California Gulls, California Gulls

Thayer's and California Gulls
A flock of mostly Thayer’s Gulls (Larus thayeri). Note the yellow legs of the California Gulls (Larus californicus) in the center of the image.

I happened to be down in Parksville yesterday and did some pre-meeting birding at the Parksville Community Park on the waterfront. It was a blustery day but the gulls were out in numbers. Birds are beginning to build on the beach flats at Parksville Bay in anticipation of the herring spawn in early March. Over the course of the morning we saw upwards of 80 Brant on the gravel bar at the far end of the bay, separated by a protective moat of water that prevented people and dogs from getting very close.

Dog Walker
A dog walker on the beach at Parksville Bay. While it was good to see this dog on a leash, their simple act of walking down the beach forced a flock of Dunlin and other birds to move down the beach ahead of this pair.

Dogs off leash are a recurring problem for the Brant and from March 1st to April 30 no dogs are allowed on the beach at all. Over the course of March and April upwards of 20,000 Brant will use the Parksville/Qualicum beaches and the abundant eelgrass, sea lettuce, and herring roe to fuel up for their northward migration. They arrive tired and thin and need to eat as much as they can in order to make it to their northern breeding grounds. Every time they are flushed by dogs or people they burn valuable calories. To learn more about the incredible story of Brant geese, consider attending some of the Brant Wildlife Festival events between March 5th and April 28th.

Thayer's Gulls (Larus thayeri)
A flock of mostly Thayer’s Gulls (Larus thayeri) hunkered down in the wind.

While it was very good to see Brant at Parksville Bay, the gulls were a real treat. A large mixed flock was hunkered down on the playing fields behind the parking area at the beach. The majority of the birds were either California Gulls, Thayer’s Gulls or Glaucous-winged Gulls. There were a few Mew Gulls mixed in with the flock as well. More gulls huddled out on the sand flats, occasionally rising up in large wheeling clouds when flushed by beach walkers, dogs or a Bald Eagle fly through. I talked with another birder on the beach, Mike Ashbee, who was looking through the gulls on the sand for a Kumlien’s Iceland Gull. By this time in the morning, the wind was picking up and it was starting to rain so it seemed prudent to seek shelter. I didn’t find an Iceland Gull amongst the Thayer’s and California Gulls on the flats but there were a pair of Western Gulls.

Western Gull (Larus occidentalis)
One of the gulls seen on Saturday – the Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) showing the typical clean white head, darker mantle and wing-tips, and heavy rich yellow bill.

Gull enthusiasts may want to read Hugh’s post about Spring Gulls over at Rock Paper Lizard to compare the photograph of the gull above with his fresh new Glaucous-winged Gull. The differences might appear a little subtle, but for me the darker back on my gull and the bill suggest Western Gull rather than Glaucous-winged Gull. Unfortunately, the dull light and shadow don’t show the eye colour very well or the eye ring colour that is also helpful when trying to identify a pure Western Gull (as opposed to a Western/Glaucous-winged Gull hybrid). In Photoshop, it is possible to adjust the levels to see the lighter coloured eye and the orange-yellow orbital ring. Most of the Glaucous-winged Gulls that I saw still were in winter plumage and had “muddy” rather than pure white heads.

It’s worth reading GrrlScientist’s Mystery Bird post that features a Western Gull and a discussion about a Western Gull in New York State over at Ocean Wanderers. Finally, some interesting observations describing Western Gulls in Alaska can be found at Sitka Nature.

While I didn’t get a close photograph of a California Gull, it was a gull I was happy to add to my BC 2010 Year List which now stands at 100 birds. Plus it was really great to see so many of them at such a close distance – the yellow/green legs were distinctive and the black and red markings on the bills were clearly visible. It was neat to be able to compare them with the slightly larger Thayer’s Gulls as well.