The Gull Dilemma

Without a doubt, gulls are probably the most frustrating thing to identify. And the situation is different for every single place you bird. In Washington, Western and Glaucous-winged Gulls don’t exist, Iceland Gulls make everyone cry in Maine and we won’t even go into whether it’s a hybrid or not.

So much doubt and confusion is the reason why I believe there’s still 12,000 unidentified Larus observations on iNat. Sometimes, I wonder if most identifiers are like… Annotation 2020-02-14 164507

What are your predicaments in gull identification? What species/hybrids/whatever make you wonder why you’re still photographing/identifying gulls? Let’s see how fun we have from this.


Probably kinda off-topic, but my life will never feel complete until I see a breeding adult Sabine’s gull


Being from Washington, its true what you say. Most of the gulls you will find are all Olympic hybrids, I find glaucous wings to be more common then westerns unless you are on the coast. But they are still relatively difficult to find being a non hybrid to a degree.
Dont even get me started with Thayer’s gulls, I am still confused by them and how to identify them at ALL. As much as I love gulls, identifying them can really be a pain.

Edit: I didnt mean to make this a reply specifically linked to you, @neontetraploid, sorry!

I’ve seen one!

I wouldn’t be satisfied at that view hahaha

Especially over the fact if I hadn’t gotten those flight shots, someone would surely question me on why it wasn’t Franklin’s or Bonaparte’s.

That’s how I deal with them.)
Though we have less poblems than US, in Moscow you need to decide between argentatus, cachinnans and their hybrids with possible heuglini and other fuscus-like birds. In Crimea it’s michahellis and cachinnans. Completely different problems in Middle East, Asia and Siberia.


12,000 unidentified gulls sounds appropriate to me! Unless a bird fits a particular species profile pretty well, I think it should be left unidentified. I have followed these discussions, first on the ID-Frontiers listserv and in recent years on the various Facebook groups, and grappled with the West Coast hybrid issues when I lived in California. I’m a molecular biologist and geneticist, as well as a birder, and I cringe at the confidence by which some identify the various hybrids. I have two main problems with this:

  1. We don’t really have enough information on what the various hybrid combinations look like at various ages. To get this data would require either (i) color-banding offspring in nests of mixed breeding pairs and then following the development of the hybrid offspring’s plumage, or (ii) genotyping suspected hybrids so that plumage characteristics can be associated with known hybrid genotype. For the most part, this just hasn’t been done. For hybrids like Western x Glaucous-winged on the U.S. West Coast, these are so common (indeed, often outnumbering “pure” examples of the parent species) that assigning birds with mixed characteristics as “Olympic” Gulls has a high probably of being correct. But for the less frequently encountered hybrid combinations (Cook Inlet, Seward, Appledore etc), or birds out of range, how confident can we actually be in reality? Without hard empirical data on what the plumages of birds with known hybrid genotypes actually look like at various ages, not very. Not a popular opinion, I know, but I think that’s the cold hard reality

  2. The other problem I have with identifying hybrids is, what does it actually mean to identify a particular individual as a “hybrid”? Do we mean it’s an F1 hybrid produced by the pairing of “pure” parents? Is it an F2? Is it a backcross between an F1 and a “pure” parent of one of the original species? F1 x F2? Again, we have no idea! It’s potentially a genetic mess out there. And there simply isn’t the data available, matching phenotype with hybrid genotype, for us to know. We’ve set up these designations for the various hybrids - “Olympic”, “Seward”, “Cook Inlet”, “Viking” - sounds good, but what do we actually mean? F1? Or are these just a grab bag for anything that looks intermediate (it should be the latter, if we use them at all). Giving them names is cute, but for me it sort of implies that these beasts are something better defined than they really are.

I know this is unpopular because it’s ingrained to put a name to everything we see and leave no bird unidentified, but if we want to maintain the scientific integrity of gull identification, I really think the vast majority of these gulls SHOULD be let unidentified, or the identification should be left as PUTATIVE species A x species B, at best, until we have better information.

Sorry if that sounded a bit rant-y! :rofl:


No I get you. I just had a bunch of gull ids pushed back to genus. Examples being, I had a very close Thayer’s/Herring the other day and I submitted the photos via app and some birders came in an explained it was indeed Herring. Yet the sighting was backed up to genus because you couldn’t see the primaries. A trip later, I got a photo of what I tentatively called a 2nd Cycle Thayer’s due to Herring-like structure and coloration but the primaries where only edged in black. That identifier pushed it back to genus saying it’s “probably an Olympic”. So If I’m that far off…

Btw, I made another thread that focuses on a more serious topic of hybrids that you might enjoy to comment on.

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I don’t even touch gulls. Like most raptors, they are shape shifters. Who knows what any gull is - I don’t think the experts know! I’m reminded about Paul Theroux’s book, “The Mosquito Coast”. The main character maintains that there are parts of the Bible which have never been read. I think there are gull combinations that have never been seen! Give me a good old moth with 18 morps, and I’m happy.


wow, okay, i feel so much better about not understanding gulls now!


Really? Raptors are easy! Or at least I’ve never had a problem with them.

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Actually, you are mostly correct. My main problem is lack of practice - they are sparse in Manitoba, and absent in the winter (which lasts about 18 months). I just don’t see enough of them to be able to feel confident.

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Have you ever tried to id Aquila from distant shots?.)


I think for raptors, its the amount of morphs for some species, like red tailed hawks. They can be a little confusing by their looks.


Yes because my continent has only one species of Aquila. :laughing:

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I’ll look at an enormous flock of gulls and debate even taking pictures of them, because I know I’ll probably never be able to ID them… and then when I inevitably decide to photograph them anyway, I take “individual portraits” of 50 different gulls because I can’t decided if that’s a different species, a juvenile, a weird shadow on the feather, etc. Then they all end up being the same species…


What I hate is how eastern Washington is pretty easy. So every time I see something unusual, I think it’s a Thayer’s but it always turns out to be another odd Cal or Herring.

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Glad I live in Maryland away from coast - we get some odd gulls reported but most of places I frequent have herring, laughing in growing season, ring-billed and great black-backed and in season occasional bonapartes- there are some gull hotspots - landfills, dams where folks find other species and lesser blackbacks are almost a guarantee on coastal areas but generally I dont find rareties and don;t chase rare birds - just like to find what I find - that being said i still find myself on some days particularly cloudy days completely baffled by flying gulls and even sitting gulls through binocs that as other have said seem to look bigger or smaller than others that you confirm as absolutely the same species through the scope- the difference in head shape and bill size and shape is absolutely real between what should be easy species like herring and ringbill but i will readily admit I even get confused by those at times - but I do look -want to be able to make consistent immediate id someday so keep plugging with it but rarely have to endure what some of you are describing!

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Thanks for posting that link I saw the project and it is exactly the sort of project that I join.