Mew Gull

January 17th, 2020: A snowy week in Vancouver

We’ve still got around 8 inches of snow on the ground in Vancouver. So no one is really going anywhere or doing much. Perhaps a tad embarrassing for a supposedly Canadian city… It was suddenly sunny today though, and most of the roads and walkways are clear now.

So out I went to run some errands. I really just walked around town, keeping eyes and ears out for what was still active in this particularly wintry weather.

You might be surprised to hear that the hummingbirds are still around. We have a resident population of Anna’s Hummingbird that does not migrate because Vancouverites put out lots of hummingbird feeders…and because it’s usually not this cold! Some of them have indeed been in some peril, with some rescuing needed. (You can read about this current issue in Vancouver here.) But if you’ve got a feeder up and some hummers in your yard, just make sure you the water from freezing and keep them fed!

The usual winter birds are around too. In the more residential area of my walk, I came across Bushtit, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, and of course Northwestern Crow. Didn’t come across any House Sparrow, House Finch, or American Goldfinch today though.

As I walked over Cambie bridge and across False Creek (it’s a particularly sneaky inlet), I passed above some of the usual city water birds. Glaucous-winged Gull, Mew Gull, Pelagic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, and Mallard flew or swam below me on this beautiful, sunny day.

Looking northeast along False Creek from the Cambie bridge
Looking northeast along False Creek from the Cambie bridge

Mew Gulls are around pretty much all year in Vancouver, albeit with a drop in numbers in the summer. They’re much smaller than our giant Glaucous-winged Gull (especially the ones that steal French fries at Granville Island all day). But the Mews aren’t quite our smallest. That title goes to Bonaparte’s Gull.

A Bonaparte's Gull surrounded by Mew Gulls
A Bonaparte’s Gull surrounded by larger Mew Gulls

I haven’t written much about gulls, so I’ll just give a quick run-down. Many people find gulls rather boring, like LBJs only bigger and white/gray. So here’s a list of what we get in Vancouver, roughly descending in size (with parentheses around the less common birds that are nevertheless around). We’ve got Glaucous-winged Gull, (Western Gull), Herring Gull, California Gull, Iceland Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Mew Gull, and Bonaparte’s Gull. And that’s not including the vagrant Glaucous, Black-headed, Franklin’s, and Slaty-backed Gulls that show up from time to time!

A California Gull surrounded by smaller Mew Gulls
A California Gull surrounded by smaller Mew Gulls
Heermann's Gulls and Mew Gulls
Heermann’s Gulls and Mew Gulls

With their small size, light gray mantle, black and white wing tips, and small, dainty bill, Mew Gulls are pretty easy to separate from the pack. But it can be challenging to separate Mew Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls in flight.

So let’s talk about “windows.” In the photo below, you can see the white “window” in the adult Mew Gull’s otherwise black-tipped primaries. Even looking only at the very tip of the wing, there’s clearly no trouble separating the Mew Gull from the Heermann’s Gulls (they have no windows at the tips at all).

"Window" in Mew Gull wing tips
“Window” in adult Mew Gull wing tips

Now take a look at the adult Ring-billed Gull below. It’s a slightly larger gull, but still has a light gray mantle, and black and white wing tips. See the difference? No window! There’s still a beautiful black-and-white pattern at the tips of the primaries. But at a distance, this looks more or less black with a bit of white, whereas the Mew Gull’s white window will still be visible. (Younger birds don’t have this clear field mark, but I’ll save a more detailed look at gull plumages for another post.)

Adult Ring-billed Gull in flight
Adult Ring-billed Gull in flight

So why should you care that it’s a Mew Gull and not a Ring-billed Gull? Well, first of all, you’re a birder! But Mew Gulls are cool birds! They breed across a wide area of Alaska and the Yukon and Northwest Territories. And they nest in trees as well as on the ground, while other white-headed gulls (i.e. not Bonaparte’s and Franklin’s) nest only on the ground. They’re also a kind of flagship gull of the west coast, only appearing rarely out east. I most often see them fluttering above the water, using their feet to pick up food from the surface. Gulls also live a good long time–compared to the average passerine, for example–and are known to live at least 20 years.

So next time you’re out, keep an eye on those gulls. This is a reminder to me too: Mew Gulls are so common here that I’ve never bothered to set up a good photo!

For now, I’m going to try to enjoy this unusual Vancouver weather out my back window…

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