Why Gulls are Fun & Species Profile: Ring-billed Gull

In much of North America–indeed, in much of the world, winter is a time for looking at large numbers of common species. In my part of the world, in central Maryland, thousands upon thousands of Canada Geese augment our year-round populations, and a birder could easily spend hours sifting through them, marveling at the astounding numbers. Another group that explodes here in winter are the gulls. Ring-billed Gulls, especially, flood urban and rural areas alike, loafing on open water, parking lots, and agricultural fields. They are probably the default gull, perhaps even the default water bird, in most of Maryland throughout the year, a status which is solidified in winter.

One might think that such a cosmopolitan species would, therefore be among the most familiar and recognizable birds in the region. To some extent, that’s true. However, there are few more variable species of bird than those of the gull genus Larus, to which the Ring-billed Gull belongs. The Ring-billed is a perfect example of this variation, and a great species to use to show how, despite being among the most frustrating groups to learn about, gulls are also among the most fascinating and enjoyable.

So what does a Ring-billed Gull (RBGU from here out) actually look like? The answer to that question can be as simple or complicated as you want to go. The standard-issue, adult, RBGU in winter has a pale gray back and wings, white body and head, and yellow legs, eyes, and bill. The head is streaked or spotted lightly with dusky gray-brown, the wingtips are jet black with large white spots on them, and the bill has a characteristic black ring about 2/3 of the way out to the tip. It’s a mid-sized bird, but on the mid-to-small end for a gull, especially a Larus gull. It has long-ish legs, long wings, and a well proportioned head that is fairly rounded with a slim, average-length bill. Overall, an adult RBGU looks relatively slender, neat, and clean.

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This is about as close to average as a RBGU gets. This adult bird has neat streaking that is limited to face and crown, a pale gray back, yellow legs, a crisply patterned bill, and a pale yellowish iris

In flight, the effect is very similar. The relatively small head, slender body, and long wings of the RBGU gives it a long-limbed look. The bird lacks the barrel chest of other, larger gulls, and the small head combined with long, slim wings makes it look far lighter-weight. The black wingtips retain the line of white spots, with two larger white spots, known as “mirrors” being revealed on the spread wing.

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The spread wings reveal limited black at the tip of the wings, a line of white spots along the back edge of the wing, and two white mirrors on the two, outermost primary feathers (wingtip feathers)

All on its own, that doesn’t sound too bad. When compared with other gulls, there are similarities, but plenty of distinctions in shape and size and coloration to help distinguish RGBUs from other species. The difficulties start to come in when you consider all the things that can be different from our “average” gull outlined above. Lets start with some of the more consistent changes we can see.

Age is probably the greatest variable in gull identification. Oftentimes, when scanning a large group of gulls, of any species, you will noticed that many of them do not have the smooth, gray-and-white pattern that is expected. Many of them have underparts that are strongly spotted or barred, and the backs may be primarily brown. These birds are most often not, as is sometimes assumed, a different species but different ages of the predominating species. RBGU have three fairly distinct age groups, and many variations of those groups. One group, the adults, have largely been discussed already. The other, most distinct group, is that which includes birds which less than a year old, birds known as first-cycle birds. Shape and size-wise, they are largely identical to adults, but their plumage is worlds away. The white body feathers are barred and smudged with brown, sometimes quite liberally. They have a neat black band across the end of the tail, their dark wingtips lack the white spots and mirrors of adults, and their wings and backs are marked with brown-and-white bars and cross-bars. The closer they get to their first birthday, generally, the more gray they begin to show on the back and wings. The “bare parts” colors are also different than on adults. The eyes are dark blackish-brown, as is the bill. Both gradually turn pale, with the bill often having a pinkish base (as in the photo below) by the time the bird is a few month old. The legs are pink.

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This is a fairly normal looking first-cycle bird. This bird has rather extensive and heavy brown markings across its entire body, but it is starting to show some of the cleaner gray adult feathers on its back. The wing feathers are very neat and sharply patterned, a product of their newness. Dark eyes and pink legs are characteristic of this age as well. The black on the bill is now largely limited to the tip, as the base is mostly pinkish.

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When looking at a first-cycle bird with a spread wing, the black on the wingtips is much more extensive than on an adult, and the primaries lack the white spots and mirrors, as well. The brown barring and mottling is apparent on both the upperside of the wing, and the underside.

 

The other age group is that which encompasses second-cycle birds–birds that are a year old. Their plumage is a mixture of adult and immature feathers. The back is often more completely gray than first-cycle birds, and the underparts and head often whiter. The wing tends to have more gray feathers, and wingtips may have small white spots. However, there are often still isolated dark bars or spots on the flanks and chest, and a few sets of barred, brown-and-white wing feathers usually remain. The bare parts colors are somewhat variable. The bill and legs may begin to turn yellow at this age, but they often have a fleshy, peachy, coloration. The tends to have neat black tip. Eyes are generally still dark, though this is somewhat variable. This is probably the most variable age, and some birds that are late in their first-cycle can look similar.

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This is a more classic-looking second-cycle bird. The back is mostly gray, but there are some retained, brownish wing-coverts. They are relatively pale, the color bleached out of them due to their old age, but they are still evident. The wingtips are plain black, and the eye is still dark. The bird has fairly heavy markings on the chest and head, but it is whiter than the first-cycle birds. The bill is a striking, peachy color and the black bill tip is crisp. The eye remains dark.

 

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This bird is a good example of the ambiguities that sometimes arise in ageing and identifying gulls. The eye is dark, so its not an adult. The bill is rather dark, with little pink, and certainly none of the fleshy peach color of the prior bird. However, the gray on the back is extensive, and its is extensively, but faintly marked below. My guess is that this is an early second-cycle bird. I don’t think those brown wing coverts and trials would be so frayed and bleached if this bird were under a year old.

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Two adult RBGU… Or not? The back bird has a remarkably dark iris if it’s an adult, and the bill doesn’t look as bright yellow as the front bird. So is it a second-cycle? If it is, the gray on the back is remarkably extensive, and there is precious-little barring on the breast. Sometime gulls just don’t do what their supposed to, one of the things that can make them frustrating to learn. I would consider this bird an adult, but a new adult, one that has probably just shed the last of its second-cycle plumage.

 

The next set of variation I’ll look at is head shape. The standard RBGU is often described as pigeon-headed. The crown is rounded, the forehead is moderately steep, and the bills is rather slim but not overly long. A number of birds show that shape, but a reasonable number do not. The photo below is a great example:

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Notice the difference in head shape between the front bird and the back one. The front bird looks like its head is more angular and flatter-crowned than the back bird, and the bill looks longer. It is a head shape that is vaguely reminiscent of the Herring Gull, a much larger Larus species. Recently, I sent this picture to a more experience gull-watcher for his thoughts. He mused that male and female gulls actually differ subtly in shape. The front bird with the flat crown, more sloping forehead, and thus longer-looking bill has a head shape he says is associated, anecdotally, with male RBGU. The RBGU we are familiar with in field guides, and the bird in the back of this photo, is the round-headed, neat-billed female bird.

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Another RBGU with a rather angular head. The more one looks at large numbers of these birds, the more apparent it is that small variations are the norm, and not the exception

Head pattern is another thing that is remarkably variable. The normal head patterning for older (late second-cycle into adult) birds is even, neat streaking across the head, often with slight concentrations of streaks around the eyes and crown. But often times, for no apparent reason, this streaking is nonexistent, almost as if the bird had molted into summer plumage already, but other times, it is so dark and extensive it gives off a hooded pattern. This is just something that needs to borne in mind. There isn’t really an explanation or trick to it, it just is.

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This bird has extensive dark streaking that extends from the crown to the nape of the neck, and down across the birds breast. In addition to its somewhat extreme extent, it is also smudgier than “normal”. The paler throat imparts a hooded appearance. All the same, it is still a RBGU, and adult bird too. See if you can tell why.

 

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This bird is probably less heavily marked than average, but is close to the middle. The streaking is well-defined and occurs in three areas–around the eyes, the nape of the neck, and the crown. This is an often-seen pattern on RBGUs of any age, but especially adults, like this bird.

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If you just saw this photo with no other info, you would probably think it had been taken in June. But winter birds are sometimes this pale on the head. Only the faintest lines of streaks on the forehead, and behind the eye are visible.

 

So the moral of the story? Gulls are variable, weird, and they don’t follow the rules we prescribe for them a lot of the time. However, they are also attractive and ubiquitous members of the birdlife in most regions so it pays to get used to looking at them, and figuring their quirks out. RBGUs are just one example of the variability that gulls show, but this post could have been written about most any species of gull. Gulls are fun, and the more you learn about them, the easier to understand they become.

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Enjoy!

 

The Politics of Taxonomy

The other day, the American Birding Association (ABA) Blog posted an overview to the first part of this year’s American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) Checklist proposal (which can be found here http://blog.aba.org/2014/12/2015-aou-check-list-proposals-part-1.html). As usual, there were revisions to the family organizations (Parrots, this year), a genus reassignment (American Tree Sparrow), and multiple new splits. The splits included some reasonably predictable ones–Trindade from Herald Petrel, and Rosalia from LeConte’s Thrasher. However, for every split for which a reasonably measured argument can be made, it seems that one split that is more abstract is proposed. This time around, that split goes to the Painted Bunting.

Painted Buntings north of Mexico can be divided into two subspecies. A western subspecies that breeds in brushy areas of the southern Great Plains, and an eastern subspecies that breeds primarily in the coastal southeast. They are likely inseparable in the field, with the primary differences being moult timing and wintering range.

The Painted Bunting is a species whose proposed split is probably less about a biological difference in populations, and more about ornithology and conservations’ politics. The ABA Blog notes that the split proposal suggests treatment of the two populations as separate species as a way to create a more favorable environment for conservation of the eastern subspecies, which is relatively uncommon and declining. I have had long-discussions with other birders around my age, in which we have both questioned the way that the AOU seems to be deciding which populations of birds deserve full-species recognition. I at least, am not willing to hold anyone at fault for attempting to help a population of creatures that is threatened, but I wonder if the best way to do this is to elevate threatened populations to species status. I am of the opinion that the current trend of elevating many many populations of birds to full species status in order to make conservation funds reach them more easily, or because of differences in mitochondrial DNA that do not translate into field identification is diluting the definition of a species.

In the cases of elevating populations for genetic differences, moult-timing differences etc, the picture is much more complicated. But in the case of raising populations for the purpose of conserving them more easily and effectively, I think that there is a solution that will preserve the vitality of the species definition and protect the species–and it does not come from the AOU at all. I think the solution must come from the governments charged with protecting the populations. The governments must have the ability to recognize populations which are locally threatened and maybe not a full species, and offer them the same kind of protection on the basis that they are a locally significant part of the flora and fauna.

I understand that, until and unless this happens, there will, necessarily, have to be other ways of protecting these populations, and that it is, by some, considered valid to use species recognition as a way of doing this. I don’t have any solutions to this “problem”, but I do think it should be noted that this olution has ramifications for the science of taxonomy and genetics. Just some food for thought…

Lifebirds and Swamp Sparrows

One of things which I think fascinates people about birding and birds is that discovery is constant. Estimates for the number of extant bird species in the world vary, but most authorities agree that just over 10,500 species is probably a safe ballpark number. In the American Birding Association (ABA) area alone–defined as all of the North American continent North of Mexico and excluding Hawai’i–987 have been recorded and Maryland boasts records of just about half of these. Amazingly, all three of these figures continue to grow almost constantly. By the end of next year, the ABA area list will likely stand over 990.

There is always the chance of finding a record that is outstanding on some level–county, state, country etc. There is always the chance that that little park down by the grocery store that you walk through everyday will today hold something special. Maybe a new bird for the county, maybe even one that’s a lifebird; a bird which you have never seen before.

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My most recent lifebird: the Harlequin Duck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This thrill, anticipation even, of discovery, is what keeps us coming back to birds again and again. Every time I leave my dorm to go birding, I’m wondering if this time might be the time when those Tundra Swans that everyone else in the county seems to be seeing will fly over, or if maybe when I get up to the ploughed corn and soy fields a Snowy Owl, the ghostly monarch of winter will be staring back at me with unfathomable golden eyes.

But that’s only part of the fun for me. The amazing thing about birding is that, while these are the discoveries that get all the attention, the ones that often provide the greatest satisfaction are on a much smaller scale. Take the Swamp Sparrow: it’s a common bird, being one of our expected “winter birds”. In spring most of them head to the muskegs and fens of central Canada and New England, but some deign to breed in the bogs of western Maryland, or the open grassy salt meadows of the Eastern Shore, and so they can be found in some part of Maryland the whole year. They’re attractive birds, but dressed in grays and chestnut-browns, they’re not what anyone would probably call a real knockout. Yet I haven’t met a birder who doesn’t pause to appreciate them, or whose face doesn’t twitch with a bit of joy when one tosses back its head and casts its melodic trill into the still morning air.

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Swamp Sparrows are tastefully dressed, but not nearly as showy, or even as crisply-handsome as some of their relatives

One of birding’s–or even, of nature’s–true splendors is that a little Swamp Sparrow which I encounter daily from September till May can inspire me to stop and stare as much as a flashy, sexy, lifebird like a Harlequin Duck. I think its because we never really know these creatures that we share our world with. We can see them as often as we want, but when the Swamp Sparrow picks up and flys away, when the dragonfly darts into the shadows of a great cypress tree, when dolphins duck beneath the waves again, we can’t follow. All we can do is watch and wait and hope that we might catch another glimpse, that we might be given another chance to share, and discover, some of their  world.

I like Winter, really, I do

Despite the fact that it is now predicted to be in the fifties over the weekend and in the seventies early next week, Winter is here. The sub-freezing temperatures early this week make sure we all know that. That had me a little bit nostalgic for Summer, which is very unusual for me. I normally hate Summer, and have similar feelings towards any season when the temperature does not allow for the comfortable wearing of jeans and scarves 😛

But this Summer, I got very invested in insect photography, and I found myself missing the butterflies and dragonflies I had come to enjoy during the warm, sticky, Summer months. I think this is because I never really noticed that they have their own drums that they march too. Just as I have re-assigned the start and end of the seasons so that they fall in line with the birds that I see (fall really begins in August when the warblers and shorebirds start arriving), I am starting to do it with the dragonflies and butterflies. I now feel like Summer won’t be able to begin until I start seeing all the skimmers and damselflies out and about. I’m kinda looking forward to that so that I can know when the different species begin to show up. When will my new start to Summer be? When I find my first Spiketail? When the last Clubtail disappears, will I feel like Spring has ended?

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This is one of my all-time favorite photos I’ve taken; it’s a Blue Dasher in Cape May, New Jersey

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Familiar Bluet

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The famous Monarch butterfly, one of the most glorious butterflies, and always, for me, a herald of the end of Summer, and approaching Autumn months

 

My excitement for the return of warm weather and of my insect friends aside, I actually do like Winter. The cold doesn’t bother me that much, and the birding can be really good. I also like winter because it offers some spectacular opportunities for photography. There are no thick leaves blocking out birds from view, there are lots of ducks around, which offer generally closer approach than many other species, and the lighting is often spectacular earlier in the day than at other times of year, thanks to an early-setting sun.

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Branches in the way? No problem. They have no leaves on them, so no harm done 🙂 Cooper’s Hawk

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Ducks really are just spectacular; this is a Ring-necked Duck

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Canvasback

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Canvasback are very trusting at times, one of the things that makes them attractive for photographers, aside from that fact that they are pretty damn attractive