Who remembers that delightful book by Richard Bach – ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull?’ Published in 1972 it dominated the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller list for two consecutive years, and sold over 60 million copies worldwide. A former USAF pilot, Air Force Captain and latter-day barnstorming pilot, Bach explored the joys and freedom of flying in this fable (and parable) featuring a gull learning about life and flight and the notion of self-perfection. As Jonathan pushes himself ever higher and faster he is seized by a passion for flight that eventually makes him an outcast, but in the process he learns things about life and himself that he would not otherwise have found out.
But what kind of a gull was Jonathan? Certainly not a Seagull, there is no such bird. Well, we are never told….
And we all know this dilemma, highlighted during the winter months in Sarasota, when less usual gulls show up on our coast. So let’s indulge in a little revision about gull ID.
Here’s what I learned from Ken Kaufman in his very helpful book called ‘Identify Yourself; The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges’.
Under Basics of Gull ID, he says,
- Rare gulls are rare
- Gulls are variable
- Gulls have a bewildering variety of plumages related to age.
Hmmmm…. not too helpful a beginning maybe.
Then he adds more helpfully (very helpfully in my view), ‘There are only three basic kinds of gulls – little ones, medium sized ones, and big ones’. He adds, ‘Ignore the pages and pages of gull pictures in your field guide and focus on that fact. He then goes on to unpack that concept a little by relating them to a variety of gulls. For example ‘The medium-sized gulls, such as ring-billed, mew, laughing and Franklin’s……’
Based on this helpful tip I turned to a book I recently purchased (only don’t be fooled by the title), ‘Gulls Simplified, A comparative Approach to Identification’, by Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson. At the beginning of this book there is an array of 22 gulls, a little larger than postage stamp sized, placed in order of size! On the next page are the same pictures, but in silhouette. Great!
Here’s what I did. I photocopied this page, cut out the pictures and on a sheet of paper I stuck the ones that are found on our beaches, and re-photocopied the page. I now have a neat little sheet with the 10 most likely to see gulls – Great Black-backed, Herring, Iceland (Thayer’s), Lesser Black-backed, Ring-billed, Laughing, Mew, Franklin’s, Sabine’s and Bonaparte’s. (Not sure why I added Mew, except it’s a gull I’m very familiar with).
Admittedly, rarer birds can turn up. I well remember the wonderful specimen of a Kelp Gull that showed up in Ancote Gulf Park in January of 2011, and the Heerman’s Gull that turned up annually in Fort de Soto in the early 2000s, and the Glaucous Gull seen on Siesta in 2017, but those sightings are highly unusual, and the theory is that the better you can ID the more usual birds, the more likely you are to note something obviously different.
Returning to the issue of size for a minute, this idea can be helpful even with the bewildering array of juvenile birds.
For example, you may not know that at length of 30” the Great Black-backed is the world’s largest gull. (Consider also that a Bald Eagle is 31”, a Turkey Vulture 26” and a Snow Goose 28”. These are birds we are familiar with, so think about that when you ask yourself, could it be a Great Black-backed).
Think too about the sizes of other gulls. A Herring Gull is 25”, a (Thayers) Iceland Gull 23”, and a Lesser Black-backed 21”, even as a juvenile a Great Black-backed is going to be much bigger.
Another tip, when I take a photograph of a gull for ID purposes I always try to add a photograph of the bird with other gulls for comparison of size. By the way the only other gull that comes near to the Great Black-backed in size is the Glaucous Gull at 27” but there is no way those two species can be confused!
By the way, ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull’ is still out there. Have a good read!