Identification Guides for Gull-lovers (And that's Everyone, Right?)

Posted by Brian Moscatello on May 8th 2023

Some bird families present more identification challenges than others. Beginners may be stumped by sparrows, stymied by shorebirds, or frustrated by flycatchers.  Gulls are also considered challenging, and I won't deny that there are some tricky ID's in the world of gulls (nor are you obligated to put a name to every bird). But this is more a matter of perception than fact, and with a little effort you too should be able to approach gulls confidently. 

Personally, I really appreciate gulls. They are graceful in flight; they can be found almost anywhere near large bodies of water; and their voices define our ocean shores almost as much as the soughing and crashing of waves.  While some species such as the Ivory Gull are usually found far from human haunts, most are quite at home near people.  Beaches, boardwalks, docks, parking lots, farm fields and landfills all serve as foraging locations as needed. Yet many people, including many birders, find gulls challenging, unappealing, or even actively dislike them. 

People may dislike gulls for several reasons. First among those are vacationers eating on beach boardwalks. They waited in line and have their precariously balanced meal of fries, frankfurters, or pizza. Then, they neglect to mantle their prey, a mistake no two-months-out-of-the-nest Red-tailed Hawk, or anyone who had an older sibling, would make. They are shocked when their food flies off in the beak of a Laughing Gull. Some shore towns now hire falconers to keep gulls off the boardwalk. 

Experienced birders rarely make such a mistake. We've birded landfills, enjoyed watching jaegers chasing terns (our lunch is not at stake, after all), and learned about klepto-parasitism before we did our first "Big Day".  The only time we lose a French Fry to a gull is if we're trying to chum in a rarity at the local burger joint.  This in turn helps train gulls to be alert for inattentive tourists.  Birders, known for being generous of spirit, are not above schadenfreude at a non-birding tourists' expense. 

But just because birders are too canny to lose their lunch to a hungry gull doesn't mean gulls don't intimidate them, too. Many who say they don't like gulls are intimidated by the perceived identification challenges. There are about two dozen species of gulls in North America.  Small gulls may take two years to attain adult plumage, while larger ones may take four years.  Hence, each species may have from two to five distinct plumages.  That's nearing 70 distinct plumages across the species, and then there's all those "first summer molting to second winter" birds.  No wonder many birders move on to easier tasks like mastering the fall warblers. 

Though gulls are well-covered in most field guides, because of this plumage diversity, there have been many guides focused just on that family. Let's look at three of those recently published. 

Gulls of the World: A Photographic Guide (Klaus Malling Olsen, 2018, $45.00)

This is the only one of the three guides to cover all 61 of the world's gull species.  Half of those have never been recorded in North America, but gulls are great wanderers.  Simply being aware of the possibilities can increase the odds of finding the next species that's not-supposed-to-be-here from zero to maybe 0.0001, which, if not large, is greater than zero.  Though published in 2018, the author had already split Short-billed (formerly Mew) Gull from Common Gull, so it is taxonomically up to date.  At 368 pages, this is a detailed gull reference work. The author starts with a 24-page gull identification review, with tips on molts and plumages and caveats about color staining, hybridization, and other abnormalities. Each species is well-covered with approximately one page of text and photographs of every plumage. 

Gulls Simplified: A Comparative Approach to Identification (Pete Dunne & Kevin T. Karlson, Princeton University Press, 2019, $24.95)

When you pair two experienced tour guide authors - one "the bard of birding" and the other one of our best bird photographers - it's inevitable that you'll come away enlightened and entertained. Covering the 25 gull species which have actually been recorded in North America, Pete and Kevin admit that while it might be true that "gulls cannot be simplified", they posit that at least "the process of identification can be simplified".  They direct your attention to size and shape, and broadly group plumages into immature, sub-adult, and adult. Having photos of all species on facing pages, the same in silhouette, and numerous quizzes are all tools to help the gull neophyte achieve a comprehensive understanding of the common gulls. Most birders like to find a rarity, but by definition we rarely do. I have seen 15 gull species in New Jersey but see only half of them every year without fail.  Misters Dunne & Karlson really help with one sage piece of advice: "we advocate embracing probability and letting it work for you and not against you." In other words, no matter when and where you are, nearly all the gulls you see belong to a small handful of species. 

Gulls of North America (Fred Schaffer III, Schiffer Publishing, 2022, $19.95)

Although the page count is between the above two titles, this is the newest and most compact of the three guides. The author includes two more (ultra-rare) species than do Dunne and Karlson. It also groups gulls into a triad, in this case small, medium and large.  Mr. Schaffer provides a summary table of gull-aging tips according to this size grouping. He restates Kevin and Pete's advice on probability as "Rare gulls are just as hard to come by as rare warblers or rare shorebirds." He puts quite a definite edge on this with a ten-year summary of gull counts on a local Maryland pond. Ring-billed, Laughing, Herring, Bonaparte's and Great Blacked Gulls were 99.988% of the total, while nine other species, subspecies or hybrids constituted only 0.000115% of all individuals.  The take-away is that you need only learn - really learn - six to ten species, and you'll recognize the rarities when they show up. 

You can learn a lot from any of the three titles above. Each has spectacular photographs and clear, authoritative text. If you travel widely, "Gulls of the World" will help you key in on the possibilities wherever you go. "Gulls Simplified" provides an entertaining text and great comparison photographs. "Gulls of North America" offers good summary charts and photos, and a compact, field-friendly format. 

Gulls are intelligent, opportunistic, and argumentative, i.e., perhaps too much like us for comfort. If this comparison offends you, I didn't say which gull.  A juvenile Laughing Gull's ceaseless begging for food (all of August, at the very least) can be annoying.  But a Swallow-tailed Gull is a dapper dresser with a taste for calamari who enjoys nightlife. So, pick your own gull alter ego!  No excuses: it's time to get gulling!