeably larger and always chestier than Herring Gull, with a larger, broader head, thicker neck, and distinctly heavier bill. Dull pink legs are long, thick, and set at midspan, accentuating the bird’s barrel-chested appearance.

Adults have a dark charcoal to black back and a white head, while immature birds are spangled or granite patterned with gray, white, and black upperparts and a white head. This contrasting pattern stands out among the brownish-gray immatures and gray-backed adult ranks of Herring Gulls.

Great Black-backed is a fairly sedentary gull, spending much of its time loafing on the beach, resting on the water, or standing atop an elevated post or light fixture. It walks somewhat reluctantly, with a waddling sailor’s gait. This species generally dominates other gulls when food is available and frequently displaces other gulls from prime perches. It is often found with other large, white-headed Gulls, especially Herring Gulls. Much smaller Ring-billed Gulls go out of their way to avoid any interaction with this species.

Great Black-backed Gull is typically the largest and huskiest gull on the Atlantic
beachfront or Great Lakes shorelines, or anywhere else it is found, since it is the largest gull in the world. Photo credit: Kevin Carlson

A consummate kleptoparasite (stealer of another’s food), Great Black-backed often robs cormorants, other gulls, and seabirds of fish and other food items. This species is also highly predatory. It is known to harass diving birds, such as coots (which can’t stay underwater very long), to exhaustion and then grasp the debilitated bird by the head, killing it outright or, failing that, drowning its victim. Kevin [Karlson, co-author of Gulls Simplified] once saw an adult Great Black-backed kill and swallow whole a Northern Flicker that had been sitting exhausted on a beach in New York during fall migration.

This is a fairly common gull that is typically found on Atlantic coast beaches, where it is a resident species, as well as on the Great Lakes, where it is also resident and increasing in numbers. Lesser numbers are found south to Florida (mostly on the Atlantic coast), where it is also increasing.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

 

Bird Fact Friday — Western Gulls

Adapted from pages 143-146 of Gulls Simplified:

A large gull with an overall stocky, robust profile, Western Gull is about the same size as Herring and Glaucouswinged Gulls, but adults show a darker, charcoal-gray back. The large head supports a stout, bulbous-tipped bill (smaller and straighter on some birds) and a curious bump or peak on the head (just above the eye, or sometimes above the nape)  that makes the head of Western Gull more convex (rounded) than the overall thinner head and drawn-out face of Herring Gull. The bill of Western typically appears thicker, shorter, and more bulbous tipped compared to Glaucous-winged’s longer, straighter bill, with the exception of some smaller Westerns that have slender bills. Standing birds with neck retracted often appear to slouch. When birds are standing, wing tips extend well beyond the tail and are often elevated, leaving a slight gap between wings and tail.

Western mixes freely with other gulls, especially Glaucous winged, and is often found where humans concentrate. It feeds primarily by scavenging over ocean waters for marine invertebrates. Its large size and bulky profile result in dominance over most gulls in its range. A Western Gull standing atop some elevated point on an ocean pier is a typical and iconic image. In the wave zone, it typically forages alone. 

Western and Ring-billed Gulls, adult. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson.

Two subspecies exist in Western Gull, with subspecies occidentalis occurring in northern California and farther north, and subspecies wymani occurring in southern California and farther south. Southern-breeding birds have a slightly darker back than northern ones, but recognition of this shading difference requires a good amount of study and exposure to both, and birds in the broad overlap zone show intermediate gray shading.

A common and highly coastal West Coast gull, the default dark-backed gull of the West Coast. Breeding range is from the central Washington State coastal zone south to the coastal zone of the central Baja California Peninsula, Mexico. Winter range includes the breeding range and smaller areas north to the Canadian border and south to the southern tip of Baja, as well as the northern Gulf of California.

In winter on California beaches, Western is typically the most numerous gull species. If you are standing on a California beach and you are looking at a large, dark-backed gull, STOP; you are most likely looking at an adult or 3rd winter Western Gull. Western Gull also frequents landfills, harbors, lakes, and rivers. No other large, charcoal gray–backed gull typically occurs within its range along the Pacific coast.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

 

Bird Fact Friday — Sabine’s Gull

Adapted from pages 69-70 of Gulls Simplified:

A small, trim gull that is smaller than a kittiwake or Mew Gull and most commonly seen in flight over ocean waters (less commonly found sitting on beaches with similarly sized gulls). In flight, Sabine’s appears short bodied, with broadbased, angular wings and a fairly long, uniquely forked tail. 

The bold tricolored upper wing pattern (black, white, and gray) is somewhat similar to that of other species but is distinctly bolder on Sabine’s and thus more visually grabbing. Stiff, shallow, steady wing beats reveal flashes of the bird’s wedge-like white wing patch. Flight is overall lofting and buoyant, but not as nimble or tern-like as that of Bonaparte’s Gull.

Sabine’s forages mostly by swimming and snatching prey from the surface of the water while at sea, and it feeds in shallow pools at breeding sites by stirring up aquatic invertebrates by stomping the substrate with its feet (see Sabine’s Gull 1). It does not respond to chum as readily as kittiwakes on pelagic birding trips. It also hovers and plucks prey from the surface. When foraging on beaches, Sabine’s walks nimbly.

This small, smart-looking, Arctic-breeding gull with a deep charcoal hood going blacker at the collar and front of the face is unique. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson.

In migration, birds resting on the water gather in tight (typically small) clusters. Sabine’s is fairly tame while on the water, allowing close approach by boats before flushing. On West Coast pelagic trips, Sabine’s Gulls are usually seen in small groups. In the interior, single birds are the norm, and these may mix with Bonaparte’s Gulls.

This localized Arctic breeder is fairly common during migration in fall, primarily in offshore northern to central Pacific coastal North American waters; very rare along East Coast in fall. Winter records are extremely rare in North America, with only a few instances of birds remaining until January. Subadult (1st winter) birds typically remain in southern waters until their 2nd year. 

This handsome, mostly pelagic gull breeds in Arctic and subarctic regions but winters in tropical seas off western South America and southern Africa. In North America, it breeds in coastal tundra of western Alaska, the North Slope, and islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, which are far from most human population centers. It also breeds in northern and central Greenland.

There are numerous records of Sabine’s Gulls in the North American interior, mostly in fall, and regular records in the Great Plains and Great Basin regions (Gulls of the Americas, Howell and Dunn, 2007). Fall migration is from late July through October; spring migration is from March through May (occasionally into June).

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday — Franklin’s Gull

Adapted from pages 44-46; 49 of Gulls Simplified:

This small, gregarious, petite-billed, and blackheaded breeder of the western interior suggests a smaller, stockier Laughing Gull, with a shorter, straighter bill, shorter legs, and conspicuously shorter, round-tipped wings. Franklin’s also has a rounder head with more prominent white eye arcs and boldly patterned black outer wings with large white spots (mirrors) near the tip of the outer primaries (adults). Franklin’s are agile gulls, able to hop over obstacles and perch on cattails.

During the breeding season, they hawk insects over marshes, and in migration often forage on tilled agricultural land. When foraging for aquatic insects on lakes, they behave like a swimming phalarope, plucking insects from the surface. In some locations, migrating flocks may number in the thousands. Franklin’s Gulls forage on beaches, inshore waters, lakeshores, and dry or flooded fields, and they nest in freshwater marshes. They are often found in small homogeneous flocks, but inland they may mix with California Gulls. In migration on the Gulf coast, they often roost and rest with Laughing Gulls.

Adult, non breeding Franklin’s Gulls. They are typically 13.25-15 inches long, with a wingspan of 33-36 inches. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson

Common in appropriate habitats, it breeds for the most part in small to very large colonies in inland marshes and lakes on the prairies, in the Great Basin, and in the northern Rocky Mountains. 

Breeding colonies may number in the hundreds, or as many as twenty-five thousand pairs, which occurred at the Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota in 2000 (North Dakota Game and Fish Department website, 2017). 

During migration, Franklin’s is common to abundant from August to October through its main migratory corridor south through the Great Plains, and also along the Texas lowland coastal areas from mid-October through November (Gulls of the Americas, Howell and Dunn, 2007). Migratory  flocks at this coastal Texas location can number in the many thousands, and Kevin witnessed a flock of over six thousand birds at South Padre Island, Texas, in early November 2003. Migration through the interior is often spread out, with migrating birds widely dispersed until larger numbers gather at nighttime roosts on bodies of water. Winter range is primarily coastal regions of western South America.

This species has experienced a notable decline over the last fifty years (78 percent) according to North American Breeding Bird Atlas data, but population numbers and concerns vary according to individual research papers.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday — Black-Legged Kittiwake

Adapted from pages 73-76 of Gulls Simplified

A small marine gull (larger than Bonaparte’s). Overall compact, with a squarish head, short legs, and a small, pointy, slender bill with a down-turned gape (visible line at base of bill juncture) that gives birds the suggestion of a frown. Large dark eyes on a blank face impart a gentle expression.

In flight it shows a somewhat compact and tubular body with long, narrow, boomerang-shaped wings and a tail that is narrow and long. The bird’s nimbleness in flight coupled with its wing shape and quick, stiff wing beats suggests a swift, bulky tern. On land it appears short legged, with an upright posture. Unlike most gulls, kittiwakes will dive headfirst into the water to secure prey, in the manner of terns.

The Black-Legged Kittiwake is typically 16-18 inches long, with a wingspan between 36.5-47 inches. This image shows the down-turned gape line behind a pointy, bright yellow bill, which imparts a dour expression to adults, but the dark eye against a plain white head gives the bird a gentle expression.                                    Photo credit: Kevin Karlson.

Black-legged Kittiwake is an Arctic and subarctic cliff-nesting breeder, commonly seen in appropriate habitats onshore near nest islands in Alaska and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Population numbers are increasing in some areas, and many birds now nest in Homer, Alaska, on the girders of small bridges connecting the Homer Spit to marina docking locations because of saturation on nearby breeding islands. It is fairly common in winter well offshore on both coasts.

Black-legged Kittiwakes are uncommonly seen on land, except on breeding cliffs and adjacent shorelines in Arctic and subarctic regions and on coastlines where tired birds come to rest on sandy beaches or rocky shorelines, especially on the Pacific coast. Offshore they commonly gather where other marine birds are foraging, most notably Northern Fulmars and alcids. Most land-based observations in the Atlantic are storm or wind related, but migration in the northwestern Pacific region allows occasional viewing from shore in fall. Black-legged Kittiwakes winter along both coasts, often very far from shore.

 

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

 

Bird Fact Friday—Bonaparte’s Gull

Adapted from page 50 of Gulls Simplified:

Bonaparte’s is delicately proportioned overall, with a long-winged profile; a small, round head; and a petite, short, thin, straight, pointy, tern-like bill. In feeding flight, they often impart a potbellied profile when dipping down to the water’s surface to gather food. Initial confusion with terns is not just possible but likely because of their size, physical resemblance, and buoyant flight style. Legs are relatively short compared to those of other North American hooded gulls other than Little Gull.

An adult Boneparte’s Gull, photographed in Churchill, Manitoba around June. This bird is usually 12.3-13.8 inches long, with a wingspan between 30-36 inches.
Photo credit: Kevin Karlson.

In flight, adults show a flashing white triangle on the leading edge of the outer wing, while 1st winter birds have reduced white on the underwing primary tips and black shafts and markings on a white outer wing triangle. Adults have uniformly pale silvery-gray upperparts and white underparts, making the black trailing edge to the outer wing and the black bill stand out.

Bonaparte’s is a small, petite gull with a dainty black bill. This complete breeding plumage is not regularly seen in parts of North America and is seen only briefly at normal migratory locations from April to May. Note the all-black hood (brown in Black-headed Gull), bold white eye arcs, and petite black bill (reddish to black in Black-headed). These nimble gulls commonly perch on elevated platforms, where the pink legs of adults are evident.

 

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday —The Laughing Gull

Adapted from pages 35-37 of Gulls Simplified:

A flock of adult Laughing Gulls, photographed in New Jersey in May. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson

This lanky gull stands with a horizontal profile and shows black wing tips that are acutely pointed and extend well beyond the tail. A long, slender bill droops near the tip. Long, typically black legs are set moderately forward, with some birds showing dull to fairly bright red legs in the breeding season. The dark hood is replaced by a mostly white head with a dark ear patch and scattered dark markings on the crown in winter. 

On beaches and in the water, they tend to gather in tightly bunched monotypic flocks away from larger gulls. In mixed-species flocks, Laughing Gulls often segregate to one side. Very agile and aerial, this species is adept at snapping insects out of the air and may gather in wheeling numbers over  marshes and uplands when an insect hatch is in progress. They are also a threat to coastal tern colonies and beach-nesting shorebirds, since they can swoop in and grab an egg or small chick before the defending birds can react to their approach. The bird’s loud, raucous (laughing) call is iconic, as much a part of a visit to coastal beaches and marshes as the sound of surf and the tang of salt-laden air. The sound of feeding flocks approaches the level of a din. Breeding colonies are noisy, even at night.

Skilled foragers, Laughing Gulls are adept at plucking food from human hands, whether the morsel is offered or not, and they seem to know all about picnic baskets, potato chip bags, and their contents. Very social and vocal, Laughing Gulls also forage offshore in large aggregations, usually within sight of land, where noisy feeding flocks hover and wheel over schools of baitfish. They commonly pursue other gulls and seabirds to steal food.

While most commonly found on sandy beaches, Laughing Gulls also frequents tidal wetlands, plowed fields, parks, and picnic areas. You may also share your hotel swimming pool with these birds in coastal areas with warm climates as they drop by for a drink or a swim. Though mostly coastal year-round, individuals are occasionally found well inland, most commonly on freshly turned agricultural land, landfills, and the parking lots of food outlets.

 

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull