Sunday, January 2, 2022

Common Gull in Brooklyn NYC

On December 7th, 2020 I was doing my usual Gulling runs covering a few Brooklyn sites when I came across a sleeping Gull at Brooklyn Army Terminal Pier 4 that gave me pause. I was in the whip (automobile) so I stopped and glassed the bird. At a casual glance it looked just like all the other 1st cycle (2CY), Ring-billed Gulls (RBGU) that were either sleeping or loafing on the pier. However, having looked at thousands of Ring-billed Gulls in such plumage, something did not sit right with me. The centers to the lesser and median wing coverts looked unlike anything that I had previously seen on a 2CY RBGU; my impression on age was it was like a juvenile moulting into formative plumage. I decided that I needed to study this bird some more. Slowly pulling past and away, I parked and got my scope out to carefully look over this bird. While studying the bird, it untucked its head and I got my first look at the bill. It looked like the bill of a RBGU, but I noticed that the the upper mandible did not seem as curved as a Ring-billed Gull and the tip was all black. I studied the bills on nearby RBGUs to double check my observation and I felt confident that I was not overthinking things. The bill on this bird had what appeared to be a fleshy pink base which would be right in line with a RBGU of this age. However, upon closer zoomed in scope views, I was convinced that the bill had a hint of greenish/greyish colour which is not typical of a Ring-billed Gull.

Digiscoped napping Common Gull as it untucked its head. 

I began to think of the possibility that I might be looking at something in the Canus complex and started taking digiscope images. I walked back to the whip and got my camera, I needed to thoroughly document this bird and obtain tail shots if I could. With an assist to a RBGU who bumped the mystery bird from its roosting spot, I was able to see the tail and obtain photos. Although a low percentage of Ring-billed Gulls could show the same or similar tail pattern to a Common Gull, I was fully aware that the tail pattern of 1st-cycle Ring-billed Gulls, usually show additional tail bands with markings on the rump and on the outer tail feathers. Whereas, on a Common Gull, the tail pattern would be much cleaner and the tail band neatly demarcated. This bird showed the latter. A neatly demarcated tail band and clean looking rump. The excitement began to build; I was thinking, I was surely onto something in the canus complex. Unfortunately, a car decided that it was fun to drive through the flock and all the gulls picked up and flew off. A few minutes later, I received a text message from my little sister that a cousin had unexpectedly passed away. It was a crushing message and so I put this Gull on the back burner for the moment.

Common Gull displaying the neatly demarcated tail band.

Common Gull foreground with Ring-billed Gull in the background.

After heading back to Queens and spending some time with my beloved mum (who passed in August), I finally got around to thinking about this bird and reached out to a few people whose opinions I hold in high regards when it comes to Gulls. The first was Gulling genius Amar Ayash who writes at Anything Larus. The first two images that I sent to him were back of the camera open wing shots that I had grabbed when the bird was bumped off its resting place. I added a spread wing shot of a Ring-billed Gull to compare the two. Amar, who was just about to start classes, responded by reminding me that "sometimes juvenile primary tips can look rounded (especially in brach. Mew). He added that the Primary coverts usually clear that up and that the pointy centers to the primary coverts with the thin pale edging looked very juvenile."  Note: it was the same look that made me take a hard look at this bird. I followed up those two images with a back of the camera side profile image of a standing bird. His response was, "That doesn't look like a Ring-billed." Followed by, "Looks Commonish to me. It's definitely in the canus complex."

2CY Ring-billed Gull in flight for comparison. Note the tail pattern.

I reached out to a few other people but it was late and I was tired and dealing with the loss of my cousin so I tabled this bird. The next day, I opted to put a post on the NY list serve. I decided it was better to get the word out even as I was still soliciting opinions on this bird. Julian Hough, another birder whose opinion I hold in high regards, saw my post and asked me to send him images of the bird. I was still busy with family stuff regarding my cousin's passing and so I sent him digiscoped and back of the camera images. His response was a + for Common Gull. Later in the day, I posted images to the Western Palearctic Gulls group on Facebook to get opinions. The responses were mixed. Some very sharp larophiles (subjective - folks who enjoy Gulling no matter the torture ;-)) thought it was a Ring-billed Gull while others weighed in that it was a Common Gull. Further proof on how difficult this bird was to identify. 

2CY Ring-billed Gulls. Note the tail and rump in comparison to Common Gull

A discussion took place, Bruce Mactavish weighed in with all the reasons why this bird was a Common Gull. Sue Sull and Bruce Kerr argued for Ring-billed, citing variations. Alex Boldrini kept it simple by stating it was "certainly a Common Gull." In the end, there were more arguments for Common vs Ring-billed. Shane Blodgett, Brooklyn's Gulling maestro, re-found the bird and shared photos with a plus for Common Gull.

Common Gull Brooklyn NYC 12-7-2020

Common Gull Brooklyn NYC 12-7-2020

Common Gull Brooklyn NYC 12-7-2020

This gull was not easy to find and there were a number of misidentified images submitted in many eBird checklists. Shane Blodgett re-found it in 2021 - I was there - and later, the bird was found at Prospect Park lake by Doug Gochfeld where it was seen by many. Truly one of my best finds and to date, my best self found bird in Brooklyn NYC. This bird was dedicated to my cousin Anthony Appiah who passed away on the day I found this bird.

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