Thayer's Gull by Steve Spitzer
Some birders are more
gullible than others

(published 3-21-12)

From its beginning in 2004, this column has been mostly silent when it comes to gulls. There is a good reason for that. Gulls scare me.

This was true in the literal sense when I was a boy. Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” took care of that. Gulls were not the only angry birds in that 1963 film but they did their share of damage.

Now the Laridae family of birds gives me nightmares for a different reason: I stink like chum when it comes to identifying gulls. I know better than to use the term “seagull” but little more.

In January, Brian Sullivan, one of the nation’s top field ornithologists, published a wonderful essay called “The Evolution of a Birder.”

“Over the years we learn the ins and outs of basic birding,” Sullivan wrote. “Some learn faster than others. We learn the common birds in our neighborhoods, and then we move on to bigger challenges. Perhaps it’s fall warblers, shorebirds or raptor identification. For the sickest ones among us, it could be gulls.”

Indeed, enjoying gulls is either an acquired taste or acquired illness, depending upon whom you ask. Dedicated gull watchers occupy an extreme niche inside the birding world that few dare to enter. Those that do are fearless, patient and usually highly intelligent. They seem to thrive on problem solving.

You’ll find the area’s top “larophiles” patrolling the Chicago lakefront in the dead of winter, examining every gull in sight, searching for a rarity that scarcely few other birders could appreciate let alone identify. And just for kicks, this uncommon tribe enjoys determining the ages of immature gulls, common or not, based on size, plumage, bill markings, leg color and eye color.

Then there’s the rest of us. We notice gulls but seldom take the time to look at them closely. We might even think of them as trash birds, just a notch above house sparrows, starlings and pigeons. I’m as guilty as anyone, even though I know better.

The gull family is not lacking in beauty and grace. Several species are in fact highly coveted by birders. Six kinds of gulls are on the list of America’s 100 Most Wanted Birds, in the book by the same name. One is the small and elegant Ross’s gull, an Arctic species that thrilled lakefront birders during a brief visit to Chicago a year ago this month.

Here in DuPage, our gull viewing choices are fairly limited. The most common species, often seen in food store parking lots, is the ring-billed gull. Herring gulls live in our county, too. They are bulkier than ring-billeds and also enjoy a stray potato chip or French fry. (Like crows, gulls are opportunistic.)

Yet even the common species can be tricky to ID because gulls take a long time to grow up. They assume widely different appearances during their first two or three years. And like other birds, gulls have alternate breeding and non-breeding plumages.

With all these variations, the game of “name that gull” can present mind-bending identification challenges. This is especially true in habitats like the Chicago lakefront where gull variety is highest for the region.

About 170 birders attended the 11th Annual Gull Frolic at Winthrop Harbor, a sold-out gull-watching fest on February 18. Despite its name, the Frolic is a serious birding event, sponsored by the Illinois Ornithological Society. It’s a chance to mingle with the area’s leading gull experts and learn the basics (and finer points) of larid identification.

I regret not being among the frolickers. Six or more hours of gulling would have hurt my brain but the payoff was new birds. Thayer’s, Iceland, glaucous and lesser black-backed gulls were each observed at the Frolic. These uncommon species visit Chicago every winter and yet not one is on my life list. Oh, the shame!

Admitting my fear of gulls may be the first step to recovery. Next I will summon my most positive gull memories in preparation for the challenges ahead. On several occasions, after all, I’ve spotted, identified and admired a gull that was new to me—the delicate Bonaparte’s, for example, and the adult Heermann’s on that rocky California beach. Those were special sightings that I can build on.

So you may see me more often on the Chicago lakefront. I’ll be the one shadowing one of the resident gull experts. Maybe I can carry his scope.

Copyright 2012 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.