In mid-March, I noticed a large, strange immature gull among a small group of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls at East Beach, Galveston gathered around a fish carcass. My first impression was that this gull had a more rounded head and relatively shorter bill than the Herring Gulls, and also tended to hold its head in a more upright posture. Tips of primaries and the tail feathers were a dark chocolate brown, rather than black. The pale yellow-gray eyes also caught my attention.
This odd gull, on the small end of the size range of typical Herring Gulls (and much larger than the Ring-billed Gulls), also acted differently from the other birds. This seemingly out-of-place gull was more curious and less suspicious than the others, slowing circling in the water as it waited for me to leave. At one point, the bird flew off, only to return a short time later. Suspecting a possible rarity, but not knowing precisely what I might have, I snapped a few images of the bird in a variety of postures for future study and moved on, leaving the birds to their breakfast.
The Thayer’s Gull is a puzzling species. These gulls are reported rarely from the Texas Gulf Coast (and much of the eastern U.S.) during winter and early spring, although they breed in the high arctic and winter mostly on the Pacific Coast from Baja to Alaska. The winter movements of these birds are poorly understood. What are these vagrants after? Is it mere wanderlust?
Likewise problematic is the taxonomic status of the Thayer’s Gull: some authorities consider it a separate species, although others consider it a subspecies of the Iceland Gull. Because of wide individual variation, birds of this species are notoriously difficult to identify by birders (especially in areas these birds rarely frequent!) and professional ornithologists alike, disagreements over the identity of specific birds being common. Identification puzzlements are further complicated by the existence of hybridization of Thayer’s with Herring and Iceland Gulls. My suspicion is that the bird in question is a second winter Thayer’s Gull, or possibly a hybrid, but I happily invite comments from readers about the possible identity of the bird shown in these photos.
Is there something we have forgotten? Some precious thing we have lost, wandering in strange lands?—Arna Bontemps
©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.