Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Olympic Sports

An easy gull to ID.  Yellow legs and smaller?  Black and red dip?  The California Gull
Warning!  This post is about gull ID.  I'll try to make it as interesting as I can. But you've been warned! So here goes......

This gull is definitely a Heinz 57.  An Olympic for sure!
Some species of birds can hybridize freely in the right habitat.  There aren't really any clear examples of this in the human population since we are all human of various colors and sizes. Although, I have heard that the Andean people are unique to the human population as they are shorter with more blood vessels(to keep them warm) due to the higher and colder elevations of the Andes mountains. 

I took this photo from the high elevations of Lake Titicaca on the floating islands of the Uros in the Andean mountain chain.  

I was a terrible birder even in 2008.  A Great Egret 
There may be a secret population of tiny people, about the size of hobbits, somewhere in Asia. Scientists have found bones to back up their claims and some locals even claim to have seen these tiny people in the dense Asian forests. I think I read this from Breitbart News, the world's leading source of fake news. However, last I checked, we are all still human, extra blood vessels and all. 

Dark eye, shading on the head but an all gray back????  Yeah.  An Olympic Gull, a hybrid
 Could humans hybridize with gorillas? Is Bigfoot a hybrid of a man/bear?  I don't know.  Even the thought is disturbing, but I did see some creepy mountain people in Oregon outside of Portland. I'll geek out with some Star Trek examples instead.  
With Leonard Nimoy before his passing who portrayed the popular character Spock
An example of hybridization of the human species would be like Vulcans and Humans having babies.  Spock is the offspring of these two species.  B'elanna Torres is the hybridization of a Klingon and Human.  So, what does this have to do with gulls?

Surf Scoter
 OH LOOK!!!  It's a SURF SCOTER!!!  Anything to distract from the monotonous ID work. It's like a student being forced to do classwork against their will until someone shoots a spit wad across the room at his friend's head. It misses his head and hits the quiet girl in the back row. Now that's WAY more interesting....and funny! And so I have observed that most birders get easily distracted by the other birds popping out of the ocean water. I stand my ground. Gulls are cool! #gullsmatter

I do have moments like this often in class.  While school has changed, the human dynamic is still the same. Information is quicker now with SMART technology 
I have now become the eager "A" student in class raising his hand all the time.  I like this subject. No.  I LOVE this subject. So I try connecting the dots in this simple brain of mine. 

Here's what I know. Gulls can interbreed freely if their habitat ranges overlap.  Some more than others.  And apparently the Pacific Northwest is a hotbed for gulls to hybridize! In the desert southwest, Costa's Hummingbirds can breed with other hummingbird species like the Lucifer Hummingbirds.  Their hybrids are called Costifers. The simple fact is that nature is constantly evolving and that our understanding of the biological world isn't so black and white.  

Is this gull trying to be a Thayer's?!
So it's only logical that hybridization occurs in the gull world.  My issue?  Finding a "pure" Glaucous-winged Gull.  I found my searches to be kinda frustrating at first.  And I discovered that Oregon, Washington and British Colombia are some of the most difficult places to find a "pure" gull.  I love gulls and I've come across a few hybrids here and there, but nothing like this! Most hybrid gulls found along the Pacific coastline are known as "Olympic Gulls".  Apparently, the Glaucous-winged and Glaucous Gulls can hybridize with Herring and Western Gulls.  And they especially hybridize with Western Gulls. This makes gull ID VERY difficult!

a Horned Grebe is a nice distraction
 HORNED GREBE!!!  Oh.  Yeah.  The gulls. So what did I have to do?  Well.  The GWGU is a large all gray bird.  No black on the feathers.  No black on the bill.  No shading on the head.  And pink legs. Easy right? So I'd find a good candidate and then spot black somewhere on the bill or on the wing.  

Too black!  Those end tail feathers should be ALL gray
 Or I'd find one with all the right markings but the head shape and size were all wrong.  With persistence and determination, I found several "pure" Glaucous-winged, NOT Olympic, gulls. 

All glaucous but what's with the shading on the head and the black on the bill???  GRRRR!!! Another Olympic Gull. 
I'll be honest.  The search for this life bird felt dirty.  Only humans can make the natural birding world feel like a segregated nightmare. For those listing in the ABA world, they have to make sure they've got the right gull or they could lose their tick. The challenge and search for this bird gave me a better cultural understanding behind the hybridization of gulls in this area.  It still doesn't shake that nagging question inside my head, "What makes a species a species?"  And why is that question so important to me?!

We've got a winner!!!!!  My lifer Glaucous-winged Gull.  It just took awhile to figure it all out. 
 We are still discovering so much about birds.  Many of the pink-legged gulls share 98 percent of their DNA.  Nature is messy.  It's also fascinating. 

At the end of the day, I've added a new species of bird on that slowly growing life list. The experience behind this gull taught me a lot but there is still so much more to learn. Until next time.....


  1. Well helck --being a Pacific Northwesterner, it is no wonder I just say 'I saw a Gull'. I actually enjoyed your lecture (especially the diversions) and admire your skill at teaching. I really do wish I were better at bird ID ... and 'getting' shorebirds has been something I've really tried to work at and study. Must confess I haven't had time to worry about gulls, but I'm glad you do.

    1. You can tell how popular gulls are:) You're the only person who wrote a comment:)This is an often difficult species but I grew up with them and am fascinated by this group of birds:)


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