Alaska and Canada : Idiot’s Guide to (some of) the Gulls

 

The Trip (and a health warning)

The last few posts have been about our trip in August and September 2014 to Canada and Alaska, covering just a few of the wonderful experiences that these two destinations have to offer. Now it’s time to get back to the main theme of my blog – birding – before getting to the next phase of our trip, namely the Eastern part of Canada.

Health Warning : Non-birders beware – this post contains information that you may find disturbing and slightly obsessive. Birders will (hopefully) find it of some interest.

Gulls and more Gulls

Even before our Alaska cruise got underway, it was clear that Gulls would be a main feature of the birding opportunities, as they wheeled in the air and flew close by the ship as it stood docked in Seattle. Once underway, I realised that identifying the Gulls and other seabirds would be a real challenge, as both the ship and the target birds were moving, often in different directions, making it very difficult to pick up any sort of detail with my binoculars.

Fortunately I had my camera with zoom lens at the ready and resorted to taking photos first and asking questions afterwards – such as “what the heck was that!” This turned out to be the right strategy as I was able to identify many of the seabirds that would have otherwise remained a mystery, by comparing my blown-up photos with the illustrations in Sibley Birds (which I downloaded onto my I-Phone and I-Pad before the trip)

In the end I was only able to sort all my photos (approaching 1000 of them) and finally ID them once I got back to SA and at the same time I developed a list of the main features to help with the ID, finding as I did that many of the gulls have only very subtle differences between them

So here they are, all 11 Gull species and one Kittiwake that I saw on the trip, in the order that I saw them (the Kittiwake is very much like a Gull, so I have included it in this study) and with the key identification features listed :

(As a first time visitor to Canada and Alaska I’m by no means an expert so any corrections of errors will be welcomed)


Ring-billed Gull

Medium sized (43cm/17″)

In flight – long slender wings, sharply contrasting black tips with white spot

Bill – yellow with black ring

Head – white; brown smudging when non-breeding

Juvenile – mostly white underside and rump; dark tail band

First sighting – flying overhead in Calgary

Ring-billed Gull, Baddeck Nova Scotia
Ring-billed Gull, Baddeck Nova Scotia
Ring-billed Gull and probable juvenile, Baddeck Nova Scotia
Ring-billed Gull and probable juvenile, Baddeck Nova Scotia

Franklin’s Gull

Small (36cm/14″)

In flight – limited black tips to grey wings

Bill – red; black when non-breeding

Head – black in summer; black hood in winter

Juvenile – pale brown wings and neck

First sighting – flying overhead in Calgary

Franklin's Gull, Calgary
Franklin’s Gull, Calgary
Franklin's Gull, Calgary
Franklin’s Gull, Calgary

Herring Gull

Large (64cm/25″)

In flight – pale grey back; limited dark tips not sharply contrasting

Bill – yellow with red spot

Head – white with pale eye

Juvenile – pale brown/grey overall; dark tipped bill

First sighting – at sea

Herring Gull, at sea
Herring Gull, at sea
Herring Gull, at sea
Herring Gull, at sea

Heermann’s Gull

Medium (48cm/19″)

In flight – dark grey body with white head

Bill – red with black tip

Head – white; grey in non-breeding

Juvenile – darker all over

First sighting – at sea

Heermann's Gull, at sea
Heermann’s Gull, at sea

Western Gull

Large (64cm/25″)

In flight – dark backed; poorly defined black tips to grey wings

Bill – yellow with red spot

Head – white

Juvenile – dark sooty brown; paler rump

First sighting – at sea

This one eluded me – no photo unfortunately, but here’s a picture from Sibley Birds of North America

 

Western Gull
Western Gull

 


Bonaparte’s Gull

Small (33cm/13″)

In flight – pale grey wings, white outer primaries, thin black rear edge

Bill – thin black

Head – black head (summer); dark ear spot (winter)

Juvenile – light brown neck / head

First sighting – Juneau, Alaska

Bonaparte's Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte’s Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte's Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte’s Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte's Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte’s Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte's Gull, Juneau
Bonaparte’s Gull, Juneau

Glaucous-winged Gull

Large (66cm/26″)

In flight – pale grey and white; no black in wings

Bill – yellow with red spot

Head – white

Juvenile – pale brown / grey overall; all dark bill

First sighting – Juneau, Alaska

Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle
Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle
Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle
Glaucous-winged Gull, Seattle
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), Seattle
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), Seattle
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), at sea
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), at sea
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), at sea
Glaucous-winged Gull (Juvenile), at sea
Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay
Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay
Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay
Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay
Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay
Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay
Glaucous-winged Gull, Juneau
Glaucous-winged Gull, Juneau

Mew Gull

Medium (41cm/16″)

In flight – grey wings; black wing tips with white spots

Bill – yellow

Head – white; brown smudging in non-breeding

Juvenile – pale brown / grey overall; dark tipped bill

First sighting – Juneau, Alaska

Mew Gull, Juneau
Mew Gull, Juneau
Mew Gull, Juneau
Mew Gull, Juneau
Mew Gull (Juvenile), at sea
Mew Gull (Juvenile), at sea
Mew Gull (Juvenile), Glacier Bay
Mew Gull (Juvenile), Glacier Bay

Thayer’s Gull

Large (58cm/23″)

In flight – pale grey back; limited dark wing tips not sharply contrasting

Bill – yellow with red spot

Head – white; dark eye

Juvenile – pale brown / grey overall; all dark bill

First sighting – Skagway, Alaska

No photo of an adult and I am not 100% sure about this photo being of a Juvenile Thayer’s Gull but it is most likely

Thayer's Gull (Juvenile), Skagway
Thayer’s Gull (Juvenile), Skagway

Black-legged Kittiwake

Medium (43cm/17″)

In flight – long wings; contrasting black wing tips ; black legs

Bill – yellow

Head – white; mark behind head in non-breeding

Juvenile – bold “M” on upper wings

First sighting – Glacier Bay, Alaska

Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay
Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay
Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay
Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay
Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay
Black-legged Kittiwake, Glacier Bay

Ivory Gull

Medium (43cm/17″)

In flight – all white

Bill – small, orange tip

Head – white; black eye

Juvenile – dark spots to feathers

First sighting – Misty Fjords, Ketchikan Alaska

I puzzled over this photo for some time before eliminating all but the Ivory Gull, which is listed as Rare in Sibley Birds, casting further doubt on my ID – I would really appreciate confirmation or otherwise from anyone with more expert knowledge

Ivory Gull, Ketchikan
Ivory Gull, Ketchikan
Ivory Gull, Ketchikan
Ivory Gull, Ketchikan

Great Black-backed Gull

Large (76cm/30″)

In flight – dark backed; black wing tips with large white spots

Bill – yellow with red spot

Head – white

Juvenile – speckled brown; black bill; whitish head

First sighting – Cape Breton, Nova Scotia – among cormorants in bay pounded by heavy seas

The photo is not great but does show the black back of the gull in the foreground

Greater Black-backed Gull amongst the Cormorants, Cape Breton
Greater Black-backed Gull amongst the Cormorants, Cape Breton

 

The 11 Gulls  represent just under half of the 25 that can be found in North America, but quite a few of those not seen on our trip are listed as Rare so I was more than pleased with this “haul”.

More about some of the other birds seen during our trip in a future post – right now I’m preparing for a massive birding adventure into southern Mozambique with an expert birding guide and a group of 10 people in 4 vehicles including my own, leaving early on Thursday 29th January 2015. Watch this space!

 

 

2 thoughts on “Alaska and Canada : Idiot’s Guide to (some of) the Gulls”

  1. Hello Don, I believe you have been to Cuba. Could you give me an email address and name for anyone you know of there who might be able to take my daughter and myself on an early morning birding trip to the Zapata swamp NP. We’ll be there in April. Looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks and regards. Shirley Tajcnar

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