What do gulls and raptors have in common? They frustrate new birders, most especially because beginning birders tend to purchase basic bird guides that only show adult male and female plumage. Or they frustrate advanced-beginning birders that buy more advanced bird guides, but tend to only look at their bird guide’s colorful pages of the adult plumages. When in fact, these birders have sighted a juvenile bird; or a first, second or third year bird—and miss the identification by not looking at these plumage variants. I know; I’m guilty of both.
I now own quite a few different bird guides, some that I’ve purchased, and several that I’ve received as loving gifts from family and friends. I enjoy looking through all of these guides. Late evening, when my brain activity is too slow to focus on reading, I’ll flip through the pages of my bird guides, much like a patient flips through the pages of a well-worn magazine in a doctor’s waiting room. I’ve been amazed at how often these night-time repetitive casual looks have reaped rewards in the field.
But I’m still terribly intimidated by shorebirds. Take the Herring Gull. It has different plumage and/or a different bill coloration for the juvenile, 1st winter, 2nd winter, 3rd winter, adult non-breeding and adult breeding. Yes it is a big gull—but when alone, size can be deceptive.
So ignoring size differences, try comparing the 2nd year going into 3rd winter Herring Gull with the 1st winter Ring-billed Gull. Can you call out the many subtle differences? If you don’t have a bird guide, ask Santa to bring you one this winter. Until then, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a wonderful website, “All About Birds” for beginning (and advanced) birders.
If I haven’t put you to sleep yet with this blog story, there is only one point I’m trying to make if you are not a birder, or if you are just beginning to bird: you don’t have to chase rare birds; you don’t have to hike four miles on woodland or rocky trails. You can enjoy birding by sitting in your lawn chair or driving to the easily-accessible common habitats of your current location and study the common birds.Play a game with yourself to study the subtle differences in age-related plumage; season-related plumage; and sex-related plumage. And, for example, when you know the differences in a 1st winter Ring-billed Gull and a 3rd winter Herring Gull, you will probably know more than most birders chasing rare bird alerts.
Two comments before I leave you with pictures that I think you’ll find better than my story:First, a statement that is just my opinion: If I were going to own only one birding field guide it would be The Sibley Guide to Birds. I won’t go into details as to why (unless you ask) and I will say that there are a lot of expert birders that would disagree with me. But it serves me well. I own three versions: the “full-up” Sibley’s that I keep in my RV, car and stick house; and the Eastern and the Western guides that are much smaller and that I can carry in my day pack, based on eastern or western locale. (Fair warning: these smaller guides do not have all the plumage variations as shown in the full guide, so get Santa to include the full guide in your stocking.) And as your birding progresses, specialty guides, and photographic guides, by various authors, will be key to identification success. I’ve found this to be especially true for studying sparrows and raptors in flight.
***Second, a note to the advanced birders: YES, I know that gulls are not a part of the shore bird families. They are in the separate family “Laridae” that includes gulls, terns and skimmers. But this Texas gulf-coastie birder will always mumble “Ding Dang Shorebirds” when I’m noting the non-adult plumage of gulls. Ding dang shore birds. Ding dang smarty birders. Gotta love them both.
And now my Texas City Dike pictures of these youngster gulls; 1st winter Ring-billed or 2 year into 3rd winter Herring? I know my best guess. How about you?
Regardless, they are kind of pretty, yes? If nothing else, I hope you'll appreciate the in-sand position of this ol' photographer. (Actually it was the getting up from sand, while keeping hands and camera sand-free, that was most amusing to the watching birdies.) That's what the photographed gull was calling out: "Hey guys, come look at this funny human!"