Some winter months bring superb gull-watching opportunities to Ohio. For example, much of December, 2008, through January, 2009. were absolutely fantastic for gulls on the Cleveland Lakefront. Within the entire Great Lakes region, only Niagara Falls tops our local gull hotspots for sheer numbers and species of gulls. Those who brave the arctic wind blasts, frigid temperatures, and slick conditions, will almost always come away with some fantastic sightings. If you take your time and give the massive flocks a sharp look-over, you will get “the goods” for sure.
This article provides a few brief but major pointers on gull identification, which is perhaps the single most mind-boggling identification problem birders face as a whole. The entire family is just a major pain-in-the-bleeper, and the “large gulls,” as they are referred to, are nothing short of disastrous and ego-busting to some. Downright insane variation exists amongst even one species and there are hybrids galore. Not to mention their sheer numbers when they congregate at locations such as East 72nd street in downtown Cleveland. Apart from the negative, gull identification is also very fun, tricky fun, and you can always, always learn something. Certain plumages of gulls are astoundingly beautiful, and there is much to appreciate in the soft shades, tones, pure whites, deep grays and blacks, of these amazingly diverse birds.
So, if you are one of the folks who are shellshocked over gulls, or you are one of the folks who spend several hours at the lake staring at a massive group of “seagulls” that you just couldn’t get to grips with, here are a few quick pointers. There are books galore, presentations galore, websites galore, field trips galore, and speakers galore on the subject. Research will get you far.
1) Study Ahead of Time
There is absolutely nothing better that you can do for your birding experience than to prepare ahead of time. You cannot allow yourself to walk up to East 72nd, never having seen even an illustration or single photo of first-year Iceland Gull, and expect to pull one individual out of the flock of 25,000 birds. You have to be familiar, at least somewhat, with what you are expecting your needle-in-the-haystack will look like. Even glancing through your Sibley guide to see that a first-year Iceland Gull is a wholesomely very pale, frosty light brown bird with white wingtips, and comparing that bird to a first-year Herring Gull, will get you a long way. Failing to open a field guide beforehand will just sink you. Study illustrations. Get a good field guide. (Sibley and National Geographic are the best for gulls.) Look at the illustrations a day or two before and then the day of. Let those images sink in.
2) Eliminate Some Species
Do not destroy your hope with thoughts of having to sift through 15 or 20 species of gulls. At first, you are definitely not going to see a Western Gull, or Heermann’s Gull, or Laughing Gull, or even a Black-legged Kittiwake, besides any of the extremely very rare gulls. Become aware with what is most realistic. Read up on the status of gulls found in Ohio, to better understand what species are found in our region. Follow the listserve / RBA / local reports to know what’s being seen. Then narrow your list down even further to those species that you’ll see every time. Learn to identify a Bonaparte’s Gull from all angles before you expect to walk up to the lake and pull a Black-headed Gull out from the horizon line. Start with the big four….
3) The Big Four
The big four are the most common gulls that we have here on our lakefront. To really get to grips with gull identification, learn these four species like you know your own children. At least, be very familiar with their ages, plumages, and some variation. The big four are: Bonaparte’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, and Great Black-backed Gull, the most important being Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, as their sheer numbers are simply astounding here. Bonaparte’s and Ring-billed Gulls have 3 different plumages. Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls have 4 different plumages. For these four species, learn the adult plumage first, then learn the first-winter plumage, then work on the rest of their plumages.
4) The Most Common Ages / Distribution
Not only are you bombarded by many species, but you also have to deal with 3 and 4 different ages / plumages for each species. That can seem overwhelming, so concentrate on the combinations that you will see most. Here’s a short guide to what species’ plumages / ages are most commonly seen during winter on the lakefront. The “white-winged gulls” – that is, Iceland, Glaucous, and Thayer’s – are more abundant here in their first-winter plumage. Then, after first-winter birds, a handful of adults are found. Second-winter and third-winter birds are more difficult to find; you may locate one or two individuals in a day compared to five or six first-winter birds. So, it is wise to spend more time studying the plumages of and searching for first-winter birds and adults in the case of the “white-winged gulls”.
Most Regular Species (in order of abundance) Followed by Their Ages
(i.e., for Iceland Gull, first-winter birds are generally more abundant or more regularly-seen than adults.)
- Ring-billed Gull (adult, first-winter)
- Herring Gull (adult, first-winter)
- Bonaparte’s Gull (adult, first-winter)
- Great Black-backed Gull (adult, first-winter)
- Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult, first-winter)
- Glaucous Gull (first-winter, adult)
- Iceland Gull (first-winter, adult)
- Thayer’s Gull (first-winter, adult)
So, to help you start to get a grip on gulls, look at what is most realistic on a given day. Again thinking of East 72nd Street in Cleveland, you will see Ring-bills, Herrings, Bonaparte’s, and Great Black-backed Gulls galore. Comparatively, you will find 10,000 Herrings compared to 300 Great Black-backed Gulls (or less). Next, let’s take a look at an average number of what you’ll find on a given day in January/February (relative to weather and other annual occurrence factors).
General Species Distribution (average)
Let’s say we have a typical January winter and we’re sitting at East 72nd looking for “white-winged gulls”. What should we expect to find?
- Ring-billed Gull (between 3,000 – 15,000)
- Herring Gull (between 2,000 – 8,000)
- Bonaparte’s Gull (between 200 – 2,000)
- Great Black-backed Gull (between 50 – 300)
- Lesser Black-backed Gull (between 3 – 20)
- Glaucous Gull (between 2 – 10)
- Iceland Gull (between 2 – 10)
- Thayer’s Gull (between 1 – 4)
Keep in mind that, if you are looking through 20,000 or more gulls, you may not find those few Glaucous, Iceland, or Thayer’s Gulls even if they are there. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t see the less common ones first time and every time. If you do your homework and make the effort, eventually you will be rewarded.
5) Weather and Viewing
A partly-cloudy sky with intermittent harsh sunlight makes viewing so-so. Ideally, you really want an overcast day, which evens out the tones and shades of gulls, making for proper viewing. On really sunny days, colors and tones are very harsh, making for extreme contrast (too extreme). Whites look too white and dark grays appear black, which makes for confusing plumage marks and a tough ID. So, the “gross” days are actually best. Meaning, you do want to sacrifice comfort for better birds and better looks.
Preferably, you should hit the lake when winds are coming in out of the N / NW / NE. Anything North. This pushes birds in closer to the shoreline, thus closer to you! While harsh winds can make it difficult to steady your optics, typically, the nastier the weather front, the better. Obviously, it is not necessary to go out in extreme or dangerous weather, but shoot for the days that are chillier and slightly windier, and you’ll probably get a few more good birds because of your decision.
5) Field Trips and Leaders
Nearly as important as studying beforehand, you can learn so much from a seasoned leader who will patiently work with you to get a grip on finding/identifying gulls. Go on a field trip with a sharp leader that can find, find, find, and re-find your target birds. You need sight repetition till it sinks in like mad. Once you have that species embedded in your memory, you’ll be able to pick more and more of them out. It really takes seeing them, but seeing them correctly (meaning a sure-fire identification so that you can latch your memory onto those images). If you “think” that you’ve seen a first-winter Glaucous Gull, but you’re not sure, than you haven’t seen one, because the species is striking. Don’t kid yourself if you really are having a tough time with gulls. It’s understandable. Get yourself in with a group or tour with devoted leaders who will explain field marks while they point out birds to you.
Editor’s Note: The Columbus Avid Birders group of Columbus Audubon normally devotes its January and February trips to gull-watching. On these trips, the Avid Birders visit the most productive sites on Lake Erie in northern Ohio, seeking those less common gull species (and, they hope, a few real rarities). Several of the leaders and members of the Avid Birders qualify as real experts, and the Avid Birders are all about sharing their knowledge and experience. To learn more about the Avid Birders, see the Avid Birders pages on this Web site.
6) Finding the “White-winged Gulls”: Iceland and Glaucous Gulls
There are two regular over-wintering gull species that everyone wants to see – the “white-winged gulls”: Iceland and Glaucous Gulls. No matter what day, there will always be someone standing beside you while at the Lake, saying “I need Iceland” for their life and year lists. These gulls are attractive, uncommon, and somewhat difficult to find. Some of their plumages are downright glorious, while others are vague and tricky to pick out. There is one major rule to remember, and that’s the phrase “white-winged gull” – which the three species are referred to for a reason. The single best approach for finding these two gulls is to be familiar with their first-winter plumages. In their immature cycles, these species are most recognizable and most prominent, compared to the adults. First-winter birds are frosty cream brown to extremely pale – bordering on nearly immaculate white in some birds.
First, understand that first-winter Herring Gulls are the most common large brown gull. They are very variable, but will mostly be dark mottled brown all over, with contrastingly darker brown primaries (wingtips) and tertials (feathers on the wing near the primaries). Study illustrations (and get out and view!!) of first-winter Herring Gulls, so you know what to compare your white-winged gulls with.
Second, look at the rear of the bird. If you find a large congregation of immature Herring Gulls, you’ll likely find a few white-winged gulls mixed in. Immature gulls of different species tend to swarm together; this is where you want to look for young Iceland and Glaucous. While scanning through the immature birds, look at the rear of each bird, that is, the back half of the bird. Iceland and Glaucous Gulls have very very pale, if not white tertials and primaries, regardless of how frosted or pale brown the body of the bird is. Meanwhile, young Herring Gulls are darker brown, with a very dark brown “rear”. First-winter Iceland and Glaucous vary from creamy mottled brown to extremely pale frosty white, and always have an extremely whitish “rear end”, that contrasts greatly from surrounding mobs of first-year Herring Gulls.
Obviously you will need binoculars. Most folks who go looking for gulls use a spotting scope as well. While a scope is not absolutely necessary, it’s great for close-up looks at the details. But don’t over-rely on a scope: a scope is pretty much useless for looking at gulls in flight — and a lot of the gulls you see will be in flight. Also, you can scan large flocks of gulls more quickly with binoculars than with a scope. Most people start with binoculars for an “overview” of nearby perched gulls and flocks in flight, then switch to a scope to view more distant birds and to zero in on individuals of particular interest. If you don’t have a scope, don’t despair: friendly birders often will let you look through their scopes when they find something interesting.
In addition to optical equipment, you will need plenty of warm clothing. Those who have not spent time on the lakefront will be amazed at just how cold it can be out there. Remember that you will be standing out in the open, probably with a brisk, cold wind in your face, possibly for several hours, in below-freezing temperatures. Depending on how cold-adapted you are, you need a good hat, a scarf or balaclava, a heavy coat, thick gloves, preferably some wind pants, heavy socks and boots, and thermal underwear underneath all the layers. It sounds awful, but the right clothing can make it quite tolerable.
Wrapping It All Up
Watching gulls can drive you nuts, but it also can be tremendously rewarding. There’s nothing like spotting your first Glaucous or Iceland Gull. And even the more common species can be overwhelming in their sheer numbers. So study, find a group, and get out there. See you at the Lake!