Utah County Birders Newsletter
Vol. 4, No. 12 - December 1999

December Meeting

7:00 p.m. December 15th at the Bean Museum on the BYU Campus, Provo, Utah

Christmas Bird Count Preparation

Merrill Webb will help us  organize and prepare for the Provo CBC as part of   The 100th Audubon Society's Annual Christmas Bird Count.

Year 2000 Birding Contest

Forms will be passed out at the Monthly Meeting on December 15th at  the Bean Museum. For information and forms, contact Robin Tuck at 377-8084 or e-mail Robin@utahbirds.org.

Utah County Birders Newsletter Subscriptions

Most newsletter subscriptions will be due at the first of the year. Check your address label in the upper right hand corner to seen when your new subscription is due (if the text is too small to read, just turn your binocs backwards and look through the "bird" end, putting the "eye" end close to the text on the address label – those binoculars can be very handy).

You can pay your subscription to Tuula Rose, 1065 East 560 North, Provo, UT 84604, Phone: 377-5477

Christmas Bird Count

by Darlene Amott

It's December, and so many things are happening. How do we find time to do it all. It's hustle and bustle from one end to the other. Wouldn't it be nice to have a day to pause and enjoy the season for a minute. Just do it. There is a way. Taking part in the Christmas bird count is one of the most enjoyable things we can do all month.

Did you know that the CBC is 100 years old this year. The count was started in an effort to stop the hunting and killing of birds which was a popular activity for Christmas Day in the late 1800's. It was hoped that the count would be a protest that would pull attention and interest away from the hunt. The popularity of the count today seems to say that the effort was a success. Hundreds of people participate now. People throughout Canada and the United States are all part of the project. Counts vary according to location, of  course.

How would you like to do the count in Prudhoe Bay? There is only one species, and it is the Common Raven. The count in our area is made from cars, on foot, or near feeders, but in some areas bicycles, canoes, boats, snowmobiles, and planes have been used. These facts and other interesting tidbits were reported in a recent article published in "Wild Bird" magazine.

I remember the first count in which I participated. There had been a good snowfall that week and there was still a foot or more of snow on the ground. Our group was birding the river bottoms. During the day, we drove down onto Riverside golf course as far as we could and then walked over to the river. (We had obtained permission to do so, of course.) It was tough walking in the deep snow, but it was unbelievably beautiful. The walk down the river was a delight. A Bald Eagle, which none of us had spotted yet, came out of a tree ahead of us and flew down the river just at eye level. What a sight. I was amazed at the numbers of birds we saw. I was learning fast. Everyplace we went that day was a wonder.

If you have never participated in one of the bird counts, be sure to be at the December meeting. Merrill Webb will explain it all. A bird identification activity will be a fun part of the evening. It's a good chance to hone our skills before the count.

Robin's View

by Robin Tuck

Year ends are good times to look forward to see how things might be. In this light, I would like to discuss a favored topic, excellence.

Recent events have caused me to ponder the idea of "making a difference."   The older I get, the more sure I am that I will not change the world, but, I also become more sure that I can make a difference on a smaller scale. The difference I can make comes about because of two things, striving to be better and attempting to share.

Striving to become better:
I truly was impressed as I witnessed the Mew Gull sightings unfold. Good birders recognized a subtle difference in one gull that caused them to search their books and make a tentative identification. Doubts began to creep in and more expert observers were called in until Mark Stackhouse called in the best experts he could find to solve the riddle. The discussions of those expert birders were very instructive demonstrating analytical skills that are the hallmark of excellence. Insightful and detailed, their analysis of the 1st winter Ring-billed Gull with a small bill is a good example of what we can become if we make the attempt. Of course, skills like this are developed over years of field work and careful study, both of which we can and do do. We might be hobbyists but we are learning and we can become experts, and in fact we are becoming experts.

Attempting to share:
Again, I was impressed by the willingness these experts had to share their knowledge and abilities. Perhaps it was the fun of the chase, but I was impressed with Mark's continued dogging this issue until the truth came out. I appreciate Mark and his friends' willingness to share.

The new year comes with a challenge to go forth and learn. Strive for excellence. Share with others. Let's make this year the best of all.

Remembering Lew Wilkinson

Four Years ago, Lew Wilkinson came home to Utah and became active in the Utah County Birders, and immediately found a place in our hearts. Lew participated so regularly in our meetings and field trips that I was astounded when I found out he lived in Monroe, about 150 miles south of Provo. It was easy to like Lew right from the beginning. His habit was to greet everyone, shaking hands and having a kind word to say. Lew was always thinking of others. He thought of me the day we had the award ceremony at the conclusion of the 1996 Birding Contest when the Bird Club installed new leaders. To my surprise, Lew presented me with a "Wise Old Owl" carving with a plaque thanking me for founding the Utah County Birders. I don't know who participated in the statue, but I know Lew had a big hand in it.

At his funeral, I found that Lew's actions toward us were simply an extension of life-long habits of kindness and friendliness. I felt saddened that I had waited until too late to find out the true measure of this wonderful man. I am honored to have counted Lew as a friend.

– Robin Tuck

A Note From Lew's Brother

Dear Utah County Birders,
Just a note to thank you for your concern for Lew. Thanks for the beautiful floral arrangement you sent to his funeral services and a special thanks to those of you who took the time to come to the services on Nov. 27th. I've heard your names before and it was a pleasure to put faces with names.

I was thinking about Lew and the Christmas bird counts. He loved you folks and looked forward to meetings and field trips with you. I hope and pray your counts go well this Holiday season and I will keep tabs of you on the web site. I would like to be able to drop in for a field trip or a presentation, if that wouldn't be a problem. Lew considered you more family than friends. Thanks again and God bless.

– Richard Wilkinson

Christmas Bird Counts in Utah

16 December - Thursday, Kanab
Contact: Harry Barber, BLM, Kanab Office at 435-644-2666.
17 December - Friday, Cedar City
Contact: Steve Hedges at 435-586-2401
18 December - Saturday, Logan
Contact: Keith Archibald at 435-752-8258
18 December - Saturday, Ogden
Contact: John Bellmon at 801-444-3704
18 December - Saturday, Provo
Contact: Merrill Webb at 801-224-6113
18 December - Saturday, Silver Reef
Contact: Marilyn Davis at 435-673-0996
19 December - Sunday, Salt Lake City
Contact: Mark Stackhouse at 801-486-2221
20 December - Monday, Escalante
Contact: Marilyn Davis at 435-673-0996
26 December - Sunday, Heber City
Contact: Randy Cox at 435-654-3030
27 December - Monday, Zion National Park
Contact: Marilyn Davis at 435-673-0996
28 December - Tuesday, St. George
Contact: Charlie Sheard at 435-879-2210
1 January - Saturday, Jordan River
Contact: Jeanne LeBer or Ray Smith at 801-532-7384
2 January- Sunday, Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge
Contact: 801-522-5353

What kind of a gull was that?  A Ring-billed Common Mew Gull?

The expert opinions are in from across the country and from as far as Uppsala Sweden, where Common Gulls really ARE common. The following is a report by Mark Stackhouse on the sighting of a possible Mew Gull in Spanish Fork.

O.K., here it is - the story behind . . .

The Spanish Fork Gull Mystery

by Mark Stackhouse

First, a little history, so that you can see how this developed on this end.

On October 24, Harold Clayson sent me an e-mail with the first report of this bird. I was able to speak with him that evening about his sighting - he described a gull which was noticeably smaller than the Ring-billed Gulls (RBGU) also present, had a rounder head, and a smaller bill than the RBGU's. These are the "classic," and supposedly most reliable, marks for a Mew Gull (MEGU). At first he thought it was a second-year bird, but after checking other references, he concluded (correctly), that it was a first-year bird. I asked about some plumage characters, such as the tail color, but he was unclear on these. The next day, he reported that bird had been seen by several other observers (including some very experienced birders whose abilities I highly respect), and they had agreed that this was a MEGU. I put it on the birdline that afternoon.

Lesson #1: Don't rely upon only a few features (especially with gulls), even the so-called "best" features, to make your identification, look at the whole bird.

On the 26th, I had a meeting at Sundance, and took the opportunity to go a little early, and stop by Spanish Fork to look for the gull. It took me almost an hour to pick out the bird from the flocks of RBGU's and California Gulls. One of the problems I had was that I was looking for a bird with the plumage pattern of a first-winter MEGU - that is, a small gull with a mostly dark tail, dark mantle, and thickly marked with dark smudges on the head and belly. I couldn't find such a bird. Finally, I spotted a small gull amongst the RBGU's, which appeared to have a the small bill and round head of a MEGU. But the plumage still wasn't right - from what I could see, this looked more like the Common Gull (COGU) subspecies, not the MEGU subspecies. I called me friend, David Wheeler, and he came down to look at it, and we both agreed that it was a better fit for COGU than MEGU. Unfortunately, the bird was being rather shy while we were there, and we weren't able to get perfect looks at it, and even the photos I took don't show all of the critical features. What turned out to be some irregularities in the tail band looked like broken, worn and  incompletely molted feathers (see my Birdnet post of 10/27).

Lesson #2: Don't jump to conclusions (again, especially with gulls) based upon an incomplete viewing of all of the relevant field marks.

That night, I posted a note to the Frontiers of Identification chat-group, asking about the occurrence of COGU in the western part of North America. Several replies indicated that this form was not yet recorded in the west, and that the furthest west record came from central Iowa. This sighting would need a much more thorough review. I posted a brief description of what I had seen, and said that I would get some photos out for review as soon as possible.

Some of the replies proved prophetic. For example:

>From Michael Patton: "In general I think size/shape works fine, but beware of small female Ring-billeds. I've seen a number of them called Mew Gulls in the West, as some have short bills and all females of the large _Larus have more rounded heads than do males."

and, from Paul Lehman: "I don't wish to come off sounding too much like a curmudgeon, especially since I am 2000 miles away and haven't even seen the bird, but I can't believe the gull in Spanish Fork is really a Common Gull... Is there no way it isn't "just" a brachyrhynchus [MEGU], or perhaps more likely, a small, runt, small-billed JUVENILE Ring-billed, which occur fairly regularly and get called "Common Gulls" here along the Atlantic Coast about once or twice per year?"

Shortly after this, Colby Neuman brought me his set of prints, which included a number of excellent shots of this bird. I scanned a few of the more useful shots, and, with the help of Weldon Whipple, had them posted on www.utahbirds.org. At the time that I was first scanning the photos, David Wheeler and I spent an evening examining the photos, checking all of our references, and surfing the net for other images of COGU and RBGU. Our doubts regarding the i.d. of this bird grew to the point that we both took it off our lists at that time, and I was mostly convinced that it was a RBGU, but wanted to hear from a few other folks before making a firm judgement on the bird. The problem was that every feature that suggested COGU couldn't eliminate RBGU (they were all within the range of variation for RBGU), and several features were inconsistent for COGU, but good for RBGU. There wasn't much about this bird which supported MEGU.

Here's some of the important comments I got from folks who reviewed the photos on the net:

>From Matt Hiendel: "My feeling is that it is a Ring-billed, not a Common. It is small-billed and the head is that attractive small, round dome, certainly Mew or Common like. But, that is where it stops for me. The gray seems pale, the tail seems too sparse, the wings too dark, and I might see markings on the inner greater coverts, etc. I am not sure of all of this. It is just what it looks like. Then, I go back and look at the bill again, well shown in figure 1. The bill looks on the small end, yet is a bit thicker than I expect on Mew. Common is a bit thicker but this still looks a bit off. So, I think it is a ringie."

>From Bruce Mactavish: "The Utah gull is definitely a Ring-billed Gull. The tail is a give away. The outer three or four tail feathers show a dark shading above the dark tail band. This a sure sign of Ring-billed Gull. Common Gulls have a very clear cut, solid blackish tail band without shading inside of the band. The bold contrast of the clean black tail band with the bright white tail is similar to the impression giving by a 1st winter Franklin's Gull. The tail band is too narrow, especially on the outer rectrices, with a secondary band between the main band and the white tip. This is classic of Ring-billed Gull but wrong for Common Gull.

"The rufous tone to the upper wing coverts is another Ring-billed Gull give away. On a Ring-billed Gull the colour varies from rufous-brown to dark chocolate brown. On a Common Gull the wing coverts are lackluster gray-brown, without a hint of rufous. Photo One shows the shape of the brown marks on the wing coverts as coming to a point which is characteristic of Ring-billed Gull (rounded in Common Gull). "The bill, though short, is not as proportionately thin as typical Common Gull. Ring-billed Gulls with bills this short are frequent. Base of bill brighter pink than the majority of Common Gulls (dull brownish-pink typical). Common Gulls can have longer bills. The head and neck streaking is more blurred and not as sharply demarcated as the typical Common Gull. There is a sharp contrast between dark brown outer primaries and pale gray inner primaries. On Common Gull this contrast is less stark, somewhere between Ring-billed Gull and 1st winter Herring Gull."

>From Glenn Coady: "Bill is too deep for Mew, greater & lesser secondary covert pattern is typical delawarensis [RBGU] (even though worn & faded), legs look proportionately too long for Mew."

>From Michael Patton:"I think your are correct in concluding that the bird is in fact a Ring-billed Gull.

There are several features that support RBGU to the exclusion of Mew Gull:

  1. the tail tip is black with a narrow white band separating it from the black subterminal (MEGU of all subspp. show a solid black area);
  2. the lesser and median coverts have a decidedly pointed tip (distinctly rounded on unworn MEGU);
  3. dark subterminal area on greater coverts and scapulars (uniform dark on MEGU);
  4. heavily spotted hindneck (generally uniform brown or mottled brown on MEGU);
  5. tail band too narrow (much wider on all MEGU, esp. L. c. brachyrhynchus);
  6. sharply contrasting pale area on the inner primaries (generally does not contrast as sharply on MEGU); and
  7. paleness of the mantle (darker on MEGU, esp. _L. c. heinei_)."

>From Nick Lethaby: "I took a quick look at the photos and agree with you that it's likely a RBGU. In addition to the comments McTavish made, some of the first-winter scapulars are gray with a dark subterminal crescent. My recollection is that Common Gull does not show this pattern on it's first-winter scapulars where RBGU certainly does."

>From Paul Lehman, Shawneen Finnegan, Tony Leukering: "I am afraid our opinion is unanimous: the bird appears to be a Ring-billed. Every important character we could see either was better for Ring-billed or was "neutral." Here are several of the important points:

  1. bill size and shape fine for a smaller Ring-billed, and the color of the base (fleshy-pink) good for R-b but only for some Commons (many, but not all, have grayer-flesh bases)
  2. the brown in the wing coverts is a rusty- or orangey-brown, which is good for R-b, but this color in Common (and Mew) is a tan-brown without the dull rusty tones. And very important, many of the internal brownish markings and pale fringes on the covert feathers were pointy or somewhat jagged-shaped, as in Ring-billed, not rounded as in Common/Mew.
  3. there are a few small brownish bars or mottling on the base of the tail and uppertail coverts; it is not totally clean white. Having a few markings there is fine for Ring-billed, and is also OK for Common. (Clean white is better for Common, but even the rare Ring-billed can appear to be clean in those areas.)
  4. the tail band seems OK for Ring-billed--albeit a bit mangled--and the outermost tail feather clearly has a bit of a band/bar on it; it is not clean white as is typical of Common."

>From Pierre-Andre Crochet (of Uppsala, Sweden):"The greater coverts of the birds are distinctly barred, especially the inner ones. This is another character of RBG as opposed to Common gull.. In CG, the greater coverts are more uniform."

Well, that's about it on this one. This is probably more information than you ever wanted to know about how to i.d. a gull, but, hopefully, we can all learn something from this experience. Just in case you're feeling so discouraged that you're about to give up on gull i.d. altogether, check out this note I received some days after the case had been settled:

>From Dick Newell: "You don't happen to use Stokes Field Guide to Birds - Western Region do you? Because if you look on page 193 under Mew Gull (which I guess should be called Short-billed Gull), the top right picture looks remarkably like your gull. In fact the book is wrong - it's another 1st winter Ring-billed Gull. Anybody using this field guide will be lead astray in this instance - but it's a nice book otherwise."

In fact, I don't even own the Stokes guide, but I checked it out in a shop this morning, and he's absolutely right - the photo is mis-identified. Even the "experts" get it wrong sometimes . . .

State Hotline Highlights

Tim Avery - LAPLAND LONGSPURS continue to be seen in and around Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (BRMBR). On Sunday, 11/14, a Lapland Longspur was seen along the west side of the auto-tour loop, and another was seen about 5 miles east of the refuge.

Karen Halliday, Yvonne Stroup - Other good birds seen at BRMBR in the past week include a male HOODED MERGANSER, seen at the southeast corner of the auto-tour loop on Sunday, 11/14 (TA); four AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS along the east side of the auto-tour, also on Sunday, 11/14 (M&MSm); and two GREAT EGRETS seen at the southeast corner of the auto-tour on Saturday, 11/13.

Keith Evans, Jack Rensel, V. Arnold Smith - At Willard Bay SP, about 300 MARBLED GODWITS, 30 BONAPARTE'S GULLS, and 11 RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS were seen on Friday, 11/12. On the same day, a late ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER was seen in some Russian Olives just south of the reservoir.

Mark Stackhouse - At least one, and possibly three PACIFIC LOONS were seen at Willard Bay on Tuesday, 11/23 (MS). All three birds were in the south end of the reservoir, about one mile west of the south marina. One of the loons was close enough to the shore to be positively identified, but the other two were too far away to allow a certain identification, although they appeared to also be Pacific Loons.

Also at Willard Bay on Tuesday, 11/23, a female HOODED MERGANSER was seen at the north end of the reservoir.

Carol Gwynn - Another female HOODED MERGANSER was seen at the southeast corner of the auto-tour loop at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on Friday, 11/26.

Jared Barns - BARROW'S GOLDENEYES have been at first dam at the mouth of Logan Canyon for the past month, as reported on Monday, 11/29.

David Wheeler - A late BARN SWALLOW was seen along Redwood Rd., just south of the I-215 crossing, on Tuesday, 11/16.

Jared Barnes, Ken Olson - A PEREGRINE FALCON was seen at the Layton Marsh on Thursday, 11/25.

Laura Lockhart, Mark Stackhouse, David Wheeler - Along the Antelope Island Causeway, an immature male BARROW'S GOLDENEYE, about 12 SANDERLINGS, and 4 HERRING GULLS were seen on Friday, 11/19.

V. Arnold Smith - A HARRIS'S SPARROW has been seen at the Morgan Wastewater Treatment Plant, as reported on Sunday, 11/21. This may be the same individual which spent the winter there last year.

Edward Conrad; Mark Stackhouse - Two female HOODED MERGANSERS were seen in the pond at the entrance to the Great Salt Lake Marina, west of  Saltair, on Sunday, 11/14 (EC). A single female Hooded Merganser was seen at the same location on Wednesday, 11/17 (MS).

Mark Stackhouse - Four HERRING GULLS were seen along the beach between Saltair and the marina on Wednesday, 11/17.

Brad and Traci Clemens - A HERMIT THRUSH was seen in Parley's Nature Park on Saturday, 11/13 (B&TC). The bird was seen at the bottom of the first hill as you enter the nature area. Parley's Nature Park is accessed from the east end of Tanner Park, near 2700 East and 2700 South in Salt Lake City.

Gerrit Steenblik - WHITE PELICANS have been moving south this week. A flock of about 150 was seen soaring above the Rose Park neighborhood in Salt Lake City on Saturday, 11/13.

Mark Stackhouse - An adult HERRING GULL was seen along the south shore of the Great Salt Lake between Saltair and the marina on Wednesday, 12/01.

Mark Stackhouse - The CHILEAN FLAMINGO, which escaped from Tracy Aviary eleven years ago, has returned to Saltair, where it has spent every winter. The bird, nicknamed "Pink Floyd," was seen on Wednesday, 12/01, just east of Saltair.

Todd Black - Over 20 LEWIS'S WOODPECKERS were seen along a county road east of Monticello, as reported on Monday, 11/29 (TB). The birds were seen along CR 335, which goes east from US 666 at the KOA campground east of Monticello.

Reed Stone, Tom Williams - A female HOODED MERGANSER was seen on Salem Pond on Tuesday, 11/23.

Alan Miller - A WINTER WREN was seen at the Bureau of Reclamation mitigation area below Jordanelle Dam on Tuesday, 11/16 (AM). The bird was along the river about halfway between the north and south gates. Because of river channel reconstruction in the area, the site where the bird was seen can only be reached from the south gate.

Marilyn Davis - An apparently albino GREATER ROADRUNNER has been seen in the RV park near the upper end of Quail Creek Reservoir, as reported on Wednesday, 12/01.

Mark Stackhouse - Three HOODED MERGANSERS, one male and two females, were seen at Gunlock Reservoir on Sunday, 11/28.