...it surprises me how many birders resort to this point of view. Yes, some gulls are difficult and take a long time to learn (I readily admit that I am still very much in the process of learning the details of several gull IDs), but that's not the case with all gulls. It's easy to start out: you just need to get to know the species that are the most common in your area. Here in Michigan, I started out by learning Herring, Ring-billed, and Bonaparte's Gulls inside and out (obviously, the set of gulls that you must get to know will vary based on where you live). This enabled me to recognize anything that wasn't one of those two species, which allowed me to focus on the odd birds out.
As with the practice of birding in general, a field guide is essential. The very best, in my opinion, is the Field Guide to the Gulls of the Americas by Steve N. G. Howell and Jon Dunn. Though I only first laid my hands on it just over a month ago, it has done me an infinite amount of help in furthering my gull identification skills. Another important facet of gull identification is being okay with leaving a bird unidentified. No one can always identify every single bird.
The more you learn, the more FUN gull watching becomes! So finally, here are a few of my best gull experiences:
The first time I had a cool gull encounter was in April of 2011 at Pointe Mouillee SGA. They were a couple of adult Great Black-backed Gulls loafing with hundreds of "normal" gulls in Cell 3. I could not get over how huge they were--I kept on exclaiming that they "looked like eagles, they were so big!" Seeing two adults black-backs at close range left a strong impression on me, such that my heart still skips a beat whenever I see one.
From then until almost the end of 2012, I focused on getting to know the common gulls. In November that year, my dad took me up to the Upper Peninsula to see Gray Jays at Hulbert Bog and winter finches at Whitefish Point . After watching over 50 Pine Grosbeaks and hundreds of Common Redpolls (a single Hoary among them) at the Whitefish Point feeders, I went down to the beach and BOOM! An enormous, all-white gull was the first thing I saw. It was struggling against the wind, going nowhere despite its powerful wingbeats. It was a stunning second-winter Glaucous Gull, and I watched it hover close above me for half a minute before it gave in to the wind and rocketed way from me. It didn't take long for its pale form to blend into the cloudy sky.
Later that day before driving home, we stopped at the Whitefish Harbor Breakwall. Just as I started to look through the hundreds of gulls on the breakwall, a rather pale juvenile gull flew in and landed not far away. This was the first time my familiarity with the common gulls kicked in: it was similar to a Herring Gull but with several important differences. It had gray outer primaries and secondaries that contrasted slightly with paler inner primaries. The lack of black on its flight feathers was something I thought was odd.
When it landed, I saw that overall it was a monotone gray, instead of brown or tan with a paler head. Its primaries were only slightly darker than the rest of it, with pale edges. Its feathers were intricately patterned and gave the bird's back a very "scaly" appearance--this bird was clearly still in juvenile plumage. It also had a smaller, rounder head and a smaller bill than any of the juvenile Herring Gulls nearby. After observing the bird for a good long while, I finally got into the car and, looking at a field guide, easily saw that it had been a "classic" juvenile Thayer's Gull. To top things off, my observation was confirmed when, an hour later, a couple of more experienced birders saw the same bird at the same location.
My next awesome gull experiences came much more recently: both within the last month, in fact. The first of these was on November 10th, at the Fennville Sewage Ponds (restricted access) in Allegan County, Michigan. As part of an Allegan County field trip that he was leading for the Capital Area Audubon Society, Rick Brigham took us to these restricted-access sewage ponds, where we watched the close-up flocks of waterfowl until my brother and I saw a small gull amongst the 130 or so Bonaparte's Gulls with an interesting wing pattern. Elijah said, "is that a young Bonaparte's?" I, reluctant to believe what I thought I was seeing, frantically called Rick over so that he could look at it through his scope. It wasn't long before he confirmed my suspicion by exclaiming that it was a juvenile SABINE'S GULL!! Were able to watch the beauty for over an hour while it fed in the water at close range. NOT your typical Sabine's Gull zooming past a lakewatch in high winds!
My last cool gull experience was just a few days ago on November 23rd. After finishing the Lake Erie Pelagic out of Cleveland (which was also amazing!), many of those who had been on the boat ride drove to Edgewater Marina in order to see the Little Gull that had been present there for a while. It was practically the first thing that I saw upon getting out of the car! It was seriously RIGHT THERE, approaching us within six feet as we stood poised with cameras and binoculars. It was accompanied by 300 Bonaparte's Gulls, which were also approaching within arm's reach of us. I had never seen anything like it; the flock of Bonaparte's alone would have made my day.
Part of the flock of Bonaparte's:
It was absolutely unreal to be standing so close to not one, but two of these beautiful, rare birds!