Monday, December 16, 2013

Did I fudge up Ontario's "most overdue" bird?!

(editors note - I wrote this while sitting in the Vancouver airport.. I booked my flight for 1030pm local (landing in Toronto at 6:30am tomorrow) - i'll try and get onto emails and damage control asap over the next few days...

Editors note #2 - it may be fairly obvious for those who read the blog, but I virtually NEVER do even a single read-over of these things before I post them... Sorry for the errors here and in every other post!


Ever have one of those "oh fudge" moments?

Waaay back on July 3, 2009 - I (for probably no good reason) stopped in at the "Waterdown Garden Supplies" to search for some gulls and shorebirds... This place used to be da'bomb - both in terms of birding potential and stink factor (stinky stink and rare bird stink combined). A few weeks earlier (June 19th I think??) I had found a 2nd alternate Laughing Gull here - as well as pretty regular Lesser Black-backed Gulls (formerly a darn rare summer bird for the Hammer)... 

Just writing that paragraph makes me think about how freakin much I miss my awesome stinky gull place... But maybe it has one last gift to give... 

Anyways - back to July 3, 2009... I stopped in (I think) after some surveys for work and only had a pair of binoculars. Strolling about in the back of the properly, scanning the thousands of gulls present - I spotted a "White-winged" beast standing atop one of the piles. I don't remember the exact words, but something along the lines of "GAWD DAMN what the heck is that?" I was expecting Glaucous, but a close look revealed it wasn't. It was too big for Iceland Gull... I wasn't really sure what it was - but I was so startled (this is early July, remember) - I drove HOME to get my camera and right back to the compost place (over an hour of driving alone) and 20-30mins walking in and out. 

Thankfully the bird was still there and I got some pics....

Thankfully I decided to do that...

Probably the best way to continue the story would be to post a link to my message posted to "Hamilton Birds" later that evening  - 

(the link to the photos no longer works, but never fear - every single remaining photo appears in this blog post) 

Given the fact that I likely have no remaining ability to recall details (or at least, useful/believeable details) about this sighting nearly 4.5 years later - that post reaaallly helps shore up a few interesting details about the bird at the time. Most notably - I expected Glaucous on size, and was clearly too large for Iceland Gull, I noted the bird appeared to have an obviously shorter primary extension than the nearby Herring Gulls, and I left it unidentified at the time (asking for comments - to which I believe I received none - if I remember correctly)

At the time, I made a fairly quick decision to "drop it" and not pursue it further. As stated in my post - knew it wasn't a Glaucous or Iceland... Presumed it wasn't a Thayers (just seemed too big, but wasn't 100% on that one) and had no experience with any other "white-winged" gulls... Nelson's Gull  (Herring X Glaucous) was problematic - and the bird was dang ugly anyways... Leucistic Herring Gull? Ugh...

Another serious problem (to my eye - at the time) was those darn flight flight feathers growing in... They're 3rd basic feathers!!! (adult like)... What the heck!??! I had surely expected this dark-eyed and bleached bird to only be one year old... Not two years old (as the feathers would indicate):

Check out those new primaries!!! (and a secondary?) - gray with white tips - (adult like) and very very rare on a bird that looks to be molting into 2nd basic plumage (not 3rd like I presume this bird to be changing into). That pretty much settled it... I couldn't match that bill pattern and crazy molt to anything... Over with! Kill it! Sentenced to die the painful death of "unidentified gull"!

Then I was looking at my Glaucous-winged Gull photos from my recent trip to British Columbia - and had one of those "Ohhh $@&% moments"  (I would typically say fudge, but please feel free to change it out with - frankenbeans, frolicker, sugarbush, shawshank, franker or frundge). Specifically - this very bird - 

(from BC - mid December this year) 

The specific thing that set me off was the adult like inner primaries. They are honestly nothing of note when it comes to this blog post, other than the simple fact that they reminded me of the "Waterdown summer gull" from years ago, so I decided to open the archives and take a look at them one more time....

And what did I see when I opened those photos?!

That face!!!


THAT FACE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

That ladies and gentlemen, is the face of a GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL... 


I've spent the first two weeks of October, and the first two weeks of December in primo Glaucous-winged Gull territory (on a boat off Prince Rupert) and I've had more than my fair share of chances to study and photograph them... In fact, it is clearly my most observed and photographed species of the trips. 

I'm not sure how exactly to properly detail the reasoning in a blog post (something I would have to do justice if I were to ever think of submitting this as a record) - but GWGU have a very unusual bill/face... I think the best way to describe it is they have a heavy frown - a bill that "swells up" towards the Gony's - and a fairly pronounced "hook". I find it's pretty unique (in a vague sense) ... I've also tried finding differences in the nostril that may be helpful in separating species, but it needs a LOT more work before I even mention it). 

At the time, I was worried about a Leucistic Herring Gull as a possible ID - but the bill is very much in the GWGU camp in my opinion (not absolute - but a far better match)... I then thought about those new feathers coming in - that show no signs of leucism ... Then I took a peek at the underside of the wings and felt that they too looked "wrong" for leucism and much better for a "bleached bird" - with much more dark showing in the "protected areas"... Not a slam dunk, but interesting nonetheless. 

The "important" primaries are pretty much shredded and nearly useless... While I think that they may be SO shredded that they may be totally useless - I did specifically note at the time the primary projection beyond the tail looked shorter than all nearby Herring Gulls - and it seems to show in the photos... They may be shredded, but the entire shaft of each feather seems to be left. Check the photos above and bleow:

Not to mention the large size, which (in my opinion) looks spot on for GWGU

The tail was something that seems to have survived the wear and reveal a bit of something... It seems to have a uniform brown wash to the entire upperside... Yet it is a bit of a "ghost" pattern... I'm not sure how to describe this.. It's "brown/dark with NO PATTERN" - but not dark at all... Make sense??? No? Not sure how to describe it any better right now... But it looks EXACTLY like the pattern I saw on NUMEROUS 2nd basic Glaucous-winged Gulls over the past two months... Check out that tail - 

(methinks the total lack of pattern may be useful at some point) 

In a strange twist of fate, I also managed to get it doing some sort of call in flight - head stretched straight out... Something GWGU's do all the time... Not at all diagnostic, but kinda funny that of the 15 photos I decided to save of this beast, I saved this one:

Anyways... This is just a blog post... Not writing out my report for cryin out loud! But to sum up - (If this were a.....)

Glaucous Gull - eye should be pale at this age and bird nearly or totally pure white. Bill pattern wrong. 

Iceland Gull - much too large. Bill structure wrong... Overall very very wrong... 

Thayer's Gull - too large (I'm pretty confident) Bill structure very wrong... Primary projection too short? 

Leucistic Herring Gull - Primary projection too short? Bill structure wrong?? Bird shows signs that it is NOT leucistic (as detailed above) but just bleached. 

Herring X Glaucous (Nelson's Gull) - tail pattern (lack of) may be unusual... Bill structure wrong? 

Overall, I think it looks pretty darn interesting for Glaucous-winged Gull....

But then there's another Elephant in the room.... Glaucous-winged Gull HYBRIDS

I saw soo many freaked up gulls in BC - I began to wonder just what a Glaucous-winged Gull actually was... 

I saw creatures I would have thought were some sort of Thayers/Herring Gull intermediates... Do thayer's cross with Glaucous Gulls??! What the heck are these pacific beasts!? Beyond that, "Glaucous-winged Gulls" CLEARLY mix with WESTERN, HERRING and GLAUCOUS pretty often...

I'm clearly going to have to do more work on this (clearly) but my early thoughts on being worthy of full "Glaucous-winged Gull" status is just how darn freakin good the features look for that "species...

Bare parts - bill,eye,legs are all solid in the GWGU camp. I would expect hybrids with Glaucous or Herring would have a high chance of not looking like that classic "GWGU" -- as I noted in BC --

Tail pattern - could eliminate Herring hybrids, and maybe Glaucous too? 

Bleached look - could help eliminate those pesky "Olympic Gulls" (GWGUx Western) - given that the thing is darn near white...

Overall, I think the case would have to be that this bird looks "soo darn good" for GWGU with no signs of crossing (no signs AT ALL) with other species that it would be acceptable as such... 


And that may be a pretty tough task


But at the very least - I can say this much. I LOVE me some "difficult to ID" birds - and CLASS IS BACK IN SESSION

I'll be the first person ever to look forward to homework over the holiday season. BOO YA

I'll post anything new/interesting on the blog if/when it comes up. 

If you're miffed about not seeing the bird at the time, I can say that the Laughing Gull stuck around for several weeks - being searched for by multiple parties over dozens of days - including more visits by myself and other gull-crazies like Kevin McLaughlin - and there were no other reports of a gull like this.... 


Some GWGU's that I photographed this October or December... That would be 7-8 months YOUNGER than the beast I photographed in July 2009 was (at the time)... 

Note the "ghost tail" darkness (with no pattern)

(Probably 10-20% Western Gull in this one) 

A very pale example



Some "bleached" Glaucous-wings from flickr (not that this really helps at all, I just looked them up for fun) -


Going, going.. gone... 


  1. Replies
    1. Cause of the bird? Or cause you're just now realizing that I'm crazy?

  2. Great post... This could be the screenplay for an episode of the Twilight Zone, or some far nerdier, birding equivalent.

    "THAT FACE!!!".

    Dum, dum, dum...


  4. This comment has been removed by the author.