A (mostly) friendly competition between 2 avid birdwatchers that are also friends/co-workers. Who can observe more bird species in Idaho in 2009? Will they still be friends at year's end? ;-)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

adult ICELAND GULL!!!! (and Heidi pulls ahead :-(

Heidi & I finally headed back to 'the dump' (Pickle's Butte landfill S of Caldwell) this AM to see if we couldn't find that confusing 'Iceland-type' 1st-winter bird, the 1st-winter Glaucous, and anything else we could stumble across. Heidi had bemoaned the fact that this meant not sleeping in on her only day of the week (aside from Sunday - correct me if I'm wrong ;-) to do so ... but I'd say the below info and her smiles/excitement suggested it was worth it! And, b/c the Glaucous Gull was one of the few species I had over Heidi for the year so far, seeing it vaulted her back into the lead.

Here's Heidi scanning the gulls (garbage not too far away) - she's really hoping her non-birding friends don't get wind of this embarrassing shot!

The BIG story: soon after arrival, I caught a 2-second glimpse of an adult, apparent 'white-winged' (Glaucous or Iceland) gull in flight that went back down into the 'pile' (active dumping area) below where we could see (pretty much right where Heidi's looking in the above photo). I was pretty worked up & we set to looking for it and Heidi soon spotted what turned out to be an adult Glaucous-winged ... a nice find (!) and a new arrival to the dump this winter.

Adult Glaucous-winged Gull - note the pink legs, dark eyes, primaries (wing-tips) only slightly darker gray than the mantle (back), and chunky shape.

Raised wing of the adult Glaucous-winged Gull showing the only slightly grayer primaries.
Even though I was pretty sure I'd seen something with even paler wingtips, I eventually surmised that this was likely what I'd glimpsed - especially as 2 more hours went by and no 'white-winged' adults were seen.... As the clock struck 11 and guilt began to creep in (I'd graded tests 'til 1030pm the night before to afford some 'hooky' time in the AM but still had loads to do;-), we both kept thinking, "we should go". But, we kept noticing funny-looking immature gulls (see far below in this post) that caused a lot of head-scratching ... We finally headed towards the car around 1130 and I said, "One last scan of this area (the 'pile' and slope behind), OK?" That's when I spotted an adult Iceland Gull!!! (to be honest, it took us a few minutes of studying the bird to be sure it wasn't an adult Glaucous - see notes below photos for ID criteria) - perched out in the open in plain view. (So I wasn't totally nuts when I saw those white wings earlier!!). We watched it for 20 minutes as the wind picked up and then rain & hail began ... I was trying hard to get pics b/c an adult Iceland is BIG-TIME for Idaho (immatures of rare species like this are rare enough but adults show up even less often) but I couldn't hold the scope steady in the breeze (or maybe it was my shivering and/or excitement at what we were seeing?). Fortunately, though they're blurry (and thanks for bearing with me ;-), a few turned out decently enough to help verify the identification ...

Adult Iceland Gull - critical ID features include pale wingtips (at rest, as shown here, no contrast with mantle or even a little whiter), pink legs, deep chest/belly, rounded head, and relatively small bill (for a biggish gull). Not shown here but noted was a yellowish-colored eye (not bright yellow like a Herring Gull but not brown like most Thayer's).

The adult Iceland Gull (at left) shown here next to an adult California Gull (hard to see but note darker mantle and yellowish legs) whose bill, though tough to see in this picture, appeared relatively longer than that of the Iceland.

I know this is ridiculously blurry (better than most I tried!!) but a closer view of the wingtip pattern on the adult Iceland Gull.

There were likely 1000+ gulls around from 9am (when we arrived) to 1150am (when we split during a hailstorm) with some gull arrivals (mostly) & departures. They were VERY cooperative and the weather was mostly so ... until the storm drove the adult Iceland and many others off towards Lake Lowell (presumably). In total we saw 7 gull species plus a couple of likely hybrids (the bane of gull-watchers - at least this one!) - including 30+ Herring Gulls of all ages, 1 1st-winter Glaucous, the adult Glaucous-winged, the Iceland adult, ~5 Thayer's Gulls, ~800 California Gulls, and ~400 Ring-billed Gulls. Charles - I'll post to eBird in the AM!!

All in all, a pretty awesome day to be at the dump!!

Parting Shots: those of you with little patience for gull ID have likely long-since fallen asleep on the keyboard (and thanks for coming this far!). BUT, for the gull-enthusiasts (Ryan O. - I know you're still with me!), here are a few individual 1st-winter birds that we observed today whose identities were challenging our brainpower (comments/opinions welcome - as always).

1st, here are a few shots of the potential 1st winter Iceland Gull found last week by Cliff Weisse. To my knowledge, Cliff, Heidi, and I are the only folks to have seen it well and all agree it definitely has Iceland 'blood' - and maybe wouldn't even be questioned as an Iceland if seen in their normal winter range - but is it 'pure' enough to definitively be an Iceland Gull in Idaho (and/or is there also a bit of Thayer's Gull blood)??

1st-winter potential Iceland Gull. Note pale coloring, rounded head, bulky chest/belly, and extensive patterning on wing coverts.

Here, note the extensive white outlines to each primary (wing-tip) feather.

Here you can see the individual primary feathers as well as - from the side - the tail. The tail looks darker than most Icelands ... but has an extensive pale base & terminal band - ???

Next, 2 other immature birds that made us wonder ... "Are they just variants on Herring Gulls or something else?"
Mystery juvenile #1.

Mystery juvenile #2 (Cliff Weisse suggested a likely Herring x Glaucous-winged hybrid which I can buy but I'd rather if it was a Slaty-backed Gull!!).




  1. Yup, still with you! I'm glad you found an adult Iceland because I'm still unconvinced about the first-winter bird. I still think it can't be safely distinguished from a Thayer's.

    For the mystery gull(s) (could they be the same bird?) The first one looks a lot like a "Cook Inlet Gull" (Glaucous-winged x Herring hybrid) I found here in the fall. See http://i110.photobucket.com/albums/n105/Tsirtalis/GULL9.jpg for example. The wingtips seem to pale and the bird looks too pale and drab for a Slaty-backed to me. The wingtips also look too pale for a Herring Gull. I'm not sure I'm good enough to eliminate other possible hybrids, but I don't notice anything that makes me hesitate too much with GWGU x HEGU.

    Gulls are a mess. If they can't even tell each other apart when it comes time to pick a mate, how can we be expected to tell them apart?! Ah, but they're also fun. . . . Keep 'em coming!

  2. Thanks for the input Ryan! Definitely not the same individual b/c mystery juvie #1 walked in front of mystery juvie #2 while we were studying #2 .... also, I thought the primaries on #1 were notably darker than on #2 ....

    I, too, am VERY glad about finding the adult Iceland but remain intrigued by the juvie potential Iceland (maybe we'll never know). Have you seen this picture? http://www.birdinfo.com/A_Images_I/IcelandGull_0014.html .... darker than the bird in question ....

  3. Okay, I'd like to make a pledge to IBO to support your competition. As a grad student myself, I can't afford to give much. Also, I think Heidi has a good chance of beating Jay, even without a handicap. So, I pledge to donate $5 for every bird that Heidi beats Jay by (no handicap, up to $100). Last year I had a competition with my friend Craig on a county year list. Craig was the experienced, professional birder, and I was the young upstart. I ended up beating Craig by 14 birds and set a new county record. So, I know you can do it Heidi!

  4. alrighty....20 species it is! (you betta' start saving now :)