I was listening to a radio program and the subject was about how puzzles have become more popular during the pandemic. There’s always been one sort of birding puzzle that has also gained popularity in recent times but is also a puzzle that turns a lot of birders off, and that is gulling.
For a long time birders just dismissed a flock of gulls and didn’t try to pick through them. To the untrained eye, gulls look the same and if there aren’t adults, then they can be very problematic for identification. One flock can contain a range of ages and two members of the same species, roosting right next to each other, many look like entirely two different species.
Now there is a much better understanding of gull plumage through all their various life cycles and there are quite a few books that provide identification techniques and photographs on identifying gulls in all their ages.
On my Monday President’s Day I headed to the coast to try to puzzle over some gulls. One of the best spots on the San Mateo County coast is Venice Beach, just north of Half Moon Bay. Here Pilarcitos Creek snakes it’s way into the bay.
Anywhere along the coast where there is a broad sandy beach with a freshwater steam can be a good gull roost. The freshwater attracts the gulls because here they can preen and wash and rest. To me, a bathing gull is a joyous sight to behold.
At Venice Beach there where about 300 gulls resting on the beach or floating in a raft just off shore. I set up my scope on the bluff above the creek and beach and started scanning the flock.
I was seeing a lot of gulls of different species and ages: western, California, herring, and glaucous-winged. But I was looking for a gull that stood out from all the rest of the flock. Perhaps a gull with a yellow bill and dark earmuffs or a shockingly white gull with a black-tipped pink eraser bill. I was looking for rare gulls. A gull that stood apart.
And then I spotted the large white gull of the High Arctic but my view was obscured by the undulating roll of the beach so I headed up along the bluff for another look. It was worst. The gull was hidden between the Surfline and the beach. I wasn’t helped by that fact that parts of the flock where flushed when a beach walker decided to amble through the flock, taking a video, no doubt, to impress their eight followers on TikTok.
Also there where many gulls coming and going. But I didn’t see a large white gull take to the air so I assumed it was still among the 300.
I continued scanning the flock looking for that puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit in. On one of my scans I came across a smaller gull that was preening, hiding it’s beak in it’s back feathers. I didn’t need to see its beak shape or color to know that this was a rare California coastal gull. The darkness around its nape and the dark “earmuffs” were the giveaway. I was looking at an adult black-legged kittiwake! When it turned it’s head back I saw it’s all yellow beak.
The black-legged kittiwake (Risso tridactyla) is not often seen from land south of it’s nesting territory, so seeing a roosting kittiwake on a California beach is always a treat. In order to see a roosting kittiwake would mean a trip to coastal Alaska in the breeding season.
I got some documentation photos before the flock was flushed by another beach walker and I never saw the kittiwake again.
I continued to try to re-find the Arctic visitor and there where many gulls to pick through. After about ten minutes a gull that was bathing in the creek stood out like a sore thumb: a large white gull with a bicolored pink and black bill, this was a first winter glaucous gull!
The other gulls where keeping their distance from the glaucous, and for good reason. While the great black-backed gull is recognized as the largest gull in the world by length and wingspan, the glaucous can often be heavier.
In Audubon’s The Birds of America the glaucous is called the Burgomaster Gull. A Burgomaster is a European term for a chief magistrate of a town. Indeed the glaucous is the mayor of the beach. This big barrel chested gull maintains a circle, at beak length, from other gulls. This is the dominate gull in the flock even though this bird was a first winter immature.