Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Gulls are found nearly everywhere, from their usual haunts on the shorelines of oceans, lakes and rivers, to newly tilled fields, garbage dumps and sewage treatment plants. Due to their ubiquity, they are popular among birdwatchers, but gulls are often challenging to identify because they can take up to four years to mature, and they have different plumages each year. They also have seasonal differences and individual variations in plumage as well. Further, considering that, for most people, one “seagull” looks just like all the others, identifying gull species is probably the quickest and most effective way to separate “the men from the boys” in the birdwatching crowd; the “men” being either men or women who possess a deep knowledge of the art of gull identification. In an effort to help birders gain and refine this seemingly elusive skill, a new reference guide has recently been published. This book, Peterson Reference Guides: Gulls of the Americas by Steve N. G. Howell and Jon Dunn (NYC: Houghton-Mifflin, 2007), covers in meticulous detail how to identify the thirty-six species of gulls that occur throughout North and South America.


Yet, even as they set out to teach their readers how to identify gulls, Howell and Dunn are quick to caution their audience thusly;

Gull identification involves a perpetual learning curve: The proportion of unidentifable gulls never reaches zero. Once you accept this limitation, gull watching should become easier.

The first 46 pages of this excellent resource outlines a study guide for learning how to identify gull species, common gull hybrids and unusual color variants. It begins by simply dividing the species into well-defined groups based on their basic appearance; either ternlike or typical gulls. These two groups are then subdivided further into smaller easy-to-memorize categories. Howell and Dunn then provide several increasingly detailed gull topography guides that are labeled with specific anatomic terms used in the written descriptions found in the last third of the book. Additionally, the authors also include a Kodak grey scale ranking for the upperparts of adult gulls, based on museum specimens; they rely on the Humphrey-Parkes (H-P) system for naming the various molts and plumage types, referring to a gull’s particular “plumage cycle” instead of its age, and they include a table describing the moult strategies for these gull species. At the end of the Introduction, the authors reinforce all these concepts by walking the reader through a detailed examination of the Western gull using these methods.

Immediately following the Introduction are the photographs; thousands of color photographs fill nearly 300 pages — more than half of the entire book. Each page contains between four and five color photographs devoted to each of the 36 species, depicting breeding and nonbreeding adults, along with all the different plumage cycles for immature birds. Predictably, the birds are in different poses and lighting conditions, which affects how dark they appear to the observer. Howell and Dunn include a descriptive caption for each image, listing important identification points for that image, and sometimes noting how the quality of the lighting has altered the appearance of the birds. Additionally, the authors include pictures with several species standing next to each other so the reader can easily compare them. Interestingly, the authors also have photos of putative hybrid gulls that might provoke a few arguments as to their true parentage among gull afficionados.

It should be noted that I have always preferred bird field guides that rely on paintings rather than photographs because illustrations emphasize identification points that are often obscured in photographs. However, the strength of this book lies in the sheer number of typically high-quality pictures, although I thought some images were a little dark or “fuzzy”, making it difficult to see the subjects in clear detail. But it is difficult to know whether this is an issue with the publication process itself or if it is just my copy.

The last third of the book (pages 301-492) is filled with accounts of each species, including taxonomy and geographic range maps, as well as a written description of the many plumage patterns or “cycles” that each species exhibits as they mature and throughout the seasons. They also have a section that mentions any reported hybrids.

A common complaint that many birders have about new field guides are the lack of accuracy or mistakes in the range maps and, predictably, there have been some complaints about the range maps in this book. Basically, the range maps in this book are a generalization as to where each species can be found at various times of the year, but as such, they do unfortunately miss some important areas where some species occur. For example; perhaps the most egregious error is that laughing gulls are not shown to occur in Tennessee even though they are actually regular visitors there in small numbers, according to a birder from the area. But this range map issue is of minor significance (in my opinion) and should not detract from the overall scholarship of the book. Further, and even though some birders might yell at me for this, I always take range maps “with a grain of salt” for this reason, and also because at least some bird species appear to shift portions of their ranges as climate and environment are altered.

This book also includes a glossary and a full bibliography, which is useful for those of you who enjoy exploring the primary literature.

I think this book compares very favorably to my other gull guide; PJ Grant’s 1982 book, Gulls: A Guide to Identification. First, Grant’s book focused on the gulls of the Western Palearctic and the east coast of North America, instead of those in the Western Hemisphere, which made Grant’s book necessarily less detailed. Additionally, even though I loved the artwork in Grant’s book, I thought there weren’t enough pictures showing the detail of each plumage cycle and further, Grant’s book included a lot of black-and-white images of varying quality and sizes — a true disappointment.

Keep in mind that this is not a field guide, so you will find it to be both heavy and unwieldy as well as frustrating to quickly page through if you plan to drag it along on a field trip. However, if you plan to spend a day hanging out at one location where you can carefully examine and identify gulls for hours at a time, then this is the book for you. Additionally, this book is a superb reference against which to compare your field notes and drawings at the end of a day, to use as a classroom text or a personal study guide as you work your way through learning how to identify each species of gull in depth. I am pleased to note that this book looks as though it is part of an ongoing series of Peterson Reference Guides that Houghton-Mifflin plans to publish — if so, I am very eager to read and review new additions to this series as they are published.

This gorgeous hardback book is printed on heavy, high-quality glossy paper, so you might think it is too expensive to add to your collection, but you’d be wrong. This lovely book is a steal at $23.10 from Amazon. More than just a field guide, this large and ambitious volume is the definitive reference work on gulls of the Americas — I recommend it highly.

Steve N. G. Howell has written more than six books and two hundred papers and book reviews on birds, including Hummingbirds of North America, A Bird-finding Guide to Mexico, and A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. He has been affiliated with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory for twenty years and is currently a senior birding tour leader for WINGS, Inc.

Jon Dunn is the author of the Peterson Field Guide to Warblers and chief consultant for all five editions of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Along with Kimball Garrett, he co-authored Birds of Southern Clifornia: Status and Distribution and the Peterson Guide to Warblers of North America (all of which I own and have read/used). He has been a long-serving member of the California Bird Records COmmittee and the ABA Checklist Committee and presently is a member of the AOU’s Committee on Classification and Nomenclature. Dunn has been a leader for the popular bird tour company, WINGS, Inc., for nearly thirty years. He currently resides in Bishop, California.

Comments

  1. #1 cfrost
    June 29, 2007

    OK, I’m getting this sucker.

    Right away I’m thinking of: 1 – Heerman’s gulls (the one illustrated on the cover) that I’ve seen plucking the fish right out of brown pelican’s beaks while they are immobilized, pumping the water out of their beak sacs. The gulls even have the temerity to perch right on top of the poor pelican’s heads!

    2 – The sight of a group of gulls attempting, one by one, to swallow a three-foot long dead lamprey. Each one would get about ten inches or so down, stand there awhile with the lamprey hanging out of it’s beak, stupidly contemplating it’s next move, then back away, lamprey sliding out and flopping down on the sand.

    3 – The spooky, nocturnal swallow-tailed gulls, that hang around drifting fishing boats at night in the Eastern tropical Pacific, plucking pelagic crabs and squid from the surface where the boat’s lights fade into darkness.

  2. #2 Jerzy Dyczkowski
    July 5, 2007

    Why buy this book instead of Olsen gull book of North America and Eurasia? Olsen has more species and exclusively South American gulls are few and easy to identify.

  3. #3 Chris' Wills
    July 5, 2007

    Well if I wanted European gulls I’ld go for

    Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa: The Birds of the Western Palearctic: Waders to Gulls Vol 3.
    At $US150 it is rather expensive but it is a definitive work.

    From what Grrl has said Petersons Guide is probably more useful for twitchers in the Americas and is reasonably priced. Olsen’s excellent book costs around $US80 if you can get hold of it.

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