Early last week the gulls started arriving in Arctic Bay. Standing on our deck I could hear their cries, and saw the odd one flying near the powerhouse. One of my spies (thanks Adam) let me know that there were several down by the ocean at his end of town. But it took me until this week before I got out to have a look.
You most commonly hear most of our common gulls (Glaucous, Thayers and Iceland) called Nauja in Inuktitut with little distinction between the different species. That is really no different than most people who lump all gulls into the ubiquitous "sea gulls". But we do have several distinct species here and I decided I had better go have a look to see just what had arrived.
So Friday, Ms Hilary and I hopped in the truck and took a drive to see what we could see. Driving through town I could see several Glaucous Gulls out on the sea ice but as I expected I found the bulk of the gulls down by the shore below the area of the dump. There were a couple of hundred gulls there, so I spent some time glassing them. Glaucous Gulls are generally the first to arrive here in town and try as I might to pick out another species I couldn't all of these gulls were Glaucous.
Oh, it's not like I didn't try to turn a couple of the smaller Glaucous Gulls into Iceland Gulls. I had pretty much convinced myself that one was. But at the end of the day I pretty much had to admit that although the bird itself was somewhat smaller than average (likely a female), there was no difference in bill proportion and that all the birds (or at least all I could pick out) were Glaucous Gulls.
The next day, however, I returned with the whole family to look at the growing throng of gulls. And there were definitely several Iceland Gulls amongst them. I wish that I had a better camera as there was a very co-operative Iceland Gull standing next to a Glaucous Gull perfectly illustrating the differences between the two. And just what are those differences? In general the Iceland Gull is a smaller bird, but that isn't that apparent unless the two are together. The bill of the Iceland Gull is smaller in proportion to the head, and its wing tips project slightly farther past the tail. The orbital ring on the Iceland gull tends to be redder than that of the Glaucous Gull. Other than that they are pretty much identically coloured.
Gulls are always challenging to identify and that is further complicated by hybrids and the many plumages that they transition through, in addition there can be much variation amongst individuals. Recent DNA evidence has shown that several species are actually genetically identical and that many of the birds that we think of as being seperate should perhaps be thought of more as subspecies, even though they are superficially quite different.
That is one of the things I love about gulls, the identification challenges they pose (and I tend to restrict myself to adult birds). But whatever those challenges are, their arrival here marks another sign that spring is progressing. Soon Thayer's Gulls will arrive, and then it will be more small passerines and shorebirds. Ah Spring.