The Gift of Gull Identification

A few weeks before Christmas 2006 I was at a loss for an appropriate gift for my dad. Thankfully, a discussion among my kids about some long-forgotten event provided the inspiration. They were recalling minute details about a family vacation we made when they were little. I could barely remember events, which had obviously been very important for them.

It occurred to me that perhaps similar events or activities with my dad had been far more significant life lessons than he might have realized. Thus, I wrote a series of short vignettes entitled: “The Gifts You May Not Know You Gave Me.” None of these came with wrapping paper or had a price tag. Some produced intended results, while others had indirect results neither of us could have ever anticipated. The ripple effects from these activities shared long ago continue to resonate in my life to this very moment as I write these words and think about the two of us doing things together. Merry Christmas Dad.

The Gift of Gull Identification

Shortly after moving to Oregon, we started covering the Eastmoreland, Westmoreland and Sellwood area on the Portland Christmas Bird Count. Coming from Indiana, one of the initial birding challenges you encountered was familiarizing yourself with all the gull species that occurred in our count area. Glaucous-winged, California, and Mew Gulls were birds you did not know from the Midwest. Then in 1973 they split Thayer’s from Herring and suddenly we needed to learn the subtleties of separating those species as well. Most birders never take the time or make the effort to learn the subtle field marks one needs to know in order to ID gulls. However, you embraced this challenge and I can remember spending hours at your side scoping the gull flocks at Westmoreland Park and Eastmoreland Golf Course in an effort to sort them out by age and species. In short order you became very adept at gull ID and though I wasn’t yet a teenager, you taught me as well.

This adult Thayer’s Gull was photographed 1 December, 2008 at Boiler Bay State Park on the central Oregon coast. (photo by Dave Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8)

When I became a more serious birder in my late teens, I quickly realized that very few birders knew gulls well. When I participated on other Christmas Counts, I paid particular attention to finding all the expected gull species knowing several species might be otherwise missed by those who simply report “gull species” on their tally sheets. Over time I spent many hours at various dumps and other gull gathering places with David Fix, Jeff Gilligan, Mark Koninendyke, Tom Lund, Steve Heinl and others as we honed our proficiency at ageing and identifying gulls. I also applied this approach to other tough to ID species groups like Empidonax flycatchers, juvenile shorebirds, female ducks, and immature sparrows. You taught me how to look past the obvious similarities in order to pick out the subtle diagnostic differences. Along with plumage and structural differences, you also emphasized the importance of looking for behavioral clues (i.e. flight style or feeding methods) that might provide a clue to a bird’s identity.

Over the years I’ve continually built on these skills and taught many others how to use them as well. Lessons instilled long ago have helped me develop a reputation as one of Oregon’s best birders and opened doors to many opportunities including; serving on the Oregon Bird Records Committee, being a regional editor for North American Birds, publishing bird ID articles, designing and managing a migratory bird-monitoring project for the City of Eugene (got paid), and teaching the bird ID class at Lane Community College (got paid again). The friendships, activities, and travels that have come from birding have enriched my life immeasurably, and it all started with parents who showed the way. I can only hope that experiences I’ve shared with my three kids bring similar joy to their lives.


Sweet. And I recall many of those gull flocks venues we looked at, hazarding tentative IDs of stuff like Glaucous-winged X Herring before that pseudotaxon was on the radar—-ooh, SpelChek doesn’t like “pseudotaxon.” Tough nuggies. Keep it coming, Mr. Irons.

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