Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nelson's Gull

Nelson's Gull was originally described as a new species by H.W. Henshaw in The Auk Vol. 001 No.03 in July of 1884.  the original article can be accessed at .

It was named after Mr E. W. Nelson an Alaskan ornithologist who had collected the first specimen of this distinct taxa. Henshaw compared its similarity to Glaucous Gull as Kumlien's is to Iceland Gull. He also noted its resemblance to Herring Gull. Although initially described as a distinct species currently it is well accepted that Nelson's Gull is a hybrid of Glaucous and Herring Gull.

Juvenile Nelson's Gull in flight

It would be safe to say that traditionally Nelson's Gull is the most common hybrid gull on the Great Lakes and eastern seaboard. Lesser Black-backed X Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed X Herring Gulls are becoming increasingly common and may rival Nelson's at some locations. Nelson's Gull is of course also seen in the west being described from Alaska and recorded along the west coast into Southern California. In many areas of the west it is vastly outnumbered by the "Olympic Gull" the hybrid result of Western and Glaucous-winged Gull "interaction". In the Anchorage area it can be hard to find any pure large gulls the majority being Glaucous-winged X Herring hybrids. Fortunately in the east hybrids are still an oddity and vastly outnumbered by pure birds.

Adult Herring X Glaucous-winged Gull

Adult Herring X Glaucous-winged Gull

The two Herring X Glaucous-winged Gull hybrids above were photographed at the Palmer Landfill north of Anchorage. The first bird looks like a stalky Herring Gull. The white eye and orange orbital ring is typical for Herring Gull. The primaries are an odd greyish-black. The second bird has a dark eye and pinkish orbital ring typical of Glaucous-winged Gull and the same odd greyish-black primary coloration.

On the shores of eastern Lake Superior Nelson's Gull is still a relatively rare find. The first record that I am aware of was a juvenile photographed at the Sault Ste. Marie landfill in November of 2005. It stuck around for two months and was a regular feature at the landfill. I  imaginatively nicknamed him "Nelson".

"Nelson" the Nelson's Gull

Since the  initial sighting I have seen about one Nelson's Gull per season. A noted exception to this being this year with a minimium of three birds being present. All the birds except one have been juvenile birds. I have never seen a third year bird or an adult locally. My initial impressions were that juvenile Nelson's Gulls looked distinctly like a Glaucous Gull with some dark pigment on the primaries as was the case in "Nelson".

"Juvenile" Nelson's Gull - St. John's

The "Nelson's Gull" pictured above photographed at the St. John's Landfill looks to be identical in size and structure to the pure Glaucous Gulls. The only difference in plumage that I can discern is the dark pigmentation of the primaries. A second winter bird I photographed subsequently in the Soo further suggested to me that the Nelson's Gull was dominated by Glaucous genes.

Second winter Nelson's Gull showing faint pigmentation and "ghost' primary pattern on both wings

In the first picture above I think one can discern some structural differences from the average Glaucous Gull especially in the head shape. The bill however is entirely Glaucous Gull. Unlike the above pictured juvenile bird I think this bird does have some subtle plumage differences from Glaucous gull other than the faint primary pattern.

Second- winter Glaucous Gulls

The second winter Glaucous Gull usually has some dark smudging scattered about and a white ground color but little or no fine barring. The coverts are largely unmarked with just a bit of dark smudging. The second winter Nelson's Gull shows dark smudging along the neck but has some fine vermiculations on the scapulars and wing coverts and tertials which I believe would be out of range for Glaucous Gull. In this view I also note some gonydeal expansion of the bill that also suggests Herring Gull influence.                                                                                                                          

Second Winter Nelson's Gull

This year I have seen three juvenile Nelson's Gulls. One was very similar to the previously noted birds - basically a Glaucous Gull with darker primaries. The other two however were much further towards the  Herring Gull end of the spectrum than any I had viewed previously.

Juvenile Nelson's Gull

The above bird although certainly very Glaucous Gull - like shows a lot of Herring Gull influence in the plumage especially in the juvenal scapulars and tertials. The primaries show relatively heavy dark pigmentation somewhat reminiscent of Thayer's Gull. The next bird is even further down the Herring Gull line to a point where I was intially unsure if in fact it was just a pale Herring Gull.

Juvenile Nelson's Gull (probable)

The structure of this bird screams Glaucous Gull (well maybe only shouts). The bill, head shape and general feel of the bird is Glaucous. In the closed wing view it has a lot of fine vermiculations on the scapulars, coverts and tertials belying Glaucous Gull influence. The primaries are perhaps just a shade paler than the Herring Gull but in the open -winged view I think there is definitely  decreased pigmentation of the flight feathers and the primary coverts which would have to be at the extreme end of the range for Herring Gull. I believe but am not 100% certain that the following picture represents the same individual. The eye is clearly white in this better light which is atypical in first year birds for both Herring and Glaucous Gull. It is certainly acting goofy which is very characteristic of Glaucous Gull but can certainly be an attribute of any of the larger gull species.

Juvenile Nelson"s Gull (probable)

Unfortunately this was the only close-up picture I managed before it flew the coop. After reviewing the Nelson's Gull pictures on-line and in the literature I have concluded that there is a very wide variation especially in the plumage of this hybrid. The overwhelming majority of these hybrids have Glaucous Gull type structure and bill.

Correction: Thanks to Kevin McLaughlin for pointing out that the above bird is not a juvenile but a 2nd year bird. Here are his helpful comments:

This is concerning the Nelson's Gull from the November 22 posting. This is the bird immediately above the Glaucous hybrid with the California Gull in San Diego. The bird is looking skyward out of its left eye. You label it as a juvenile and this is where I have a concern. There are several things which point towards a second basic bird. A few roadblocks are there as you allude to. This is the only good photo and as a result, only one side of the standing bird is shown. We have no assessment of the open wings, tail and so on. The bill pattern is good for a second basic Glaucous, Nelson's or Herring Gull. I have never seen Nelson's or Glaucous in juvenile or first basic which had a pink area at the tip of the lower mandible like this bird. They always show a bill with a complete black tip, the remainder being pink or bubblegum pink. The upperparts look too variegated, too messy, for a juvenile hybrid combo. The finely white spotted pattern on the greater coverts is absolutely bang on for a second basic Herring and by extrapolating this to a suspected hybrid, can fit that as well. The edge spotting gets larger on the inner greaters at the margin and this is normal for second basic. As you know, some juvenile-first basic Herrings and Thayer's, for example, can be finely marked on the greater coverts also but I do not believe that they will ever show the larger notches on the inner greaters as shown on a second basic. I intend on checking into this point however. To carry on, the tertials show several fine white spots on the outer margin and I consider this as being most likely, age diagnostic for second basic. (mind you, you can see this on third basics as well, so I mean to say diagnostic vis-a-vis first basic).The last point is the most obvious one and that is the colour of the eye. This bird shows a clear straw coloured eye, just right for a great many second basic large gulls, and absolutely wrong for a juvenile or first basic. I won't say that this aberrant eye colour could never happen in a first year bird, but can say that I have never seen it happen in the field or in photographs.

While in San Diego several years ago I photographed a hybrid gull that I initially felt was likely a Glaucous-winged X Glaucous hybrid (based on likelihood I suspect). On reviewing the pictures I don't think given the bicolor bill and the heavy wear and bleaching that you can be certain it's not a Nelson's.

Worn First Winter Glaucous Gull hybrid  Second Winter California Gull

Worn First Winter Glaucous Gull hybrid

I have yet to stumble across either a third winter or an adult Nelson's Gull locally. I have seen at least a couple adult Nelson's Gulls along the Niagara river but they were to distant for good photos. Brandon Holden has some great pictures of Nelson's Gull as well as other interesting hybrids on his web page of unusual Ontario Birds     .

I will report later in the week on The First Annual Sault Area Gull Roundup that I coordinated (its not to difficult coordinating one participant especially if its yourself) last Monday.

Comments are always welcomed.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

7 species of Gulls simultaneously at the Landfill

Although seeing 7 species of gulls in many places along the Great Lakes isn't terribly difficult. It is a challenge along the eastern shores of Lake Superior. In mid-late November Ring-billed Gulls head for the southern Great Lakes and Lesser Black- backed Gulls are a rarity. In fact there is only two records ever from Whitefish Point making it rarer than Ancient Murrelet, Pacific Loon and Long-tailed Jaeger. Since 2005 I am aware of 4 records for the Sault Area. One from Whitefish Point seen by Karl Bardon ( the legendary waterbird counter), two ( an adult and a third winter bird) from the Landfills and a fourth (I think a first winter bird) seen by David Bell on the St. Mary's River. There are more records to the west of us but it remains a rare species on Lake Superior.

Seeing any small gulls locally in November is a difficult feat. On occasion a small flock of Bonaparte's Gulls will hang out on the sandbar off the Tahquamenon Rivermouth but small gulls have been virtually absent from the area this fall with no Sabine's Gulls or Kittiwakes being seen at Whitefish Point.

On Saturday I arrived at the Landfill at about 0930 and had seen 7 species and 2 hybrid taxa by 1030. I spent another 3 hours trying to pick out a California Gull (unsuccessfully) in the hordes of squawking Herring Gulls. I then combed the southern reaches of the eastern Lake Superior for a Bonaparte's Gull again unsuccessfully. I do enjoy the listing game and I had seen 7 species of gulls in a day previously in the area so I was kind of hoping to top that. Scott Hickman and the Hubinger's had recently seen 7 species of Gulls on Munising Bay on the south east lakeshore.

Juvenile Thayer's Gull with warm brown color

The first interesting bird I saw was a milk chocolate brown juvenile Thayer's Gull. This bird certainly contradicted my theory that juvenile Thayer's Gulls have cold brown plumage without warm tones (see post on First year Thayer's vs. Herring Gulls).  I subsequently had another Thayer's Gull which shows the standard cold brown plumage.

Juvenile Thayer's Gull with cold brown color

I then noticed a very crisply plumaged juvenile gull in the main garbage pile fighting it out with a bunch of Herring Gulls. It had big blck scapulars neatly outline with white. I could only see its back and initially I figured it was a Great Black-backed. A gull panic attack ensued and as happens about once every 15 minutes the gulls bolted flying off in unison. This can be a dangerous time at the landfill as a couple of thousand spooked gulls circle over your head. Its a good time to protect your camera.

Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull

Well  as usually the case panic was overcome by gluttony and the gulls returned promptly. Fortuitously the juvenile gull landed about 15 feet with and was clearly quite small and was obviously a Lesser Black-backed Gull. I was quite pleased as I had never seen this particular plumage before despite seeing many Lesser-black Backs on the lower Great Lakes and eastern seaboard.

Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull

The bird stuck around for several hours taking off and returning to the same spot repeatedly. This is a phenomena I have noted consistently and repeatedly. When the gull flock bolts in unison individual birds very often return to the very spot they were feeding previously. In this circumstance the bird returned to within 10-15 feet of me at least 4 different time. I suspect this theory works well for everything except "Press-Stoping" rarities which will typically land somewhere in the next county. Any how if you have an eye on a rarity and you lose it when the flock bolts it is well worth concentrating your search back were the bird took off from.

Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull in flight

While watching the Lesser Black-backed I noticed a couple of first winter Ring-billed Gulls working the edge of the garbage. Near by was a juvenile and second winter Kumlien's Gull. The latter being a particularly pale and petite individual.  The smaller gulls usually hang out along the periphery of the gull flock. Kumlien's very consistently does this and this often affords great photograpic opportunities.

Second winter Kumlien's Gull

The next interesting bird was a third winter Great Black-backed x Herring Gull that I had seen before a couple of weeks previously. This is an increasingly noted hybrid which I plan on devoting a subsequent post to. If anyone has seen a juvenile or first year example of this hybrid I would be most interested in a description or picture.

Third winter Great Black-backed X Herring Gull

Third winter Herring and Great black-backed X Herring Gulls showing identical primary pattern

I had studied this bird quite closely previously and had little doubt of its identity. I have never seen a first year bird of this hybrid which I find interesting as they typically outnumber second and third winter birds significantly. All the Nelson's Gulls (Glaucous x Herring) I have seen locally have been juvenile birds.

Juvenile Nelson's (Glaucous x Herring Gull)

The above illustrated "Nelson's Gull" was the other hybrid seen today although the picture are from last week. There is at least two other "Nelson's Gulls" and maybe three present locally- all juvenile birds. This is first time I have had more than one present in the same season. This above bird is more towards the Herring Gull (although still looking decidedly Glaucous Gull like) end of the spectrum than most I have seen.

The other two species present were of course Glaucous Gull and Great Black-backed Gull. Several juveniles of each were present along with a second winter Great Black-baked.  No adults or other age classes were present today.  The following pictures were obviously not from today but were both taken at Dafter Landfill. I like them because there is no garbage in them.

Juvenile Glaucous Gull

Juvenile Great Black-backed Gull

So Great Black-backed, Glaucous, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, Thayer's, Kumlien's and Ring-billed makes seven plus the two hybrids all present simultaneously. As I left the landfill the Lesser Black-backed Gull was still giving the Herring Gulls hell and the Great Black-backed X Herring Gull flew off into the sunset.

Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed X Herring Gull flying off into the sunset

The landfill can be a romantic spot.
I'll be back.
Comments always appreciated.


Juvenile Lesser Black Backed Gull and Fourth winter Herring Gull in flight


I forgot I was going to add a little photography tip today. For all the beginning photographers I urge you to take all your pictures in RAW (NEF for Nikon users). The ability to post process RAW images is truly remarkable and the ability to compensate for poor exposure and technique is miraculous. Due to a error in the use of Exposure Compensation I hideously overexposed several series of images today. The blown highlights would never have been recoverable in a JPEG.

Overexposed Juvenile Thayer's Gull

Corrected exposure Juvenile Thayer's Gull

I would never consider shooting in JPEG now after using RAW for the last couple of years and understanding the huge benefits this mode affords.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Possible Baltic Gull in Newfoundland

The Baltic Gull - Larus fuscus fuscus is the nominate subspecies of the Lesser Black-backed Gull. Its occurence has never been officially recorded in North America. It is restricted to the Baltic Sea region and winters in east Africa. It is quite a different animal than the gracilis/intermedius subspecies that we are used to seeing in North America. First of all it is a 3 year gull (attains adult plumage in its 3rd year) as opposed to the usual 4 years that is the standard in most large gulls (notably excluding Yellow-footed Gull) including the other subspecies of Larus fuscus.

Olsen &  Larsson describe the structural differences- "compared to Lesser Black-backed Gull race gracilis/intermedius, it is a more elegant looking bird with a smallish-looking head, slender bill and more attenuated rear with very long primary projection beyond tail. The legs are rather short." It is significantly different in plumage with "velvety black upper parts with little or no contrast with the primaries with only narrow white tips soon reduced with wear. Adult winter birds have a white head or just fine streaks around the eyes and on hindneck."

On January 14/2007 I had the good fortune of accompanying Bruce Mactavish, Jared Clarke, Jean Iron and Ron Pittaway to the St. John's Landfill. This is mecca for larophiles. Thousands of large gulls spend ther day here during the winter with such rarities as Slaty-backed and Yellow-legged Gull being regular over the last few years. Other rarities such as Common Gull and Glaucous-winged Gull showing up on occasion with the 1000s of Great Black-baked, Glaucous and Herring Gulls along with a smattering of  Lesser Black-backed, Kumlien's and hybrid Gulls.

          Great Black-backed Gull                  Possible Baltic Gull

It is quite a large area and at one point the group seperated into two. On meeting back up Jean told me they had seen and photographed an adult Common Gull back on the other side of the Landfill. I decided to head over to see if I could relocate the bird. On my return I spotted a very unusual smallish jet black-backed gull sitting beside a Great Black-backed Gull. I noted its petite size and that its back seemed at least one shade darker than the Great Black-backed Gull. I took several pictures and watched it carefully for about 5 minutes. I then noted my fellow group members in the distance waving frantically at me. I rushed back to an awaiting Slaty-backed Gull.

Possible Baltic Gull

When things calmed down I showed the pictures to Bruce who commented that they were "intriguing". Ken Knowles had reported this same bird from Quidi Vidi Lake the afternoon prior to our Landfill visit and there was some thought that it might be the same "Baltic Gull"-like bird that had been seen the winter before in its second winter plumage.

Possible Baltic Gull

The bird was seen a few days later  very well at Quidi Vidi Lake by myself Ron Pittiway, Jean Iron and subsequently by Bruce Mactavish and John Dunn.

Possible Baltic Gull

The above pictures illustrate the key features described in Olsen and Larsson. Elegant looking, smallish head, slender bill and attenuated rear with long primary extension, jet black back with no contrast between back and primaries (only small white window P10), very little white to primary tips, and small amount of streaking around the eye and hindneck.

Possible Baltic Gull

If you look at Olsen and Larson's illustration of the Adult winter Baltic Gull on page 365 I think you will see it is nearly a dead ringer. I have included some pictures of several winter adult L. gracilis/intermedius
for comparison. These two birds were photographed the same day and location.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Note the contrast between the primary tips and the wings and back along with the extensive head streaking. The bottom bird was photographed in February in North Carolina.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

One final close-up of the head of the possible Baltic Gull.

Possible Baltic Gull

A very intriguing bird that to my eye fills all the criteria for an adult winter Baltic Gull.
Comments would certainly be welcomed.