While I recognize the serious nature of the current drought, it is hard to be unhappy about sunshine in January. So after many weeks of not birding, I finally got out and spent a day on the coast. On the path around the Cannon Beach wastewater ponds, I came across a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese.
This Eurasian Wigeon was hanging out with the Mallards at the wastewater treatment plant.
The mouth of Ecola Creek, at the north end of Cannon Beach, is a favorite hangout of the local gulls. I found Western, Glaucous-winged, California, Mew, Herring, and Thayer’s. Unfortunately, photographing white birds in bright sunshine against a dark background is beyond my rudimentary skills. Most of my shots consisted of glowing white blobs surrounded by lovely blue water. This shot of a third-cycle Thayer’s Gull bathing in the creek is at least recognizable.
This Red-shouldered Hawk was at Mill Ponds Park in nearby Seaside.
The same bird in the middle of a roust
I couldn’t get a flight shot of the Red-shouldered in focus, but this at least shows this species’ beautiful pattern.
A quick visit to Westmoreland Park in southeast Portland revealed good numbers of waterfowl and gulls typical of this little urban duck pond in the winter.
Of course, every visit to Westmoreland requires a quick scan of the gull flock.
There are two statements that will immediately and significantly damage a birder’s credibility: “I’m sure of the ID, because the bird looked exactly like the picture in my field guide.” and “It couldn’t be that species because it doesn’t look like the bird in my field guide.”
The fact is, no bird looks exactly like the picture in the field guide. Field guide illustrations are either an artist’s interpretation or a photo of a particular individual at one moment in time. Every bird is slightly different from every other bird. Rather than looking for birds that are an exact match to a picture, our goal in field identification is to combine elements of size, shape, color, pattern, sound, and behavior into a recognizable species.
Here we have a “textbook” Thayer’s Gull in winter plumage. The head is round, giving the bird a petite or gentle expression. The eye is dark, the underside of the primaries show a lot of white, and the bill is that characteristic greenish-gray color with a bright yellow tip.
This Thayer’s Gull is not quite as round-headed as the previous bird, and the the bill is more yellow, but everything else seems OK. Head shape will vary with the bird’s position, and males tend to be more “robust” than females. So we have a little variation on this bird, no need to panic.
The forehead on this bird is really flat, like that of a Herring Gull, and the bill is noticeably longer. The white underside of the outer primaries is still good for Thayer’s. If you zoom in, you can see the pink orbital ring, also good for Thayer’s. While some Herring Gulls show dark flecks on the iris, their eyes never appear this dark. It appears that we have a very butch Thayer’s Gull.
And now we know why some birders avoid gulls. The pale eye suggests Herring Gull, but up to 20 percent of Thayer’s Gulls can have a pale iris. The head is pretty round, suggesting Thayer’s. The bill is neither too big or too small, and is very yellow. No orbital ring is visible. What we can see of the underside of the primaries is white, but we can’t see it all. So do we have a robust Thayer’s Gull with a light iris, or a very demure Herring Gull?
All this variation cannot be covered in a standard field guide. For complicated groups like gulls, more detailed identification guides are very useful. Then you can say, “The bird looked similar to the one in the gull guide.”
Best known as a local gull hotspot, Portland’s Westmoreland Park also hosts good numbers of Cackling Geese in winter. This December has been unusually dry and sunny, so instead of my photos being grainy and dark, they are now overexposed.
Ridgeway’s Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii minima) is the smallest race of Cackler, only slightly larger than a Mallard. Their stubby bills and purplish breasts are good field marks. Many individuals also display a prominent white collar.
Of course, you can’t visit Westmoreland in winter without appreciating a Thayer’s Gull. This is such a hard bird to find throughout much of the country, I always stop to enjoy them, despite their local abundance. You can’t see this bird’s eye or bill, but the white underside of the far wing and the amount of white visible on the outermost primary (p10) on the near wing are both good clues to the bird’s ID. (yeah, I’m a bird nerd, and I’m proud.)
Once considered to be part of the same same species, Thayer’s and Herring Gulls can appear quite similar at first glance.The pattern on the spread wing is very different between the two, but that doesn’t help you with birds at rest.
Here is a Thayer’s Gull on the left, and a Herring Gull on the right. In direct comparison, we can see that the Thayer’s has a slightly darker mantle, rounder head, dark eyes (usually), and a bill that is greenish-gray at the base and yellow at the tip.
Another Herring Gull, probably a female. This bird has a smaller bill and a slightly more rounded head than the bird in the first photo, giving this individual a more Thayer’s-like quality. Note the all-yellow bill, the pale eye, and the light gray mantle.
The gulls along the Willamette River in downtown Portland are quite used to people, and, in fact, seek them out in hopes of a handout. (A similar behavior is exhibited by some people along the river in downtown Portland.) This gives you an excellent opportunity to look at these birds up close and personal. Who says gulls aren’t sexy?
Thayer’s Gulls always seem to have this demure air about them. Is it their gentle features and brooding dark eyes? Or are they contemplating whether they are, in fact, a separate species or just the western subspecies of Iceland Gull?
This bird shows off the massive school-bus-yellow bill and yellow orbital ring of a Western Gull. The bit of streaking on the head and neck reveals that a Glaucous-winged Gull perches somewhere in this bird’s family tree.
Portland’s Westmoreland Park is a great place to find a variety of gull species during winter. Seven species and one hybrid are regular, and there is always the possibility of something more unusual showing up.
Ring-billed Gull: smaller size, neat black ring around bill, long dark wingtips, yellow legs and feet.
Here’s the Ring-billed Gull at rest. Note the fine streaking on the head and the red orbital ring.
Glaucous-winged Gull: Note the lack of contrast on this bird. The short wingtips are the same color as the mantle. The head and upper breast are covered with an even blurry mottling. The only parts that don’t blend in are the pink legs and feet.
Western Gull: large size, dark gray mantle, short black wingtips, never any marks on the head – even in winter. This species is much more common on the coast, but a few make it in to the Willamette Valley in winter.
Western Gull X Glaucous-winged Gull hybrid (Olympic Gull): an even blending of characteristics of both parent species. The mantle is darker than a pure GW, but Westerns never show this much mottling on the head and neck. The wingtips are dark, but not actually black. You can tell this is a third cycle individual by the tiny bit of black on the tail and by the odd pattern on the bill. These hybrids show a great deal of variation, and are often the most numerous gulls in the area.
I spoke at the annual Birds and Blues Festival last Saturday in Pacific City, OR. Our hotel room had a lovely view of Haystack Rock. (There is another Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, but the residents of Pacific City refer to that one as “the small one.”)
The area around Pacific City is the only winter home of the Semidi Islands Aleutian Cackling Goose. The birds spend the day grazing in short pastures, and at night roost on the ocean near Haystack Rock. In the morning, you can watch the birds take off in small flocks as they head out to feed. There is something special about being able to sit on your balcony and see every member of a distinct population of bird. But it is also very frightening to realize that one storm or one oil spill could wipe out the entire population.
This Thayer’s Gull chose to nap in the middle of a parking lot.
#1 Glaucous-winged Gull
The first thing you notice about this bird is the lack of contrast. The pattern is soft and blurry, and the primaries and tertials are the same color as the rest of the bird. The big head and substantial bill are also good for this species.
#2 Thayer’s Gull
The pattern on this bird is very crisp, almost checkered. The tertials and primaries are darker than the rest of the bird. The primaries are two-toned; a dark leading edge and a pale trailing edge. This is the classic mark for Thayer’s Gull. The round head and thin bill are also important marks.
#3 Herring Gull
This bird’s pattern is fairly dark, but not as crisp as the Thayer’s. The tertials and primaries are blackish, and mostly solid. Note the sloping forehead and two-toned bill (heavier than Thayer’s but still fairly thin).
So now go to your local parking lot or beach with a few cat treats and take another look at your local gulls. There is great beauty to be found in subtleties.
With the onset of cooler temperatures and short days, a birder’s attentions are drawn to the avian stars of the Willamette Valley in winter, waterfowl and gulls. Yes, there are sparrows about, and the American Goldfinches are emptying my feeders on a daily basis. But I really enjoy the cacophony of a few thousand Cackling Geese and the challenging genetic soup that makes up the gulls of the West Coast.
American and Eurasian Wigeons