Thursday, February 28, 2013

Gull (vb) - to fool, cheat, or hoax

I have a quick confession to make.  Despite being the vice-president of our local Audubon chapter and despite the fact that I do school programs about birds, I am not a "birder".

I like birds a lot.  I feed birds.  I build nest boxes.  I plant native plants for birds.  I keep track of the birds that I see as I go about my daily business.  I occasionally list sightings on ebird.  I even helped start up and organize a local migratory bird celebration. (The 2013 Bird Day Celebration is scheduled for Saturday May 11th at the Ziibiwing Center in Mt Pleasant.)

But, despite the everyone's best efforts to make me a "birder", I am not one.  I can barely identify songs sung by people much less those of birds.  I have never made a trip just to see a bird, no matter how rare.  I do not participate in Spring Migration Counts, Christmas Bird Counts, Big Sits, or Backyard Birdcounts, or Feederwatches.  I am not a "birder".

Sometimes the identification of bird species escapes me.  There are many bird species that are just plain confusing.  In some species male, female, and young birds all look differently. Sometimes a species has different plumage during the breeding season than it does the rest of the year.

Gulls are among those species that can be confusing, but in Michigan it doesn't have to be too difficult.  Many gulls look a lot alike so I am going to focus on just two species - ones that happen to be quite common in Michigan.

Gulls on the ice - Grand Traverse Bay

Looking at this photo, at first glance the birds all look similar.  There are some differences that can be picked out.  The first thing that I would notice is color - three of the birds are different.  Those three look kind of dirty, almost brown.  They look out of place among the rest of the gulls.  There must be something different about them.

The rest of the gulls all are white below, with gray wings and black wing tips.  If you look again,  some of these birds look smaller than the other birds. Are some of these birds just "runts".  Maybe they got less to eat than their siblings or maybe they are just younger than the bigger gray and white birds?

Look again.  Look for details.

The same picture - a little closer
The small gulls have a dark line on their beaks.  It looks like a ring circling around the bill.  It's a Ring-Billed Gull (Larus delawarensis).  It's actually a bird name that makes sense.

A better view of a Ring-billed Gull

The Ring-billed Gull is one of the most common gulls in the interior of North America (including the Great Lakes).  It is not unusual to see these gulls in fields far away from water, especially when the ground is being turned over or crops are being harvested.  This gull will follow farm equipment looking for an easy meal.  They also frequent parking lots and garbage dumps - looking for food.  The Ring-billed Gull is easy to identify when seen up close.  They have a yellow beak and legs.  They also have that distinctive black ring around their beak.  The Ring-billed Gull is 17 - 21 inches long and has a 41 - 46 inch wingspan.

So what are the bigger gray and white gulls in the first picture.  The next picture is of a individual gull from that grouping.

Close-up of an individual gull.
While this is not a great photo, the features that can help us identify this bird are visible.  It has the same white head and belly, gray wings and back, and black wing tips as the Ring-billed Gull.  Its beak is yellow, but it lacks a black ring around it - there is a dark spot near the tip, but it does not go all the way around the beak.  Perhaps the most important thing to notice is the feet.  They are pink, not yellow.  The combination of these features identifies it as a Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) -also a very common gull for the Great Lakes.  The Herring Gull is significantly larger than the Ring-billed Gull.  It is 22 - 26 inches long with a 54 - 58 inch wingspan.  It also has a significant weight advantage over the Ring-billed Gull; 28 - 44 ounces (800 - 1200 grams) to 10 - 25 ounces (300 - 700 grams).

The next two pictures show a Herring Gull up close and in flight.

Note the yellow beak and pink legs
This first photograph shows off two of the identification marks of a Herring Gull:  the yellow bill and pink legs.


This photograph also shows off the yellow bill and pink legs, as well as the black wing tips.  I really like this photograph because it looks like the gull has just jumped off of a diving board and is about to make a big SPLASH!

So what about those dirty looking, brownish gulls?  They are immature Herring Gulls.  It takes four years for Herring Gulls to achieve their adult color pattern.  Being mostly brown, the juvenile bird below is probably a first year Herring gull, as they age they take on more of the characteristics of the adults.

Adult (foreground) and juvenile (background) Herring Gulls

Maybe identifying common gulls is not as hard as it first seems.  Even "non-birders" can figure it out without being gulled by the variety.  Okay, whose tern is it?

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