Trip Report: Glaucous-winged Gulls in Seattle

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus Glaucescens) at Seattle Tacoma airport. 6 April 2013.

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus Glaucescens) at Seattle Tacoma airport. 6 April 2013.

On my way from Amsterdam to San Diego last week, I had a stopover of about 2 hours at Seattle Tacoma airport.

I arrived at around noon local time and after having had a bite to eat, I took up position behind one of the large glass windows to watch life at a foreign airport unfold in front of me.

Twenty minutes or so passed when something at the other side of the terminal caught my eye.

Gulls flying past!

Lifer

When visiting a far away country for the first time, that can only mean one thing: a new species to add to the life list (a “lifer” as it’s known in the birding world).

Two gulls flew by at low level, seemingly circling something lying on the tarmac. For a brief moment, one of them landed.

I needed to get over there quick so that I could get a good look at them.

While making my way over, I tried to remember the possible species that you could expect to see in the Seattle area. American Herring Gull? Glaucous Gull? Thayers Gull perhaps?

When I saw them from up close my brain immediately went into gull-scanning mode:

  • Size of the gulls: large
  • Plumage: adult
  • Mantle color: light grey
  • Bill color: yellow
  • Leg color: dark pink
  • Primary pattern: in flight I thought that the primary tips looked white (Glaucous Gull), but once one the ground it turned out that the outer primaries where a dark grey (not black)
  • Irises: dark

That could mean only one thing: Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens)!

And they were huge! They were bulky with a heavy bill. Gorgeous birds!

(Non-hybrid?) characteristics

Striking to see also were the dark-grey primaries (something which we in Europe are not accustomed to seeing: gulls over here have either black or white primaries), the bubble-gum pink legs and the broad white tertial crescent.

Although Glaucous-winged Gulls are known to hybridise extensively with Western Gull, Glaucous Gull and American Herring Gull, I believe these two individuals are pure Glaucous-winged Gulls.

Based on what I can find in the literature, hybrids can be characterised by a darker grey primary pattern which is less concolouros with the rest of the wing, as well as a darker shade of grey on the mantle, scapulars and upper wing feathers. I believe that the primary pattern of the gulls in my photos is faint enough for them not to be hybrids, but for those of you who have more experience with this species please correct me if I’m wrong.

Taking photos

It only took me a few seconds to get my camera out of my bag and get it set up and despite the dark conditions (light rain), the window that I had to photograph through, the relatively long distance (resulting in some heavy cropping) and the short amount of time that I was able to photograph them (4 minutes) I am very pleased with the way they came out.

Individual #1

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus Glaucescens) at Seattle Tacoma airport. 6 April 2013.

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus Glaucescens) at Seattle Tacoma airport, USA. 6 April 2013.

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus Glaucescens) at Seattle Tacoma airport. 6 April 2013.

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus Glaucescens) at Seattle Tacoma airport, USA. 6 April 2013.

Individual #2

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus Glaucescens) at Seattle Tacoma airport. 6 April 2013.

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus Glaucescens) at Seattle Tacoma airport, USA. 6 April 2013.

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus Glaucescens) at Seattle Tacoma airport. 6 April 2013.

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus Glaucescens) at Seattle Tacoma airport, USA. 6 April 2013.

Promising start

I’ve been wanting to see a Glaucous-winged Gull for quite some time so this sighting felt like my trip was off to a great start and was hopefully an omen of things to come?

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