Wild optimism … and a HERMIT WARBLER

It was late at night on Thursday November 10, and I was discussing (over text message) my birding plans for the next morning with Bruce Mactavish. I was heading south from St. John’s to look for late season migrants, shorebirds and whatever else might come my way. Bruce, on the other hand, was sticking closer to town to check local hot-spots for November warblers. I’m known for making optimistic (if not wild) predictions, so it probably came as no surprise when he received my text at 11:00PM saying “I’ll come back to town for a Hermit Warbler“. Hermit Warbler is incredibly rare in the east, and had only been recorded in Newfoundland once – on November 11, 1989. As rare as it is, it’s one of those birds that local birders think about at this time of year.

I had been birding for several hours and was as far south as Ferryland when Bruce texted to tell me he was driving to Mobile to check out a probable (but very late and therefore suspicious) Spotted Sandpiper that had been reported there. I had driven through there hours earlier, but told him to keep me updated. A short while later, I noticed a missed call from Bruce on my phone – and promptly received a text message saying “HERMIT WARBLER, MOBILE”. Knowing that Bruce is not one to play tricks, I made near-record time on the way back and found him standing on a trail at the end of a road – Spotted Sandpiper confirmed, and Hermit Warbler “somewhere” in the nearby woods. Other birders soon showed up, and we searched the area for several hours without any further sign. Most people gave up and headed home as the weather and light deteriorated, while I gave it another go and expanded my search to another road up the hill. I soon glimpsed a warbler with a bright yellow face among a big flock of Juncos, Chickadees and Golden-crowned Kinglets – but it dissolved into the trees before I could even get my binoculars on it. It HAD to be the Hermit Warbler! But better looks would have to wait.

I spent the rest of the weekend in Grates Cove – closing up the house for another winter and enjoying some family time. But all the while I felt tortured over this amazing warbler that “got away”. Fortunately other birders were able to refind it in the same area I had glimpsed it on Friday, but always with very brief and fleeting glimpses. Photos were scarce, obscured and out-of-focus but enough to whet my appetite. Anne Hughes and I headed back to Mobile on Monday morning, and within a little while were joined by three others. It was spotted briefly near the road, and then Anne found it again behind a nearby house. This time I saw it too – and really well (for a few seconds!). As it had all weekend, it popped up briefly and disappeared again several times over the next two hours … I likened it to a frustrating game of whack-a-mole. I saw it on three separate occasions for a grand total of less than two minutes, and most of that was distantly in the treetops! I did manage one decent photograph, with most others showing either a blur or a twig where it had been sitting milliseconds earlier. But hey – with a great bird of this rarity level, it’s seeing it that counts!

What do I predict next?!?!

This HERMIT WARBLER will no doubt be the highlight of November - and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11 Newfoundland's one and only other record (Nov 11 1989)!

This HERMIT WARBLER will no doubt be the highlight of November – and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11 – exactly 27 years after Newfoundland’s one and only other record (Nov 11 1989)! The broad wing bars, clean white underparts and oh-so yellow face make this an unmistakable (and unforgettable) bird.

My first looks at this bird on November 14 turned out to be my best, although I bombed on a chance to photograph it. The only time we saw it at eye level, I was able to see the grey back which helps identify this species from similar cousins and rule out the possibility of a hybrid (which do occur, and there is one previous record of a Hermit X Townsend's Warbler hybrid for the island).

My first looks at this bird on November 14 turned out to be my best, although I bombed on a chance to photograph it. The only time we saw it at eye level, I was able to see the grey back which helps distinguish this species from similar cousins and rule out the possibility of a hybrid (which do occur, and there is one record of a  probable Hermit X Townsend’s Warbler hybrid for the island). I have no experience with Hermit Warblers and am not sure if this is an adult female or an immature male.

Just as one might expect from reading the literature, this Hermit Warbler spends a lot of time in the canopy, foraging in the top one-third of the conifers. It seems to show a preference for larch trees, and my longest views of this bird (and the only views lasting more than 5 seconds) were while it fed at the top of several larch trees in the distance.

Just as one might expect from reading the literature, this Hermit Warbler spends a lot of time in the canopy, foraging in the top one-third of the conifers. It seems to show a preference for larch trees, and my longest views of this bird (and the only views lasting more than 5 seconds) were while it fed at the top of several larch trees in the distance.

I also spent a little time with these two Cattle Egrets in Ferryland, just before getting

I also spent a little time with these two Cattle Egrets in Ferryland, just before getting “the call”. Cattle Egrets are rare but annual in Newfoundland, and two together was a bit of treat.

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Spending the weekend in beautiful Grates Cove, I had to distract myself from thoughts of the Hermit Warbler that other birders were seeing back in Mobile. The lovely

Spending the weekend in beautiful Grates Cove, I had to distract myself from thoughts of the Hermit Warbler that other birders were seeing back in Mobile. The lovely “supermoon” that graced us on November 14 was a nice help!

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One Good “Tern” Deserves a … Whimbrel?

It’s been a very busy summer, and I apologize for the lack of blog updates. There’ll be lots to come in just a few weeks … promise!

In the meantime, here’s a quickie. Last week (July 27), two rare southern terns showed up in Renews. The first was a Royal Tern (presumably the same one that had been seen by Bruce Mactavish at Cape Race a few days earlier – Newfoundland’s sixth record!). While looking for that, Alvan Buckley found an equally rare cousin in the form a Sandwich Tern. Both were seen roosting together in Renews inner harbour for a short while before flying off into the fog. Fortunately, Alvan refound the Sandwich Tern again the following day – ~100km of coastline away in St. Vincent’s! Since I was heading that way anyways, I managed to see it that afternoon … a Newfoundland lifer! (However, Royal Tern is my new nemesis bird since I also missed two in 2012.)

This SANDWICH TERN was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and a first for me! There is an ongoing discussion about its origins - is it American or European? (My very instant photo doesn't add much to that conversation - but it sure was great to see!). July 28, 2016, St. Vincent's NL.

This SANDWICH TERN was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and an island first for me! There is an ongoing discussion about its origins – is it American or European? (My very distant photo doesn’t add much to that conversation – but it sure was great to see!). July 28, 2016, St. Vincent’s NL.

Heading back to St. John’s later that day, Alvan, Alison Mews, my guests and I stopped in at Renews one more time. This time, three Whimbrel were sitting on a grassy island along the river just inland from the highway – an unexpected sight in its own right. Even more unexpected was the obvious paler underparts, white belly and underwings and white rump of one of those birds when they lifted off and flew back over the river! It was a EURASIAN WHIMBREL!! Although this Old World race of Whimbrel is almost annual in Newfoundland, most records come from spring – not mid-summer. In fact, it was only the second I’ve been lucky enough to see and a completely unexpected end to a great day of birding!

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These three Whimbrel were sitting on the inland side of the river. The paler underparts of the centre bird are subtle but evident in this photo.

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As soon as they took flight, Alvan Buckley and I both noticed the obvious white belly and underwings of one bird. Something was very different about this one …

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This photo won’t be winning any awards, but it does show the obvious white underwings and belly of the Eurasian Whimbrel (left) compared to the more expected American (Hudsonian) Whimbrel on the right.

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Another photo showing the whiter underparts, and especially the underwing, of the Eurasian Whimbrel (centre).

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Nailing the identification is the large white rump patch on the Eurasian Whimbrel (centre). Compare that the the plain brown rumps of the two American Whimbrel on either side.

Sabine’s in the Snow!

It was Sunday morning (Jan 31) when I got the news … Alvan Buckley called to tell me he had found a SABINE’S GULL off St. Vincent’s beach, about 1.5 hrs south of St. John’s. This enigmatic gull is a rarity (from shore) here at any time of year, but finding one in winter?!?! The odds are like winning the lottery! Sabine’s Gulls are regular migrants well offshore, but they head south of the equator in winter, and mostly off the coast of Africa. What was one doing here in late January?? I’ve learned to trust Alvan’s cautious and skilled identifications, but he still must have sensed some incredulity in my voice since the call was immediately followed by a grainy, but undeniable, photograph to confirm his claim.

I thought long and hard about heading down, but decided to follow through on some family commitments while others made the “chase”. As my good friend Bruce Mactavish later reminded me, I’m often “too responsible for my own good”. A dozen or so local birders saw the bird that afternoon, and Bruce tortured me with photos that night. Totally expecting this bird to disappear (virtually all other records here have been one-day wonders), I was surprised to hear reports that it was still being seen a few days later. I went to bed last night with an insatiable itch, and woke up early having already decided to go. I hit the road an hour before sunrise and headed south, coffee in hand. I knew some light snow was in the forecast for later in the morning, but was not expecting the driving snow and strong onshore winds facing me when I arrived at St. Vincent’s at 8:00am. Visibility was in the toilet, and the sting of snow and ice pellets as I stared into the winds and over the water was nearly enough to turn me back. Nearly.

The winds were strong enough that on a couple occasions I saw Dovekie flying over the beach – behind me as I searched the water! After scanning nothing but a handful of Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls for the first few minutes, I nearly fell over when the Sabine’s Gull fluttered out of the snow squall, over the breakers and plopped down in the water not far offshore! I lost it fumbling for my optics, but found it again shortly after. It put on a great show, doing laps along the beach and feeding in the surf – often quite close. I almost forgot about the driving snow and hail pounding my face! Who knew that heaven could feel so cold …

This 1w Sabine's Gull emerged out of a snow squall ... not exactly the way I expected to see my first of this species  in Newfoundland! Sabine's Gulls are almost unheard of in North America during winter - so how this one ended up off our coast in late January is a bit of a mystery.

This 1w Sabine’s Gull emerged out of a snow squall … not exactly the way I expected to see my first of this species in Newfoundland! Sabine’s Gulls are almost unheard of in North America during winter – so how this one ended up off our coast in late January is a bit of a mystery.

 

The gull moved on after about an hour, around the same time that the snow and ice pellets had changed to freezing rain. Felt like a good time to go home anyways … a very happy birder!!

 

Despite being quite close at times, the conditions were really tough for photography. However, it was an amazing bird putting on a great show, so I'll live with these!

Despite being quite close at times, the conditions were really tough for photography. However, it was an amazing bird putting on a great show, so I’ll live with these and not complain!

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An immature Black-legged Kittiwake was also present, sometimes feeding alongside the Sabine's Gull. This made for a great comparison, since from a distance these two birds could prove an identification challenge. Note the different pattern on the upperside of the wings and mantle.

An immature Black-legged Kittiwake was also present, sometimes feeding alongside the Sabine’s Gull. This made for a great comparison, since from a distance these two birds could prove an identification challenge. Note the different pattern on the upperside of the wings and mantle.

The pied wing pattrn of an immature Sabine's Gull can superficially resemble the more distinct "M" visible on the immature Kittiwake above.

The pied wing pattern of this immature Sabine’s Gull can superficially resemble the more distinct “M” visible on the immature Kittiwake above.

Even the seals couldn't help grabbing a few looks at this beautiful gull!

Even the seals couldn’t help grabbing a few looks at this beautiful gull!

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The Trials, Tribulations and (eventual) Triumphs of Gull-watching

Expect me to write plenty more about gulls over the next few months – they are a mainstay of winter birding here in St. John’s, a draw for visiting birders, and possibly my favourite group of birds.

Watching gulls requires a lot of patience and a good sprinkling of skill & experience. The ten or more species seen here most winters appear in mind-boggling arrays of white, greys, blacks and browns (yes – the young ones only add confusion) – not to mention the varying pinks, yellows and greens of bills and legs. Identifying them can be tricky for the inexperienced, and finding those “special” ones can be downright difficult. Especially in the case of the elusive Yellow-legged Gull, one or two of which show up here most winters. But one or two tricky birds in a city with tens of thousands of gulls — well, it can also be a needle in a haystack!!

Such was the case these past few days, as a visiting birder from British Columbia and I combed through many masses of gulls to find just oneHe had contracted my services as a birding guide to help him find the Yellow-legged Gull – it was head and shoulders the top of his priority list, with anything else just being gravy. Fortunately he had a few days, since I told him up front that finding it was far from guaranteed, and the chance of poor weather was always a threat.

Very few people have been as fortunate to experience Yellow-legged Gull in North America as I have. And as a guide, I've had pretty good luck finding it for eager visitors -but its far from guaranteed. On this tour in January 2010, we finally found it on the very last day ... a coup since it hadn't been seen by anyone in several weeks! - Photo: Jared Clarke (January 12, 2010)

Very few people have been as fortunate to experience Yellow-legged Gull in North America as I have. And as a guide, I’ve had pretty good luck finding it for eager visitors – but it’s far from guaranteed. On this tour in January 2010, we finally found it on the very last day … a coup since it hadn’t been seen by anyone in several weeks!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 12, 2010)

We ended up spending three fulls days in dogged pursuit. The first day (Sunday, December 1) was a lovely one to be outside … cool, calm and slightly overcast. But where were the gulls?!?!? We birded the standard areas from sunrise to sunset, with so few gulls being seen that I felt like a bit of a hustler — I was certain he thought I was pulling his leg when I said I had never seen such a lack of gulls in St. John’s at this time of year! But he bit the bullet and we went out again the next day – a cold, crisp one with just a slight breeze. There were lots more gulls … but they were spending their time loafing on the roofs of building around Pleasantville and bathing in Quidi Vidi Lake. Fortunately, I knew vantage points where we could see them and we ran the circuit – checking and re-checking the best spots all day. Not a hint of the bird. I could almost hear him thinking “Who does this guy think he’s fooling?” So, admittedly, I was a bit surprised when he called me up that night to arrange yet another day of searching on Wednesday – a day with a dismal forecast of high winds and rain!!

The forecasters seemed to have it right when I woke up Wednesday morning – the wind and rain was lashing the back of the house. But by the time I got the girls off to preschool and we headed out to go birding at 9:45am, the rain had dissipated. I knew from experience that the wet, windy weather would keep the gulls off the the roofs and encourage them to flock on local grassy fields and ballparks. Sure enough, that’s where we started finding them. We scrutinized thousands of gulls over the next few hours, both on the fields and at the lake … but no sign of our elusive target. To my surprise, the clouds parted, blue sky emerged and at times bright sun shone down on us — and the gulls! As lovely as it sounds, bright sun makes gull-watching all the more difficult, casting hard shadows on the grass, bright glare on the water, and changing the all important shades of grey needed to pick out our bird.

Still … we persevered, scrutinizing the gulls at each location from as many angles as we could. Sometime after 1:00pm we took our place on a hillside overlooking Bally Haly golf course, where (by my estimation) 7000+ gulls had set down for a rest. A small flush erupted as I set up my scope, and I noticed someone with binoculars walking across the golf course to scan the flock (someone I did not recognize). I rushed to scan the flock in case he continued to disturb them — about fifteen second and 500 birds later, that “magic shade of grey” caught my attention. Then the gleaming white head!! I HAD IT!! I was just getting our visitor on the bird when the guy on the field began to walk away, waving his arms as he went in an attempt to flush the gulls!!! Fortunately, only those closest to him paid any heed and the gull stayed put. Although it slept most of the time, we got prolonged looks and ample time to to study the unique shade of grey and white head, and occasionally the head and bill shape as it lazily lifted its head. It stood up just a couple times (once as an unknown presence caused a mass flush that filled the sky with every gull on the field!) — enough for us to see and appreciate those magnificent yellow legs for which the bird is named.

Although yesterday's Yellow-legged Gull was much too distant for photos, this one (photographed at the same location and similar date several years ago) shows that "magic shade of grey" and clean white head that first caught my attention and helped it stand out amongst a myriad of other gulls. The mantle is intermediate between Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gull, and combined with other features like unique head shape, thick, blunt bill and large red gony spot, helps an experienced pick out this needle-in-a-haystack rarity. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 13, 2008)

Although yesterday’s Yellow-legged Gull was much too distant for photos, this one (photographed at the same location and similar date several years ago) shows that “magic shade of grey” and clean white head that first caught my attention and helped it stand out amongst a myriad of other gulls. The mantle is intermediate between Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gull, and combined with other features like unique head shape, thick, blunt bill and large red gony spot, helps an experienced gull-watcher pick out this needle-in-a-haystack rarity.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 13, 2008)

Yellow-legged Gull !! And another happy customer who now understands the value of patience and persistence when hunting for those hard-to-find, tricky-to-identify rare gulls of St. John’s!!

BTW – The only other sightings of this gull in the past number of weeks were two ABA Big Year birders Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman, who also spent much time and effort in finding it. They were fortunate!!

Return of the Prodi-GULL Son …

The smile that crossed my face when reading the local bird reports this morning was a celebratory one … an old friend of sorts has returned! Although I haven’t seen it yet myself, Bruce Mactavish spotted an adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL sitting in a flock of gulls on a familiar field in Pleasantville (St. John’s) this morning.

Yellow-legged Gull  (this adult photographed in February 2010) was a rare but regular fixture in St. John's every winter for more than a decade ... however it had been almost two years since the last sighting. Until this morning! - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2010)

Yellow-legged Gull (this adult photographed in February 2010) was a rare but regular fixture in St. John’s every winter for more than a decade … however it had been almost two years since the last sighting. Until this morning!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2010)

Most Yellow-legged Gulls recorded in Newfoundland have been adults, although this intriguing immature gull is considered by many to have been a second-winter Azorean/Atlantis Yellow-legged Gull. - Photo: Jared Clarke (January, 2008)

Most Yellow-legged Gulls recorded in Newfoundland have been adults, although this intriguing immature gull is considered by many to have been a second-winter Azorean/Atlantis Yellow-legged Gull.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January, 2008)

Birders (and especially the few of us that consider ourselves gull fans) in St. John’s have been spoiled by this species the past dozen or so years. Yellow-legged Gull is a European species that occurs primarily in the eastern Atlantic/Mediterranean and is a very rare wanderer to North America (ABA Code 4). Yet, at least one has shown up here every fall and/or winter since the late 1990’s — enjoyed by local larophiles and a draw for many visitors, listers and even bird tours.There have been as many as three recorded around the city some years, and one usually hangs out for the entire winter. It can be tough to find sometimes amongst the tens of thousands of large gulls that winter here, making it elusive but well worth the hunt. St. John’s has been the only place in North America where this species could be seen regularly and (somewhat) reliably!

The majority (if not all) of Yellow-legged Gulls seen here have been theorized to originate from the Azores, where the Atlantis race has a slightly darker mantle and unique pattern of head streaking in fall/early winter. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 3, 2010)

The majority (if not all) of Yellow-legged Gulls seen here have been theorized to originate from the Azores, where the Atlantis race has a slightly darker mantle and unique pattern of head streaking in fall/early winter.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 3, 2010)

However, something changed two winters ago (2011-12) — an adult Yellow-legged Gull showed up in early fall as expected, although sightings were sporadic and it often went long periods not being seen. Then it disappeared altogether – the last known sighting was on January 15, 2012 when I photographed it bathing with other gulls in some open water at Quidi Vidi lake. Despite lots of searching, often by experienced eyes, it was not seen again that winter. And for the first time in more than twelve years, the species was not recorded in Newfoundland at all the following fall or winter. We were worried!!

Hopefully this bird settles in and stays for a while … certainly there are people out there (near and far) who would love to enjoy it. I know I would, and I’ll be looking every chance I get!

Sometimes it takes experienced eyes to pick out and safely identify a Yellow-legged Gull. Although they can be distinctive among a flock of more typical gulls, there are a few hybrid possibilities that need to be eliminated. The clean white head in winter (or unique pattern of head streaking in fall, see above) and wingtip pattern are important clues to picking out the North American rarity. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 13, 2009)

Sometimes it takes experienced eyes to pick out and safely identify a Yellow-legged Gull. Although they can be distinctive among a flock of more typical gulls, there are a few hybrid possibilities that need to be eliminated. The clean white head in winter (or unique pattern of head streaking in fall; see above) and wingtip pattern are important clues to picking out this North American rarity.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 13, 2009)

No doubt about it -- It's a classy looking gull! - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2010)

No doubt about it — It’s a classy looking gull!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2010)

“Thayer’s-like” Gulls in Newfoundland

GULLS!! Don’t you love ’em?!?!?

Gulls are arguably the most notorious, nefarious and challenging group of birds. Not only do they all look different at different ages, but each species look incredibly similar to at least one other, they interbreed like crazy, and “experts” are continually casting doubt as to which ones are even real species. Point in case: Thayer’s Gull. (I won’t hold it against you if you stop reading here!)

What am I?? On the west coast of North America this gull would appear like a perfect, run-of-the-mill Thayer’s Gull. The problem is, it was photographed in St. John’s, Newfoundland -- where any such beast begs detailed examination. And we all know that the devil is in those details …- Photo: Dave Brown (February 2, 2011)

What am I?? On the west coast of North America this gull would appear like a perfect, run-of-the-mill Thayer’s Gull. The problem is, it was photographed in St. John’s, Newfoundland — where any such beast begs detailed examination. And we all know that the devil is in those details …
– Photo: Dave Brown (February 2, 2011)

I’ve recently received a couple requests to comment on the occurrence of Thayer’s (or at least “Thayer’s-like”) Gulls in Newfoundland. Thayer’s Gull breeds in the Canadian Arctic, and winters mainly on the Pacific coast. It is considered unusual east of the Rockies and outright rare on the east coast. A major issue in Newfoundland comes in separating Thayer’s Gulls from the sometimes very similar “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull that winters here in large numbers. These two can overlap in almost every respect, have at times been considered clinal variations of the same taxa, and are known to occasionally interbreed.

For avid winter gull-watchers in St. John’s, it is not unusual to see an individual from time to time that, at least initially, appears to be a candidate for Thayer’s Gull. The majority of these birds are first winter types, which arguably are more difficult to “pin down”, and often show at least one inconsistent field mark. Interestingly, potential adult Thayer’s Gulls are few and far between, with solid candidates occurring less than annually. In this post, I’ll give some examples of adult “Thayer’s-like Gulls” that have been observed here in recent years and discuss the challenge of identifying them. The point of this discussion is not to identify each bird to species, and in most cases I won’t even venture to conclusively accept or rule out Thayer’s Gull. Instead, I hope to point out the “pro” Thayer’s Gull features that make each bird a candidate in the first place, and then highlight some of the (often recurrent) concerns that emerge in making that identification.

This bird immediately gives the impression of a classic Thayer’s Gull – strong, with a squared off head, sloping forehead and relatively long, hooked bill. The folded wingtips appear black rather than the charcoal grey sometimes exhibited by Kumlien’s Gulls. The mantle was slightly darker than nearby Herring Gulls and the legs a bright, deep purple.- Photo: Jared Clarke (March 12, 2006)

This bird immediately gives the impression of a classic Thayer’s Gull – strong, with a squared off head, sloping forehead and relatively long, hooked bill. The folded wingtips appear black rather than the charcoal grey sometimes exhibited by Kumlien’s Gulls. The mantle was slightly darker than nearby Herring Gulls and the legs a bright, deep purple.
– Photo: Bruce Mactavish (March 12, 2006)

Candidate #1 (March 2006)

This gull, which was observed at the St. John’s landfill on March 12, 2006, is the only individual that I have seen and feel completely comfortable calling a bona fide Thayer’s Gull. Bruce Mactavish and I had the honour of studying and photographing this bird for close to an hour, and Dave Brown and I saw it briefly at nearby Quidi Vidi lake a few days later … I don’t think it was ever reported again. (You’ll find a much more detailed discussion of this individual here.)

Close-up photos show that the eye is in fact completely dark, and the pupil only discernable in direct light. The blotchy head streaking is also more consistent with Thayer’s rather than Kumlien’s Gull.- Photo: Jared Clarke (March 12, 2006)

Close-up photos show that the eye is in fact completely dark, and the pupil only discernable in direct light. The blotchy head streaking is also more consistent with Thayer’s rather than Kumlien’s Gull.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (March 12, 2006)

Unlike the other candidates described below, this individual had a full suite of features that were consistent with Thayer’s Gull and would be either very atypical or inconsistent with Kumlien’s Gull. Structurally, it more resembled a Herring Gull than an Iceland Gull, with a blocky squared-off head, sloping forehead and relatively long, hooked bill. The wingtips appeared dark slaty black when folded (as opposed to the more grey-toned wingtips usually shown by even the darkest-winged Kumlien’s Gulls) and showed a textbook “Thayer’s wingtip pattern” when spread (see photos below). The mantle was a shade darker than surrounding Herring Gulls, and the legs and orbital ring a deep purple that appeared darker and richer than typically found on Kumlien’s Gulls. The bill exhibited a pale greenish base and tip that is often noted on Thayer’s Gulls, while the eye was completely dark. While darker eyed Kumlien’s Gulls are not uncommon, close inspection virtually always shows obvious dark flecking.

The wingtip pattern is a good fit for Thayer’s Gull, including a partial subterminal bar at the tip of P10, a complete black leading edge to P9 (i.e. the mirror does not span both webs) that reaches the primary coverts, and a small black mark on P5 – all features that are inconsistent with Kumlien’s Gull. There is minimal contrast between the darkness of the inner and outer webs on P10 – another good mark for a true Thayer’s Gull and a feature found on very few other candidates.- Photo: Bruce Mactavish (March 12, 2006)

The wingtip pattern is a good fit for Thayer’s Gull, including a partial subterminal bar at the tip of P10, a complete black leading edge to P9 (i.e. the mirror does not span both webs) that reaches the primary coverts, and a small black mark on P5 – all features that are inconsistent with Kumlien’s Gull. There is minimal contrast between the darkness of the inner and outer webs on P10 – another good mark for a true Thayer’s Gull and a feature found on very few other candidates.
– Photo: Bruce Mactavish (March 12, 2006)

While a small minority of adult Kumlien’s Gulls may exhibit one or two of the features described above, the full suite shown by this individual makes for an almost no-contest conclusion – Thayer’s Gull. But what about some of the other candidates??

Compared to Herring Gull (background) note the dark eye, deep purple legs, similar head shape and similar jet-black wingtips when folded. The gonydeal angle is relatively stronger than one might expect of Kumlien’s Gull.- Photo: Jared Clarke (March 1, 2009)

Compared to Herring Gull (background) note the dark eye, deep purple legs, similar head shape and similar jet-black wingtips when folded. The gonydeal angle is relatively stronger than one might expect of Kumlien’s Gull.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (March 1, 2009)

Candidate #2 (March 2009)

Bruce Mactavish and I found another adult “Thayer’s-like” gull at the landfill on March 1, 2009. Like the individual described above, this bird had wingtips that appeared completely black when folded, a mantle barely darker than nearby Herring Gulls, and deep purple legs and orbital ring. The eye stood out as dark from any distance, but close inspection showed this to be an effect of heavy dark-flecking (not uncommon in Kumlien’s Gulls) rather than a completely dark iris. When spread, the wingtips showed a few inconsistencies that, while not necessarily outside the range for Thayer’s Gull, make a solid identification problematic. No doubt this bird would easily pass as a Thayer’s Gull within its normal range on the west coast, but just doesn’t cut the mustard out here on the rock, where only the most “Thayerish” of Thayer’s Gull might be safely identified.

A close-up of the eye reveals a lot of dark flecking against a paler iris – not the completely dark eye that would be considered ideal in order to “nail” a Thayer’s Gull here on the east coast (but admittedly not atypical of that species, either).- Photo: Jared Clarke (March 1, 2009)

A close-up of the eye reveals a lot of dark flecking against a paler iris – not the completely dark eye that would be considered ideal in order to “nail” a Thayer’s Gull here on the east coast (but admittedly not atypical of that species, either).
– Photo: Jared Clarke (March 1, 2009)

The most significant knock against this bird is the lack of a completely black leading edge to P9. Instead, the mirror spans both webs – a trait shown only by a minority of Thayer’s Gulls and making it more difficult to rule out an extreme Kumlien’s Gull or intergrade. The notable contrast between the black outer web of P10 and the much greyer inner web is similarly problematic.- Photo: Jared Clarke (March 1, 2009)

The most significant knock against this bird is the lack of a completely black leading edge to P9. Instead, the mirror spans both webs – a trait shown only by a minority of Thayer’s Gulls and making it more difficult to rule out an extreme Kumlien’s Gull or intergrade. The notable contrast between the black outer web of P10 and the much greyer inner web is similarly problematic.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (March 1, 2009)

Candidate #3 (January 2010)

The staring dark eye and dark black wingtips make this bird look like a perfect candidate for Thayer’s Gull. It’s difficult to argue that a Kumlien’s Gull could ever look like this.- Photo: Dave Brown (January 8, 2010)

The staring dark eye and dark black wingtips make this bird look like a perfect candidate for Thayer’s Gull. It’s difficult to argue that a Kumlien’s Gull could ever look like this.
– Photo: Dave Brown (January 8, 2010)

This gull, found and photographed by Dave Brown in St. John’s harbour on January 8, 2010, is another excellent example of the tricky situation we find ourselves in. The photos show a gull with all the right stuff to be a Thayer’s Gull … slaty black wingtips when folded, a near perfect wingtip pattern when spread, and an apparently all-dark eye. Even the structure looks great, with a blocky head and sloping forehead that gives a different impression than most Kumlien’s Gulls. However, like most candidates we see, the major strike for this bird is the significant contrast between the blackish outer primary webs and the much greyer inner webs (especially on P10). The head streaking is also quite well defined, compared to the blotchier streaking often seen on Thayer’s Gulls (but again, this varies).

At first glance, the wingtip pattern looks good, too – a complete subterminal band on P10, a fully black leading edge on P9 and significant amount of marking on P5. However, the very notable contrast between the black outer webs and the much greyer inner webs (especially on P10) raise some serious concerns. Could this be a Thayer’s x Kumlien’s Gull intergrade?? - Photo: Dave Brown (January 8, 2010)

At first glance, the wingtip pattern looks good, too – a complete subterminal band on P10, a fully black leading edge on P9 and significant amount of marking on P5. However, the very notable contrast between the black outer webs and the much greyer inner webs (especially on P10) raise some serious concerns. Could this be a Thayer’s x Kumlien’s Gull intergrade??
– Photo: Dave Brown (January 8, 2010)

Candidate #4 (December 2010 – January 2011)

This was the longest-staying, most studied of all the individuals described in this post (despite the somewhat less quality photos I have to offer!). Originally pointed out by Dave Brown, most birders in St. John’s (and plenty from away) saw this bird over the course of several weeks since it was reliably found at one sewer outfall in the harbour. In life, this bird could often be picked out from surrounding Kumlien’s Gulls by virtue of its slightly darker mantle which is not clear from the photos.

The dark eye and slaty-black wingtips on this bird helped it stand out from the crowd (which was made up almost entirely of Kumlien’s Gulls) at the city’s main sewer outlet. Not evident in the photo, but obvious in life, was the slightly darker grey mantle. Overall, however, the structure was more or less consistent with a typical Kumlien’s Gull.- Photo: Jared Clarke (December 28, 2010)

The dark eye and slaty-black wingtips on this bird helped it stand out from the crowd (which was made up almost entirely of Kumlien’s Gulls) at the city’s main sewer outlet. Not evident in the photo, but obvious in life, was the slightly darker grey mantle. Overall, however, the structure was more or less consistent with a typical Kumlien’s Gull.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 28, 2010)

The eye appeared to be completely dark and not simply dark-flecked as in many Kumlien’s Gulls. My two concerns with this bird, however, are the somewhat petite structure (the head and bill were not noticeably different from many typical Kumlien’s Gulls) and the contrast of the black outer primary webs with the notably greyer inner webs – a trait seen more often in dark-winged Kumlien’s Gulls than in known Thayer’s Gulls. Otherwise, the overall wingtip pattern could be considered fine for the latter.

Like the last gull, this one showed a wingtip pattern that superficially looked great for Thayer’s Gull – a complete subterminal bar on P10, a black leading edge to P9 and a small dark mark across both webs of P5. The dark leading edge of P9 extended all the way to the primary coverts. However, the inner primary webs were much greyer than the black outer webs, especially on P10 and P9.- Photo: Dave Brown (December 14, 2010)

Like the last gull, this one showed a wingtip pattern that superficially looked great for Thayer’s Gull – a complete subterminal bar on P10, a black leading edge to P9 and a small dark mark across both webs of P5. The dark leading edge of P9 extended all the way to the primary coverts. However, the inner primary webs were much greyer than the black outer webs, especially on P10 and P9.
– Photo: Dave Brown (December 14, 2010)

Candidate #5 (February 2011)

This is the same gull featured in the photo at the introduction of this post. The Herring Gull-like structure, dark eye and black folded wingtips make this bird stand out as obviously different in a typical St. John’s gull flock. The mantle appears as dark as, or maybe a shade darker than, nearby Herring Gulls.  - Photo: Dave Brown (February 2011)

This is the same gull featured in the photo at the introduction of this post. The Herring Gull-like structure, dark eye and black folded wingtips make this bird stand out as obviously different in a typical St. John’s gull flock. The mantle appears as dark as, or maybe a shade darker than, nearby Herring Gulls.
– Photo: Dave Brown (February 2011)

Another one-time wonder found and photographed by Dave Brown, this gull would not easily be confused with Iceland Gull. In fact, at first glance the dark eye was the only trait that made it stand out from surrounding Herring Gulls. Unlike several of the gulls described above, the legs were not a deep purple, but instead matched the majority of Kumlien’s Gulls that we see. When the wings were spread, a typical Thayer’s-type pattern was evident, but again there was that nagging contrast between the black outer web of P10 and the much greyer inner web. Another fine example of an individual that initially looks great for Thayer’s Gull, but closer inspection seems to place it somewhere in the “grey zone” where an extreme Kumlien’s Gull (or possible Thayer’s x Kumlien’s intergrade) cannot be safely eliminated.

Once again, the paler inner webs of P10 raise concerns about an otherwise Thayer’s-like wingtip pattern. While a fully white tip to P10 is shown by ~##% of Thayer’s Gulls, the presence of dark subterminal markings would help rule out Kumlien’s Gull.  - Photo: Dave Brown (February 2011)

Once again, the paler inner webs of P10 raise concerns about an otherwise Thayer’s-like wingtip pattern. While a fully white tip to P10 is shown by a small percentage of Thayer’s Gulls, the presence of dark subterminal markings would help rule out Kumlien’s Gull. (It is also interesting to consider that this wingtip pattern is reminiscent of argentatus Herring Gull from Europe!)
– Photo: Dave Brown (February 2011)

Candidate #6 (January 2012)

ThayerishGull_Jan2012A.jpg

Photo: Jared Clarke (January 2, 2012)

The only gull in this post from outside St. John’s, I found and photographed this individual at the small landfill in my hometown of Lewisporte (Notre Dame Bay) on January 2, 2012. (Unfortunately, this landfill has since been closed down … too bad, since I also discovered a Slaty-backed Gull there in 2007). This bird initially stood out from the crowd due to its dark eye, darker mantle than nearby Herring Gulls, and black folded wingtips. Structurally, it appeared slightly less blocky and short-billed than most nearby Herring Gulls, not unlike most Kumlien’s Gulls. Despite all my efforts, I was unable to capture a clear photo of the wingtip pattern, meaning some important details such as the consistency of black across both webs are uncertain. Another one for the “grey zone”!!

As in most cases, the combination of a dark eye, black folded wingtips and slightly darker grey mantle makes Thayer’s Gull candidates like this one stand out from local Herring and Kumlien’s Gulls. An initial strike against this individual, however, is its petite structure – not necessarily out of the range of normal for a Thayer’s Gull, but not at all helpful in eliminating the possibility of an extreme Kumlien’s Gull or hybrid combination. - Photo: Jared Clarke (January 2, 2012)

As in most cases, the combination of a dark eye, black folded wingtips and slightly darker grey mantle makes Thayer’s Gull candidates like this one stand out from local Herring and Kumlien’s Gulls. An initial strike against this individual, however, is its relatively petite structure – certainly not out of the range of normal for a Thayer’s Gull, but not at all helpful in eliminating the possibility of an extreme Kumlien’s Gull or hybrid combination.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 2, 2012)

These two flight shots leave a lot to be desired in helping produce an identification. The first does indicate a good Thayer’s type wingtip pattern in P6-10, including a significant black subterminal mark on P10 and a fully black leading edge to P9, but is too blurry to show the consistency of black across the webs or the pattern on P5. The second photo, showing only the underwings, suggests a lack of markings on P5 – a feature shown by only ~25% of Thayer’s Gulls. - Photo: Jared Clarke (January 2, 2012)

These two flight shots leave a lot to be desired in helping produce an identification. The first does indicate a good Thayer’s type wingtip pattern in P6-10, including a significant black subterminal mark on P10 and a fully black leading edge to P9, but is too blurry to show the consistency of black across the webs or the pattern on P5. The second photo, showing only the underwings, suggests a lack of markings on P5 – a feature shown by only ~25% of Thayer’s Gulls.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 2, 2012)

Summary

So there you have it – a few short comments on the challenges of identifying a solid adult Thayer’s Gull in Canada’s most easterly province 😉  While intriguing candidates seem to be showing up pretty much annually these days, a perfect storm of issues has made it difficult for us (or maybe it’s just me?) to feel comfortable calling them the “T word“. There is such a huge variation in our local Kumlien’s Gulls that ruling out an extreme example of that critter is no walk in the park. Thayer’s and Kumlien’s Gulls can overlap in almost every feature, and finding a candidate with a full suite of Thayer’s Gull traits that might be considered out-of-range (or at least very atypical) for Kumlien’s Gull is key to making a safe identification – and not so easily done. And we know so little about proposed Thayer’s x Kumlien’s Gull intergrades that it is impossible to rule out such beasts.

Another complication to consider is that some Herring Gulls (especially northeastern smithsonianus and European argentatus) exhibit less black and more white in their wingtips, producing a pattern similar to Thayer’s Gulls. (That opens up a whole other can of interesting worms and should be fodder for another blog post. I’ll challenge Bruce Mactavish to write about these interesting Newfoundland Herring Gulls – this is a test to see if he’s read this far!) Obviously, other characteristics should help in the elimination of these taxa.

In the end, we have had to learn to let a lot of these gulls go unidentified. Admittedly, none of the individuals discussed above could ever be accepted as a Kumlien’s Gull – they’re just too extreme, and in reality are much closer to Thayer’s Gull. In fact, some or all of them may very well be the latter. No doubt not a single one of the birds above would garner even a second glance among a flock of Thayer’s Gull on the west coast.

On a final note (and probably getting myself into a little hot water), I begin to wonder how many of the “Thayer’s Gulls” reported and generally accepted in other parts of eastern North America would stand up to such scrutiny. And what would that really tell us if we found them to be much like the individuals discussed above? Would it simply bring into question their true identities, or would it lend more credence to the possibility that our own candidates are in fact Thayer’s Gulls? We just don’t know enough about these incredible creatures.

References / Further Reading

In case you’re not bored out of your skull already, here is a list of some essential references and related reading  you might want to sink your teeth into …

There are two “must-have” books that all larophiles and gull lovers need:

  • Olsen KM (2004). Gulls of North America, Europe and Asia. Princeton University Press. New Jersey.
  • Howell SGN and Dunn J (2007). A Reference Guide to the Gulls of the Americas. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.

Since I alluded to the variation in our local Kumlien’s Gulls but really didn’t discuss it, here are some infomative blog posts on the topic by Dave Brown:

An awesome article on the subtleties of Thayer’s Gull variation and identification (in California) by Steve Howell and Martin Elliot:

  • Howell SNG, and Elliot MT (2001). Identification and variation of winter adult Thayer’s Gulls, with comments on taxonomy. Alula 7: 130-144.

A related and equally fantastic article on Kumlien’s Gulls (in Newfoundland) by Steve Howell and Bruce Mactavish:

  • Howell SNG, and Mactavish B (2003). Identification and variation of winter adult Kumlien’s Gulls. Alula 9: 2-15.