There is no such thing as a 'sea gull'

There is no such thing as a 'sea gull'

For many years I've wanted to write a column on gulls, but for one reason or another I've just never managed to get it done. There never was enough room or it didn't seem like the correct time. But finally I just said, "Do it now!"

First, let me something clear. There is no such thing as a sea gull. There are many birds that are gulls but none are named "sea gulls." Also, once beginning birders begin studying gulls and see all the different species and multiple plumages, their eyes glaze over and they just give up.

Granted, gulls can be very difficult to identify with their different "phases." The white ones look like all the other white ones and the brown ones look like all the other brown ones. But, never fear. With a little basic knowledge, anyone can have some success.

First, rare gulls are exactly that — rare. Nearly every gull we see in the Rogue Valley is a ring-billed gull. These are the ones we see in parking lots eating French fries and other disgusting stuff.

Second, gulls, like people, are variable. Some gulls of the same species can look a little different from the textbook pictures.

Third, young gulls start out brown and change to white, black or gray as they mature into adults.

Last, there are three basic kinds of gulls — small ones, medium ones and large ones. Small ones usually take at least two years to mature to adult plumage, medium gulls take three years, and large gulls take four years.

Large gulls — western, herring, California, and glaucous-winged gulls, such as the ones you see at the coast — start out brown the first year, then acquire gray feathers on their backs the second year. The third year they are mostly gray above and white below, but retain some brown feathers on their upper parts. The fourth year they acquire adult plumage and don't change much except for becoming a bit brighter during breeding season.

Three-year-old gulls, Heermann's, ring-billed, and mew gulls are easier to identify because this same sequence is crammed into three years — brown the first year, gray, white, black with a few brown feathers the second, and adult plumage the third year.

The Bonaparte's gull is the only two-year gull that you are likely to see around here. The first-year bird looks pretty much like an adult except for some brown feathers on the wings. Adult breeding plumage, however, is different from non-breeding. Breeding plumage shows a jet-black "hood" which changes to white after breeding.

After you determine the age of the gull you can then concentrate on other field marks, such as bill and leg color and overall shape to determine its species.

There is a lot more to this than I can cover here. Huge volumes have been written about gulls that are "third basic hybrid backcross intergrade" birds and that sort of stuff, but don't get too carried away with that. I'm just trying to "ease" you into looking at gulls differently.

So far, there have been records of only 10 species of gulls seen in the Rogue Valley over all the years that records have been kept. Rare gulls in our area fall into two categories: ones that are truly rare anywhere, such as Ross' gull, and those that normally live along the ocean and rarely come inland, such as Heermann's gull.

So, next time you see one of those graceful birds flying around or sitting in front of you, don't try to guess what kind it is first. Guess how old it is then figure out what species it is. And remember, there is no such thing as a "sea gull!"

Birder's Quiz Answer: The large bird is a second year western gull. All of the small gulls are mew gulls. However the small brownish gull is a juvenile (first summer) mew gull.

Richard Cronberg is a birding enthusiast and photographer who lives in Central Point. Write him at P.O. Box 4283, Medford, OR 97501.

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