Posted in Atlantic Canada Birding

getting sucked into the gulling abyss

getting sucked into the gulling abyss Posted on January 25, 2016

It was bound to happen really as I’ve been living by the ocean for a few years now.  Although up until last year I thought they were all “seagulls” as most people do.  Then I started paying attention and realized that gulls come in a great variety of sizes and plumages.

Step one was to realize that the “brown ones” were juveniles.  Step two was learning how to identify our quintessential Nova Scotia shore gull, the Herring Gull.  Then I learned about “parking lot gulls” aka Ring-billed Gulls.  Then I noticed the Great Black-backed Gulls and then I saw the Bonaparte’s and Black-headed Gulls and was starting to think this was pretty cool.

Then spring came and I ditched the gulls for the songbirds, as is often the case for birders here.

Well it’s winter again and aside from the odd Purple Sandpiper the only shorebirds you are going to find for some time are the gulls.  So you might as well study them I figure.

Ken Kaufman says that learning to ID gulls makes you a better all-round birder and that after about 5 years of gull study you might know something.  Gulp.  Yeah well that wasn’t really enough to convince me.

But then I heard about these “white-winged gulls” and got a little obsessed about finding some.  Turns out Eastern Passage is riddled with Iceland Gulls and when a good gale is blowing you can watch these pretty white gulls braving the wind and waves.  Once I saw them I was almost hooked.  Then I saw a Glaucous.  And now it’s official.  I want to learn about gulls.
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And it’s not going to be easy.  As you can imagine they are really into this “hybridization” thing…yup.  The local gullers spend much time trying to find a Thayer’s for example.  They are some kind of an ID puzzle that lives between Herring and Iceland gulls in the midst of back-crosses…uh huh.

It’s taken a while to even be able to think about understanding any of the stuff that Alix or Mark write on their blogs about gulls but very slowly it’s starting to sink in bit by bit.  Teeny bits I’d say.

I’ll have to start the way I did with Sparrows (which is still a work in progress but I digress) and learn the Herring Gull first as I did with the Song Sparrows, for these are our most widely distributed of those species here in Nova Scotia.

One thing I learned yesterday about the Herring Gulls is they can be very aggressive.  A Scaup was lagging behind his raft and a Herring Gull nailed him and then tried to grab him.  The Scaup was weak from the hit but flew off Herring Gull in hot pursuit.  I didn’t think he would escape but after a few turns in the air to confuse the Gull he managed to get back to the raft and get surrounded by the troops.  Then more Herring Gulls showed up and tried to separate out some Scaup for a bit so the Scaup took turns diving to avoid them until the Herring Gulls gave up.  They did not appear at all to be trying to steal food from the Scaup on this occasion they really seemed to have it in their mind to kill one of the Scaup.  My guess is one of the Scaup is weak in the big raft that has been hanging around in Eastern Passage and they are waiting for their chance.  After a while of watching in horror I gave up and went down to watch some of the better behaved Gulls at MacCormack’s Beach.

A few months ago a friend and I witnessed a Greater Black-backed Gull kill a Harlequin Duck so I know the Gulls are not a bird to mess with.  If you google “gulls eating birds” you will be pretty shocked I’d say.

Anyway, they are worthy of study…smart, long-lived, fierce, and hardy.

So far the Gulls I’ve seen and photographed in Nova Scotia are:

  • Herring Gull
  • Great Black-backed Gull
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Glaucous Gull
  • Iceland Gull
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Black-headed Gull
  • Black-legged Kittiwake  (which some say is not a Gull at all)

Here are a few of my favorite photos from that list:

So the next two on my list are the Mew Gull which I will try to find today, and the Lesser Black-backed Gull which I’ll get in the next few weeks I’m sure.

Update from Jan 25, 2016 with the help of Keith Lowe and his scope I found the Mew Gull today here he is:
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And, pictured next to a Ring-billed Gull note the eye color differences:

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Every guller in Nova Scotia is dying to see an Ivory Gull so I won’t even say it.  But it would be nice someday to see a different small gull like a Laughing Gull or one of the other rarities than sometimes show up after storms.

In the meantime I’m going to start studying wingtips and subterminal spots and the like to see if I can start spotting some hybrids as I guess hunting for Thayers is a good puzzle to start with.

Here are a few photos from yesterday that I like of different gulls in different plumages that I thought might serve as a good starter for me.