We had to go to Bridgewater for an appointment on Feb-3rd and so plans were made to go on after to try to see a Common Gull, Mew Gull too but not really. It is a good three way split for Mew, Common and Kamchatka and the ones we are most likely to get in Nova Scotia are the European Common Gulls. On the eve of the trip the finding of a Redwing, an winter friend from the old country, added a frisson of even greater excitement than seen a gull might generate.
You might mock at the thought of a Common Gull being exciting. It would have been a Canada and Nova Scotia tick to start with and, when the taxonomists deem the time right, a bird in the listing bank as my (so far) only Common Gull seen in North America. In 1998 I was actually inspired enough to write a short note about the variability of Common Gulls, a note that came about because I found what I still believe was a Kamchatka Gull in my old county of Nottinghamshire. I’ve reproduced the note later, itpublished it in a magazine I used to do called The Nottinghamshire Naturalist.
But first, I’ll tell the short story of the day and put a fluffy bird up so that non gull enthusiasts can see it and then wander off elsewhere.
Business done in Bridgewater, we steamed off towards Lower Sackville full of optimism. Finding the first site was easy as even our stupid sat-nav (Garmin, don’t bother) can find a Wendy’s! Despite offering some choice scraps, the only gulls that came along were, to sort of quote Obi Wan Kenobe, “not the gulls we’re looking for”. We moved on to Pleasant Hill Cemetery where a star-studded cast of Nova Scotia birding had been there for hours and had come up blank on the Redwing.
Well they can be buggers to see some times, Unobtrusive grovelers seemingly fitted with stealth technology, yes they can be difficult. Sensing that we should try for at least one of a hoped for triumvirate of birds in the area, we headed to where most of a Yellow-breasted Chat had been wintering. Normally as accomplished as Redwings for hiding, the chat eventually sat on the edge of a feeding dish topping up on grub. Not great shots but it was cold.
As we waited and watched, small groups of American Robins dropped in or popped up causing repeated but momentary palpitations, eased when it became clear that they had no foreigners amongst them. It looked unlikely that we’d see the Redwing, so it was after bird two we went – via Petsmart to get a bag of dried cat food for the gulls. I chose the healthy kitty ones thinking they might well sharpen up a few of those mucky gull plumages, ready for spring. A liberal scattering pulled in the birds but none were at all Common, just common.
We went back to the Redwing, or lack of, for another go. Thankfully the ‘bingly-beep-beep’ of the phone told me that Mike and Sandra had gone after the gull and found it, so back we went again. After a frustrating few minutes, when I’d have been better using the bins than the camera lens to search, the gull nut was cracked and it showed very well. It has yellower legs than many winter Common Gulls, they often tend to be greeny, but in all other aspects it was very familiar and good to see alongside the Ring-billed Gulls. How often I’ve sifted through hundreds of Common Gulls just to find a Ring-billed!
We were joined by Angela and Diane in watching the gull and they repeatedly snaffled the cat-snacks (the gulls not the gals) until, eventually, they dragged their laden bellies off to whichever the local pond the gulls spent their nights. It had been a good day to be a mall-gull and many would sit lower in the water tonight. I just hope all the cat treats don’t alter their behavior and they feel an overwhelming compulsion to scratch expensive furniture and then throw up on a carpet.
Below is the note what I wrote. It was based on many hours gull watching when working as a country park warden (see my book ‘Parklife’ for more hilarious stories). The images are scans so apologies for the quality, digital hadn’t been invented then.
This is the cover for my gulls edition of The Nottinghamshire Naturalist, I just re-read it, not bad if I say so myself. I added an interesting link and re-edited the piece to fit.
Variation in Common Gulls
Any UK gull watcher sifting through roosting or loafing gulls will have noticed that some species show a great variation in appearance. Differences may be structural, with leg length, bill length and primary projection often substantially different on two individuals of one species sitting side by side. Other differences may be more subtle, focusing on the colour tones of parts of the plumage or bare parts, eye colour or even the numbers of mirrors on a gulls wing. At present both the Herring Gull Larus argentatus and Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus complex are being examined to see if there are sufficient differences in the various races for them to be given full species status. It is suggested that up to 11 ‘species’ of Herring Gull types may exist. One species of gull in which clear and obvious plumage and structural differences do occur is the Common Gull Larus canus.
The Common Gull is a circumpolar species generally divided into four races although features distinguishing these races are not entirely clear cut and, because of the clinal variation of individuals within the Common Gull’s distribution range, clear cut differences may never be applicable to all birds encountered within what should be their core range. To clarify current thinking; Common Gulls of the race Larus canus canus are found from Ireland east to Russia where they become Larus canus heinei or ‘Russian’ Common Gull. Further east birds become Larus canus kamtschatschensis or Kamchatka Gull. A short hop into North America finds the final race Larus canus brachyrhynchus or Mew Gull, a race which is largely confined to the west coast of North America but may up on the east coast of North America from time to time.
The object of this note is to not necessarily assign individuals cited as belonging to anything other than Larus canus canus, merely to point out that individuals showing some characteristics of the other three races are occurring and that maybe Common Gull taxonomy is another committee headache in the pipeline.
My interest in Common Gulls began when an individual present at Colwick in January 1993, and returning on subsequent years, was so different from other birds that some observers doubted that it was even a Common Gull. The opportunity to observe Common Gulls loafing or feeding has presented itself at Colwick each winter with additional observations being made at local gull roosts, most notably the Hoveringham roost.
In trying to allocate birds to types I used the following criteria. Overall plumage, mantle colour, jizz, leg length and colour, bill length, depth and colour.
Type 1: Typical Common Gulls Larus canus canus
Familiar to all European observers, winter birds vary from being heavily streaked around the head to light mottling. Bills are usually greenish, often banded. They are not particularly deep and are tapered to the tip. Legs are green to grey-green, sometimes yellowish and on the short side. The mantle is midway between Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus and Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla in colour appearing almost gun-metal grey. One to two mirrors are usually present on adults along with a white trailing edge to the flight feathers forming a neat tertial crescent on the closed wing. The facial expression is (in most cases) gentle. First-winter birds always appear slightly bigger and look meaner, their immature scapular and wing covert feathers are fairly uniform with, generally, no extensive pale edges, these become bleached from the turn of the year.
Type 2: ‘Russian’ Common Gulls Larus canus heinei
In recent years odd birds, mostly adults, have appeared to show some characteristics associated with the race L. c. heinei. These birds appear bulkier and darker than type 1 birds. First-winter types appear to have a more chequerboard appearance to their scapulars and wing coverts caused by broad buff fringes to the darker feathers. Around the eye these birds seem to show a small confined dark patch on a clean looking white head, most distinctive.
Interesting link below.
Type 3: Yellow-legged variants 1.
About 20-25% of the birds present at Colwick show yellowish to clear yellow legs which are slightly longer than those of type one birds. These birds also have structurally deeper, clean yellow bills with a well-defined gonydal spot. Overall they appear structurally, heavier than type 1 birds, appearing quite ‘chesty’ at rest. In flight they seem to have whiter looking wings with two or more obvious mirrors and a broader tertial crescent with some tertials appearing 50% white.
Type 4: yellow-legged variants 2.
These birds are a minority but are distinctive when encountered. The legs are dull yellowish and appear very long compared to type 1 birds. They stand rather hunched up looking short necked and tend to have cleaner heads. The bill is of similar proportions to type 1 birds but is yellow and banded dark near the tip. They show big tertial crescents and the wings seem long looking at rest. The mantle looks slightly darker than type one approaching ‘Russian’ type birds.
Type 5: Mew types.
These are the most distinctive of all birds seen and can be instantly picked out from gull flocks either on water or land. During the period of observation, generally October to March, one or two Mew type individuals might occur at Colwick with up to six in gull roosts. They are obviously smaller than type 1 birds, the head is clean, almost sparkling white and the eye is small, dark and positioned well forward. The bill is small, lemony coloured with a neat dark area around the gonys. The mantle is similar to type 1 birds but the tertial crescent is bigger. The wings look long and primary projection is greater than type one birds. The mirrors are small and neat, the legs are green and look short. Structurally the birds are compact and neat and have a distinctive jizz which makes them look front heavy and ‘chesty’.
The Kamchatka Gull.
This bird was a large, dominant individual which showed most of the features associated with yellow legged 1 types. The mantle was slightly darker than type 1 birds. The head had a streaking pattern different from type one birds in that it extended from the mid crown onto the nape and ear coverts and then formed a slim necklace. The bill was quite long, clean deep yellow with a neat gonydal spot. The legs were long and chrome yellow, as yellow as a Yellow-legged Gull in summer! The wing pattern showed three mirrors and was identical to a bird illustrated in a Japanese field guide, although the location of the bird in the photo was not given (in English). The bird was barrel chested in flight and called with weak ‘kee kee’ quite different from the other Common Gulls and separable from a group on call alone.
It returned to winter three out of four years and was readily identifiable.
As I said before, this article is not meant to challenge the taxonomy of the Common Gull group or state that individuals of currently recognised races are occurring. I merely convey the results of observations made during a prolonged period of looking at the birds and because, like everyone else who looks at gulls, I find the variation within one taxa both confusing and fascinating.
If you got this far, well done!