The lumping of the gulls

For any of you who have looked through a flock of gulls and thought it was hopeless to pick out the different species, you are in luck. Scientists have just released their findings in the UK journal Molecular Ecology Notes regarding DNA barcodes for bird species in North America. They found that most of the large, white-headed gulls (California, Herring, Iceland, Lesser Black-backed, Western, Glaucous-winged, and Glaucous Gulls) share 99.8% of their DNA. Although there is no official percentage that endows a bird with its own species name, these gulls show a high percentage of similarity, enough that the researches lumped them all into one group.

This would greatly simplify the issue and birders would only have to worry about separating Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. The idea that they are all the same species is difficult for me and many others to believe. There are problems with the DNA barcode method because it does not look at the whole DNA sequence, but just one particular area. Despite this, it is still an interesting study and helps us feel better for having such problems ID’ing these birds.

I have seen all of these gulls and photographed them as well so I give you 4 to ponder. You tell me if you think this is acceptable variation for one species.

Kumlien's Iceland Gull Lesser Black-backed Gull

Herring Gull Glaucous Gull
clockwise from top right:L. Black-backed Gull, Glaucous Gull, Herring Gull and Iceland Gull.


I and the Bird #42

The newest I and the Bird is out, featuring a voyage with Darwin as the the Neurophilosopher goes through the top birding blogs of the last two weeks at Neurophilosophy. It is a great journey covering four continents (I think I counted right) and many countries.

Clever crow

Here is a neat video showing tool use by a clever crow.

The Ballet of the Shorties

Short-eared Owls have been on my want list for Pennsylvania for quite some time. I had several opportunities to see them while in college in northern Indiana and greatly enjoyed that. Then I got a tip on where they might be in my own county. My own county! Now some people might not understand that thrill, but having just recently hit the 200 mark in my current county, I am enjoying the growing number.

So anyway, there is a fantastic piece of grasslands not 20 minutes from my house. I decided to hit it late afternoon in order to be there for the most productive time for the owls. I was elated when I arrived, 2 were already flying around. After several minutes of viewing the antics of these two birds with my bins I whipped out the scope for a closer look and when one cooperatively perched about 80 yards away I pulled out the digiscoping setup and snapped a few shots. I was happy with the results so I pulled the camera off the eyepiece and looked back at the owls. Wait…what was that diving at the shortie?

Definitely a falcon. Hmmm, small and dark….could only be a Merlin. I watched as the Merlin repeatedly stooped on the owls, harassing them as only a Merlin harasses. This was my third falcon species for the day, pretty good for a January day in PA. As the Merlin exited the scene, a Northern Harrier gracefully floated onto the stage. There is something about harriers and shorties, they always go together. I have not once seen short-eared owls and not seen a harrier. This was a beautifully plumaged juvenile.

I noticed something about their flight, harriers have such graceful flight, bouyantly floating around on their long spindly arms. Short-eared Owls on the other hand have such a stiffness to their flight, almost like they are afraid to bend their wings.

I stayed put, watching the interactions, the pouncing and listening to their raspy barking call. Now there were four in the air at once. Trying to get some last images before the sun disappeared I managed the flight shot below. I had to do some tricky stuff to the photo to bring back the colors but I think it turned out nicely.

All photos © 2007 Drew Weber