I am a funny man in a very peculiar way.
I am odd, and whenever I am not odd, I am different. In fact, my singularity is such that, if the Gaussian distribution of humanity’s normality was the Himalayas, I’d be the guy standing on the beaches of Rodrigues [and boy, do I wish that was the case].
Now, this may come as no surprise to those who know me personally, but it nevertheless merits an explanation.
As a matter of fact, my oddity is not apparent, and if you spotted me at a public place I could well go undetected, blending in with all the Joe Plummers, the Joneses, and those who seek to keep up with them. It is not until I start talking about my approach to birding that I separate myself from all my fellow men and women, from all that were before me and will come after me. And even then, this isolation in attitude springs from one source only:
Gulls confuse me.
Yes, you will need a minute to catch your breath, or maybe a cleansing look at yet another colourful European bird. I shall provide and wait patiently for the return of your valued concentration …
[WARNING: The following image shows the bird in full colour, and it is therefore recommended for North American readers only, who – through a long process of natural selection – have adapted to colours on birds. European birders have not! For safety reasons, European readers are thus strongly advised to proceed to the second image immediately, which was taken with the camera’s PMFD (Protective Monochrome Filter Device) activated. Failure to do so may cause permanent retinal damage!]
A Whitethroat‘s colours are like a warm spring rain on a winter’s day – or something.
A Whitethroat’s shades of black, white, and everything in-between, are like something.
Now that you have returned, I may hope to explain my situation and beg your understanding. The confusion that clouds my mind whenever I think of gulls is based on two main aspects of their life history:
taxonomy & common names
Gull taxonomy is a field of profound confusion, and has been so for a very long time. Beyond this, it is a veritable battlefield as well. Indeed, gull taxonomy was at the heart of the American Revolution and was even the casus belli that sparked armed hostilities between the two opposing parties. It all started rather innocently, with the publication of a paper on gull taxonomy by Jefferson et al. (1776), in which the authors stated that they “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all gulls are created equal”. To this the British ornithologists objected, and to prove their point they sent a few ships of Hessian bird collectors with muskets and canister shot over the Atlantic. Misinterpreting their intentions, or stuck in their taxonomic ways (we will likely never know), the Americans raised their Continental Army and the rest – they say – is history.
Possibly as a result of this struggle for scientific independence, the New World was largely spared (initially, har har har - see below) from the taxonomic catastrophe and onslaught of reason that beset the European birding scene at the end of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Please, make sure your kids aren’t reading this, but of course I am speaking of no other group than the Large White-headed Gulls, or LWHG.
LWHGs, in this case a Herring Gull Larus argentatus, are vicious in ways defying comprehension. All I wanted was a nice picture of the beautiful reflection on the water, and look what I ended up with: a GULL had entered the middle of the frame, just so it could spoil everything!
The oldest of us may remember the golden age when these species were so little of an issue that the term LWHG didn’t even exist. There were essentially three species, Herring Gull (silver back), Lesser Black-backed Gull (dark grey back), and Greater Black-backed Gull (blackish back). As shown by the description of their back colouration, distinguishing between the adults was a piece of cake and the immatures were simply labeled “indeterminable” and no-one gave a … you know … second glance.
It seems probable that European birders have been impacted mentally by frequently having to tackle Acrocephalus and Phylloscopus warblers, and they therefore simply can’t stand “simple”. Whatever the motifs and reasons were, some people found it necessary to not leave things as nice and plain as they were with the gulls but to go and take a closer look.
It should be well understood today that taking a closer look at gulls is not recommended under any circumstances whatsoever, but apparently birders were too naive to care or be careful back then.
And this is what happened: The Herring Gull was split into the Northern Herring Gull and the southern + central Asian White-headed Gull. Then people found that there was variation between the Mediterranean and the Eastern White-headed Gulls and that they did not interbreed, so it was only natural to split them into Yellow-legged Gull and Caspian Gull. Then people found that the Caspian Gulls in Mongolia were different from those further West, and that the form barabensis was also somewhat weird, and they split the Caspian Gull even further into Mongolian, Caspian and What-have-you Gull. People are currently noticing that even within the remainder of Caspian Gull, Eastern birds look different from Western birds and have a differing moult circle, so who knows, ey – are we having quite enough fun yet? Apparently not, as even the northern Herring Gull was too good lo leave as is, and all those “silver-backed” forms ranging along the Siberian coast all the way to the Bering Strait were split off, too. No, I don’t know the details (and doubt that anyone does), but apparently there was so much variation along the entire coast of Siberia that people just decided to split according to geographic longitude at a rate of one new species every 600 km of coastline (I’ve heard), or alternatively according to each isolated research station they could visit with the budget at hand.
Those researchers with very limited travel budgets are now eyeing the western Herring Gulls and are intrigued by the fact that the Western form argenteus differs significantly from the Baltic and Northern form argentatus, which in itself is incredibly variable with Norwegian birds being completely different from Baltic birds and Baltic birds from Estonia/Lithuania/Latvia looking unlike those along the German Baltic sea coast.
Got that? Well, if this doesn’t scare the heck out of you – it should!
Now, let me illuminate what was done to the Lesser Black-backed Gull … Okay, I am aware of my black humour – I was just kidding.
This nightmare of a picture (digitalized and heavily cropped slide) shows a Caspian Gull. As if this wasn’t already bad enough, the bird appears to show wing tip features and a moult stage that hint towards it being a bird from the West of the species’ range. The picture however was taken in Kazakhstan, near the border with Mongolia and China – which is as far East as these guys go. Some readers may find this interesting, although I don’t really believe that’s the case.
Throughout these dark and deathly ages of revised gull taxonomy, there was however one light beam of hope and comfort: All gulls – except some Arctic oddballs – were created equal and placed in a convenient and easy to memorize genus Larus.
Then, at the end of the 2000s, lightening struck twice, and the genus Larus was shaken by yet another major revision. And this time, the New world was hit just as badly. Yes, you guessed it. This revision did not place such wicked Arctic genera as Rhodostethia, Pagophila, and Rissa under the umbrella of Larus to make things easier.
No, sadly that chance was wasted. Instead the universally beloved genus Larus was split. And boy, if you thought Rhodostethia was hard to memorize, you’ll just love the new genera Chroicocephalus, Hydrocoloeus, and Saundersilarus. You can find a very nice summary of the current situation on the Biological Ramblings blog. Suffice to say here that we are now looking at 11 – let me write that out, eleven – genera.
And if that doesn’t scare the heck out of you, you might do what I did and settle for simply being confused.
The other way in which gulls manage to push me off the rails are their common names. The confusion in this respect arises from the fact that I am German, and that most birding activities around the globe center on the English language, and specifically English bird names. Whenever I am a native German abroad, I have a subliminal tendency to take the German names I know so well and just translate them into English. Not a good idea, and a bad thing to do.
Why? Well, it may or may not surprise, but the meaning of the German names and those of the English names aren’t always the same, and confusion – as stated above – is therefore bound to take control.
Things are best demonstrated by granting the explanation’s pole position to the Laughing Gull. The Laughing Gull is named “Aztec Gull” in German, while the gull we call “Laughing” Gull is your Black-headed Gull. This is very unfortunate as our “Black-headed” Gull is indeed the bird you refer to as Mediterranean Gull, which is a name the Germans use to denote denizens of the Yellow-legged Gull species. Your Herring Gull is our “Silver” Gull while your Silver Gull is our “Silver-headed” Gull, but more importantly, our “Herring” Gull is your Lesser Black-backed Gull while your Greater Black-backed Gull is something entirely different, the “Cloaked” Gull. And finally, your Iceland Gull is our “Polar” Gull, while “Ice” is what we use to describe your Glaucous Gull.
You are welcome, I am glad I was able to clarify the situation.
Finding a Black-headed Gull in North America is not considered a laughing matter – while Germans think it is a joke. Once in a while however, a “Laughing” Gull is found amongst the Laughing Gulls.
This may explain why visiting German birders in North America (say, in California) will very excitedly tell you about a “Herring Gull” they found while turning their indifferent backs on you when you tell them that a Silver Gull had just been reported nearby and that they should really go and chase such an extreme rarity in North America.
The caption to the following image will demonstrate that a profound understanding of the German names is of significance also for English speakers on visits to my country:
This bird is best referred to as “Aztec Gull” on a visit to Germany if you are serious about conveying your observation to local birders (and you should as it has been seen less than a handful of times there). Yelling “Laughing Gull” may however be more useful if you have found such an ace North American vagrant in Germany but don’t really care if anyone else sees it so long as you get shown a Black-headed Gull. And frankly, this would not be very nice of you.
And one last thing, a final reminder: You may think that all of this doesn’t have anything to do with you or that there is no reason why you should care. However, be aware that wherever you go and whatever you do, there will be a gull watching you …
… and it will likely be Laughing