The unsound approach

Yes, it's mid winter, and in an effort to preempt team Birding World, we are gifting larophiles with this totally free Winter Gull Gallery! This sudden larid-loving development may come as a shock to more regular readers (hi mum!), or even regular contributors... But times change, people change and we think its time we have a moratorium on gull-bashing. That way we can feel less guilty when we occasionally get caught looking at them. So first off, we are going to weigh up the costs and benefits of gulls and gulling. As if that's not enough, we're also providing a lavish selection of glossy pics detailing the best the lariforms can offer....

Gulls

The case for:

1) In an age of 'total ecosystem collapse', gulls are emerging as true winners. They now largely forsake natural nesting substrates and prefer to breed on multiplex cinemas and brothels. Once upon a time, gulls used to eat fish, now they mostly eat mobile phones and baleen whales.

2) Gulls provide a vital link between the public and the outside world. They help to battle obesity*, occasionally provide a dietary staple and help to reduce the prevalence of commensal pest species in our towns.  

*nb watch out for this one. 

gulls, fun for all the family (A. Lees)

The case against:

1) they are killing our old people and attacking girls 

2) they are involved in premeditated crimes

3) they are apparently a nuisance (note the revised taxonomy of PICAS which lumps at least 7 species as 'Roof-Nesting Gull'; loving their forward-thinking work...)

4) they interfere with major sporting events (er, golf - is this a bad thing?)

Ever wondered what happened to Babe after filming? (P. Alfrey)

Gulling

The case for:

1) you don't have to get out of the car and walk anywhere.

2) you only need to know how to identify about 20 species.

3) you get to use an anachronym-dense vernacular and make up words willy nilly.

4) you don't have to worry about cocking up - no-one can confidently identify any of them.

5) you get to hang out on beaches that look like this....

 

Large gulls make excellent pets, this youngster was so excited when his parents got him a house marinus, less so when it removed two of his fingers (C. Batty)

The case against:

1) apart from beaches, gull sites tend to either smell of fish (docks), shit (sewage outlets) or both (landfill sites)

2) more time spent looking for gulls means less time finding Pine Buntings, Dusky Thrushes, Hawk Owls etc.

3) saying you are a 'seagull biologist' isn't as sexy as saying you are a 'big cat specialist'; that said Kelp Gulls have to be classified as 'top predators' now right? 

Ideal 2nd date location? (P. Alfrey).

 

IDENTIFICATION

This section only covers large gulls; small gulls are mostly all amazing and we haven't anything bad to say about them.

Familiarity with Herring Gull in all its myriad plumages represents the absolute baseline for the qualification of a gull afficionado.

Understanding moult is critical to successful ageing and identification; this bird can be reliably aged as a 1st winter in September as it is just coming out of its 'eclipse' plumage and is regrowing its primaries (hence the prominent 'window') which allows for more efficient dynamic soaring. Note the retained P2 with a distal ventricular nochtule (A. Lees).  

This is an advanced second summer (D. Charles).

A classic 4th summer, note the prominent ear tufts that focus sound and facilitate faster location of ice cream vans (D. Charles) 

A typical 5th winter, this bird has moulted its ear tufts and its face (P. Adriaens).

This 5th summer has moulted its ear tufts (note auricular feather lice), tail, secondaries, most of its left toes and its entire right foot. What a lovely individual! (C. Batty)

Adult winter Herring Gull, note the characteristic 'droopy wing' posture of argenteus with less extensive moons than adult argentatus (P. Vantieghem).

Once familiar with Herring Gull, avid gullers should search out Smithsonian Gull. This is a tricky species to identify in the field, in the hand, in the test-tube or in fact anywhere, but these two images illustrate the best features - (M. Scott) this 1st year adopts a low-slung position in the water reminiscent of an Anhinga and this adult (right) desmonstrates the massive gape of a smithsonians - capable of ingesting a fully inflated Size 5 football without any problem (P. Adriaens).

Another birder's favourite is Pontiac Gull. Although superficially similar to all other members of the complex, this species can be readily separated by its posture whilst retching (left P. Adriaens) and by the nature of the gape (right P. Vantieghem).

 

'White-winged Gulls' are much sort after every winter, this 1st year Kumlien's Gull is caught in the act of lunge-feeding for a used condom. Note the typical primary pattern on the right wing, which may or may not have been influenced by eating 1kg of used tea bags every day (D. Charles).

Best not to look too carefully at the foreground or background of the above pic. (P. Alfrey) Sometimes when gulling it's a good idea not to look down...

Everyone's fav white-winger; Glaucous-winged Gulls are spectacularly beautiful (as eggs) (C. McQuillan) and don't forget everyone's dream Pacific larid. European birders should also be on the lookout for Western Gull, which has some distinctive behavioural traits.

Identification of Lesser Black-backed Gulls has always been problematic. Once upon a time dark-backed ones we saw were fuscus, then we were told they don't occur in the UK, then we learnt they do but we can only identify them if they have an appropriate moult sequence on a full moon in the middle two weeks of July. Then we learnt learnt that we can only identify them if they have an appropriate ring, then we learnt that this might not be the case either as colonies were mixed and gull pulli hard to identify. Then we learnt that they can be identified as small females that look like pratincoles.... Learning curve? More like a squiggle... (A. Lees) 

Along with advances in molecular chemistry and vocalisations, behavioral observations have also proven fruitfull in informing contemporary taxonomic decisions, here a 1st winter Great Back-backed Gull is caught in a diagnostic advertising display - with wings raised and head lodged in a bin (P. Vantieghem). 

And now an important new discovery:

Whilst carrying out research for this article we received several images that evidently pertain to an undescribed gull taxon. The combination of a huge scythe-shaped bill and generally awfull plumage state are diagnostic of this form which is separable in all plumages from other large gulls. We name this new species: 

Larus falculea, sp. nov.

  • Sickle-billed Gull

    Sickle-billed Gull (D. Bosman)

    Iconotype

    No. 2009.9.1, 1st winter female, Lancashire.

    Fig. 1. SBG iconotype (C. Batty)

    Paratype

    No. 2010.7.1, second winter female, identical locality, date and photographers for the holotype.

     

    Fig. 2. SBG paraiconotype (S. Piner)

  • Additional specimens

    • (1)

      Amazingly this distinctive species was actually first described from a stamp from the Turks and Caicos! Unfortunately, thanks to the arcane nature of taxonomical scientific protocol, this important 'paper' was never acknowledged by mainstream taxonomists.

    • (2)

        a pic of an adult can be found here.

    1st yr Sickle-billed Gull (D. Charles)

    Diagnosis of species

    Resembles other gulls and is doubtfully separable from worn members of other species on plumage. In our limited sample the chief difference is the huge falcate bill, presumably an adaptation to feed on a new foodstuff. Perhaps tofu.  Song and call are not diagnostic, Supporting Information Tables (S2 and S4). Cytochrome-b sequences are not diagnostic at the individual or population levels. But we all know big gulls are all the same anyway, so we're having this one. Martin says its ok.

    Etymology

    The name falculea means 'hideously ugly', referring to the the fact that this taxon is even more hideous than other large gulls.

    Conclusion

    So, in summary, er gulls, yes, but in moderation, never go to Blackborough End on an easterly in October and never read your girlfriend extracts from Olsen and Larsson under any circumstances. Lest we ever forget.