Mystery Bird: Mediterranean Gull, Ichthyaetus melanocephalus

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[Mystery bird] Mediterranean Gull, Ichthyaetus [Larus] melanocephalus, stretching her wings. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]
Image: Rick Wright [larger view].

Two hints: (1) this is not a North American species, and (2) it’s not a sandpiper.
Read Rick’s analysis for identifying this species below ..


Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
There’s little doubt that we’re on the coast again, but this bird of the shore is not — to our relief — a shorebird. The gray-and-white plumage, stout but rather long tarsi, and hooked bill make it a gull.
I moved to the desert southwest to get away from gulls.
This one, happily, is among the most beautiful, and among the easiest to identify, of the whole maddening group. Because gulls often allow such close approach, it’s useful to start with size: this is neither a huge, hulking, frightening bird nor an especially dainty one. In this extravagant pose, structure is hard to assess, but we do notice that the head is proportionately large and seems bulky and angular; the forehead is well defined, imparting none of the “snouty” impression that some gulls give.
Close attention to that head is really all we need to identify this bird. The bill is a lovely coral red with an obvious black ring; it is a thick, powerful-looking bill, its depth at the base much greater than the diameter of the eye. And what about the eye? The iris is dark, unlike the cold staring glare of so many adult gulls. There is a dark smudge in front of the eye, and the back of auriculars is marked by a poorly defined dark spot.
As most of you figured out right away, this is a Mediterranean Gull, Ichthyaetus [olim Larus] melanocephalus. As its scientific epithet suggests, this species has an extensive black hood in breeding plumage, reduced in winter to an eye smudge and ear spot. The mantle and wings are very pale, adults showing just a fine black leading edge to the outermost primary; on this bird, the just visible outermost primary of the left wing is still growing, and shows the dark markings of a non-adult.
This bird cannot be sexed visually. [GrrlScientist note: I like using the female pronoun for birds when the sex is not known.]
Mediterranean Gull is not a North American species — yet. Just a couple of decades ago this was still a southern European specialty, but is population and breeding range have increased massively, such that it is now a familiar sight even on the coast of Wales, where this photo was taken. It’s only a matter of time, and not much time at that, until one shows up in eastern North America . Be alert!
Review all mystery birds to date.

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About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Mystery Bird: Mediterranean Gull, Ichthyaetus melanocephalus

  1. Tayler says:

    How about a Mediterranean Gull?

  2. aedis says:

    What a photo!
    Gives as little away as possible.
    Its a gull. No white leading edge on wing aka Black-headed Gull, no obvious mirrors aka Silver Gull. Perhaps a hint of black at the end of primaries?
    Red heavy bill. Trace of black hood?
    Mediterranean Gull.
    I’ve talked myself into it!

  3. bobk says:

    Iceland Gull (Kumlien’s).
    Well call me an academic and no this is not an Ivory Gull. It took a bit of reading (Sibley’s field guide pp 219 and Kaufman’s Lives of North American Birds pp244) but it turns out that the Iceland Gull which occurs in Canada (therefore North America) has a white-winged form which is found in Greenland.
    I was able to see four characteristics aside from the obvious white under parts: red/orange bill, red/black feet, very light grey on the upper wings and perhaps most distinctive, a single black feather on the higher wing (primary feather) and a hint of black outlining the lower wings. The Ivory has black feet, a yellowish bill and no black primaries so no to Ivory.
    Sibley states that “true Iceland populations nesting in Greenland…average smaller and paler than Kumlien’s” – the variety found in Canada with “very little gray on (non-breading) primaries”. Kaufman states “the typical white-winged form nests only in Greenland, while the ‘Kumlien’s form, with gray in the wingtips, nests in northwestern Canada”.
    Conundrum: This bird has some black in the primaries (look closely) but Rick say’s it’s not a North American species.
    Or, I could be all wrong and the black is just a shadow. I have wasted more time on shadows than I care to recall.

  4. bobk says:

    Update – 4:50 PM, Desert southwest:
    Mediterranean Gull.
    OK, I just looked up Mediterranean Gull on the internet (I have no international field guides) and that red bill convinced me.
    Now I remember why I stopped trying to ID gulls and international birds. The gulls have such great variation with age that, even if you can get a close stationary view with a field guide in hand, you will probably be left unsure of what you are looking at. I at least need to start by knowing what’s possible for the area.
    International birds are difficult for another reason. There are about one thousand species occurring in North America. But there are about ten thousand worldwide. That’s a daunting number. However, I do feel obligated to know the English birds – the brits have such an expressive birding language and long standing culture that I look forward to going there. Also, Australia sounds like a fun place to go, and, I think it would just be very cool to bird Japan. But the Mediterranean? Sounds awfully stogy for a sport as dynamic as bird watching. Don’t you think?

  5. aedis says:

    bobk,
    Be careful if you want to go birding in the Med. Various countries around there have a tradition of shooting songbirds.
    A friend of mine went to Malta – the reserve was like a high security site and he had to first convince the Maltese ornithologists that he was a genuine birder before they let him in.
    There were virtually no other birds on the island. Every other bird there was shot to bits!
    Its such a pity as otherwise the Med would be a fantastic place for birding as its bang in a main migration route.
    Read Fatal Flight by Natalino Fenech for a taste.
    Britain is a cool place for birding given its an island. Expressive birding language – when we refer to a bird’s jizz it means General Impression and Shape, not anything else! Its an attempt to ID the bird by its character.

  6. Rick Wright says:

    But bobk, there are only 50-some gull species in the world (a convenient list [PDF]), and they are famous as vagrants and colonizers, so better be prepared!
    They can indeed be hard to identify, and I’m not very good at them, but with Howell and Dunn, Malling Olsen, Grant, and Dwight on our side, we’ve got a fighting chance, don’t you think?
    And as to the Mediterranean–well, really! Provence is one of my favorite birding areas in the world.
    r

  7. aedis says:

    I love trying to ID gulls; they’re one of my favourite groups.
    But the Herring Gull group is pretty much a nightmare what with Vega Gull and Steppe Gull in amongst Armenian Gull and Yellow-legged Gull and Caspian Gulls. Not to mention the Lesser Black Backed group with Baltic Gull. Or is it just me that thinks that?
    But you’re right, there’s a lot better info now than previously.
    Due to global warming there’s a good chance of picking up Med Gull in Britain anyway! I have!

  8. Tom says:

    Bonaparte’s Gull

  9. Ian says:

    That’s obviously a bower bird – can’t you see it bowing?