This New Guide Finally Simplifies Gull IDs

By encouraging us to focus on the basics, veteran authors Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson strive to make gulls less intimidating.

No family of birds causes quite as much heartburn as gulls. Just as I might convince myself that a stray plastic bag is a Snowy Owl, I sometimes also hope that a gull is actually a plastic bag so I don’t have to try to key it out. Those birds really get in your head.  

But what is it that makes the gull family such a feared foe? It’s not their diversity; there are only about a dozen regularly expected gull species in any one place, far fewer than the beloved warblers or even the cryptic sparrows. And it’s not their lack of cooperation, either. While birders are often expected to come up with a passerine ID after little more than a brief glimpse through foliage, gulls are large birds that frequent open spaces and generally tolerate a human presence.

The difficulty, of course, lies in the details. Tons of tiny, important details. All gulls are built upon a basic template—a whitish body and a grayish back. So the identification of any one species hinges upon seeing and remembering all the minor deviations from that template. Every part of every bird is potentially important, and the line between a common resident and a rare vagrant can be as thin as bill shape or leg shade. And that isn’t even the half of it. Each species has several distinct plumages based on age; individuals of the same species can have tons of variation; and some species go so far as to hybridize. After all that, the flock of gulls in the parking lot becomes more of a cruel taunt than an ID exercise.

What I’m trying to say is, the family Laridae is ripe for the kind of deep analysis found in a dedicated field guide. There have been a few attempts at that over the years. The first, as far as I know, was P.J. Grant’s Gulls: A Guide to Identification, published in 1982. It provided an extensive introduction to the breadth of gull plumages, many of which were not illustrated in the general field guides of the time. It’s a well-loved book, but its black-and-white photographs left much to be desired, even with largely monochromatic species. Steve Howell and Jon Dunn’s massive 2007 Gulls of the Americas was a huge step forward, featuring more than 1,100 color photographs of gulls (and hybrids) in all plumages, though it eventually became as famous for the high prices it commanded on the resale market as it did for its identification assistance.

There were other popular entries such as Malling Olsen and Larson’s Gulls of Europe, Asia, and North America, but no clear favorite guide for American species. Part of the problem, I think, was that the strategy of overloading gull guides with images and text was just too much for birders to digest.

Enter Gulls Simplified, a new guide from two New Jersey-based power birders, Pete Dunne, former director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and Kevin Karlson, a trusted photographer and author. It’s a thin, portable title that focuses more on teaching you expected gulls for your area rather than priming you for vagrants and rarities. The idea here is to encourage birders to dare themselves to learn gull IDs by trying to give them less to worry about. Don’t dwell on all the plumage cycles. Don’t worry about finding a Code-5 species. Don’t study every possible feather combination for every season. Simplify.

First, simplify by just worrying about the expected gulls at a location. In southern Maine, where I live, there are only three large gull species I should be seeing at any one time: Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed. Dunne and Karlson recommend learning those three species—I repeat, just three—instead of concerning myself with the details of unlikely specimens like Yellow-footed Gull or Slaty-backed Gull. This basic birding philosophy makes the whole ID process less daunting and easier to manage. Plus, by knowing the common species, I’ll be better able to single out any outlier birds.

Simplify further by focusing less on variable (and sometimes unreliable) plumage details and more on structure and posture, as is common for other difficult groups like flycatchers and shorebirds. Herring Gulls have a “pulled-taffy” look to their faces (the authors’ Jersey-boardwalk roots are palpable), and California Gulls’ short legs and angled wings give the appearance that they’re slouching.

The approach works swimmingly overall. No gull guide can avoid getting into the weeds with species-identification tips; but the ample photos in this one are bright and clear, and the text avoids self-seriousness. For instance, one of Ring-billed Gull ID tips is to look for the bird “standing in the parking lot with the sesame-seed bun in its mouth.” Not wrong. Gulls Simplified is another step forward for Laridae-centric guides, though the fear of identifying the tricky family will never completely disappear. They’re just that intimidating. If all else fails, this book at least has a soft-cover binding, which inflicts less damage when hurled across the room in a gull-induced fit. Good luck.

Gulls Simplified: A Comparative Approach to Identification, by Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson, 208 pages, $24.95. Buy it at Princeton University Press.