Using "non-snarky" in your subject line, suggests that other responses to this gull chart have been snarky. I don't think that anyone has been snarky. I'm all for pitching a 'big tent,' but I think it's also important to be a realist. I didn't go into as much detail as I might have in my original comments about this table, but I would like to address a couple of additional issues that in my mind are pretty significant.
The title of the chart is "Breeding Adult Identification Chart for Pacific Northwest Gulls." Only five of the 22 listed species nest within the bounds of what most folks consider the Pacific Northwest. Giving the author the benefit of the doubt, we can add in a number of other species (Mew, Herring, "Thayer's" Iceland, Glaucous, Heermann's, Bonaparte's, Sabine's and Black-legged Kittiwake) that can be found in Oregon, Washington or Idaho while in alternate adult plumages. That still leaves nine species, several of which are mega rarities in the region, on this list. If, as you suggest, the author was designing a "tool" to help folks who are trying to get their feet wet in the arena of gull ID, why would the list include species that one has virtually no chance of seeing in the region? It should also be pointed out that if one were fortunate enough to find one of these rarer gulls, the chances of it being in adult alternate (breeding) plumage are quite low.
The other issue is the over-simplified dichotomy of "white-head, white tail" vs "dark head, white tail."
Let's start with the white-headed adult gulls. Of those listed, only the Western Gull has a clean white head throughout the year. The rest all have some degree of gray, brown or dusky mottling or streaking on their heads outside of the breeding season, particularly from October-March (the months that most gull watching is done). During most of the year if someone new to gull ID is trying to find truly white-headed gulls they will be left to wonder where they all are. Granted, they have clean white heads on the breeding grounds, but that isn't when and where are seeing them generally speaking.
Then think about the dark-headed species. The most commonly encountered dark-headed gull found in Oregon–at least away from northern edge of the Great Basin–is Bonaparte's. I don't know about the rest of you, but I see one or two black-headed individuals for every 20 or so white-headed Bonaparte's Gulls that I encounter.
I know that it sounds all warm and fuzzy when we try tell folks that we have a tool to simplify complicated things, but setting them up for failure and frustration by endorsing a set of instructions that are incomplete and perhaps misleading is not really that helpful in my opinion.
Back in my youth, before birding completely consumed my life, I spent most of my waking hours on a golf course. By the time I was about 15 I was playing to a 4 or 5 handicap (averaging in the mid-70s for 18 holes). To get to that point, I invested a lot of time practicing and more importantly I spent a lot of time hanging around and playing against players who were a lot better at golf than I was. Some of them played on or went on to play on various professional tours. They either had more natural ability than I did, or they continued working at it longer than I did. I never once thought of them as having advantages that I didn't have, or begrudge them their success or skill levels. I don't play golf anymore, but I can still watch a golf tournament on TV and admire the effort that goes into getting to that level. I have some notion of what it takes. That said, if someone were to come to me and ask for help becoming a pro golfer, I would not think of handing them a set of golf clubs and a few videos of Tiger Woods hitting golf balls and tell them..."do this." I would encourage them to instead find a good teacher, someone with a track record of being a good golfer, and then play and practice with that person(s) as often as you can (as in every day).
Getting back to learning to ID gulls. If someone were to ask me for advice about learning to ID gulls, I would not hand them a pair of bins, a field guide, or this table and say go for it. I would encourage them to connect with other birders who are already gull ID experts and ask them if you might meet up with them to watch and study gulls and then go watch gulls as often as they can stand it. Back in the late 1970's and early 1980's I was a neophyte with gulls. I can't begin to count the hours that I spent at the old Sauvie Island pellet plant (referenced by Bob O'Brien) with Jeff Gilligan, David Fix and various others. Then I moved to Eugene in 1983 and spent many more hundreds of hours looking at gulls at the Short Mountain Dump and at the "gull rocks" in Springfield with Fix, Steve Heinl, and Tom Lund. In between all of this high adventure there were many more hours spent studying winter gulls gathered in coastal dairy pastures, at coastal dumps, and at creek mouths along the open beach. To this day, I still stop and linger with my scope and camera any time I find a nice assemblage of gulls. Thankfully, I am married to someone who loves to do the same. There is still more to learn.
Acquiring almost any skill and becoming proficient at it takes time, effort, persistence and a willingness to embrace and even enjoy the process. I know that some, if not most birders aren't going to be as enamored with learning gulls as I was and I would be the last one to insist that they should be. That said, I can't in good faith endorse the notion that there are short cuts or that something complicated and challenging is going to be made less complicated and less challenging by a particular key or field guide. I fully recognize that learning gulls may be more work than fun for many birders. That is okay. Birding should be FUN. I stopped playing golf when it became more like work than fun. When it stopped being fun, I stopped improving. I still seek out other birders who are more experienced or more skilled than I am and I continue to learn new things and build my skills. Most importantly, I still have more fun going birding than anything else I do.
Ironically, when I stop to think about those in this forum who occasionally suggest that my approach to birding is too much work, or take issue with my opinions on "what it takes," it occurs to me that they seem to be spending at least as much time out in the field as I do. Their accumulated knowledge and skill in the field would appear to have come from a quantity of practice time that rivals mine, so buyer beware when they try to suggest it will be easier for you. Frankly, I don't know any knowledgeable or skillful person who hasn't put considerable time and effort into the acquisition of the knowledge and skills that they possess.
From: <obol-bounce...> <obol-bounce...> on behalf of Mike Patterson <celata...>
Sent: Wednesday, November 1, 2017 1:07 AM
Subject: [obol] Re: Gull Chart (non-snarky response)
Now that I am able to actually look at the Infamous Gull Chart (thank
you Treesa), I will officially weigh in…
First, the blasphemy: Gull ID is not nearly as important as some folks
might want us all to believe. Depending on where one is standing at a
particular instant in time, the majority of gulls one would be looking
at will be one of maybe three or four species (plus or minus hybrids).
In a census, we shoot for 95%. Most of us don't need to be able to
identify every possible gull. Missing the Slaty-backed Gull DOES NOT
MATTER. Most folks interested in seeing a Slaty-backed or Black-headed
Gull would do better waiting for someone else to find it, given that the
alternative is sorting through gulls for hours on end over years and years.
There will always be gulls in a group that we cannot identify, no matter
how many gulls we’ve looked at over the years. The pretense that we can
identify every gull is just that, pretense. The real Zen in gull ID is
recognizing, first, that we cannot satisfactorily place a name tag on
every gull and, second, it does not matter whether we place a name tag
on every gull. What matters in birding is the answer to the question:
are we having fun, yet?
So, the gull chart – It IS useful, though the point made by Mr. Irons
about the importance of wing-tips is well taken. There is method in
starting with adults, in part because they are usually better
illustrated and easier to sort than juveniles. Because structure holds
from adults to juveniles, if one can get comfortable with adults, the
step into the more complex sub-adult morass can be more easily taken.
The chart could use some qualifiers, the most important being: how do we
know we are looking at an adult? I’m also not sure about the efficacy
of including some of the rarer species. This chart is (presumably) for
initiates, not “experts”. Including gull species with low frequency of
occurrence might be unnecessarily confusing to a novice.
This chart is intended to be a tool. Like all tools for identification,
it has its limitations and like all guides, is incomplete. It
represents a piece of the larger puzzle. It is not a solution. It will
not replace all our other field guides. It will not replace field work.
But I never turn down a new tool when offered, especially if it’s free.
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