Gulls Simplified: a comparative approach to identification

Published on 06 February 2020 in Book reviews

By Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson

Princeton University Press, 2018

Pbk, 208pp; 330 colour photographs; ISBN 978-0-6911-5694-1

£16.99 buy it from the BB Bookshop

For gull enthusiasts, the publication of another book on identification is exciting. This book covers the 22 regularly occurring gull species in North America, plus five rare species and some hybrids. You might be wondering what relevance a North American guide to gulls is to European birders. Of course, the book includes a number of species regularly encountered in Europe, such as Great Black-backed Larus marinus and Black-headed Gulls Chroicocephalus ridibundus, but for me the interest lies in species like Herring (what we call American Herring Gull L. smithsonianus), Iceland L. glaucoides, Glaucous L. hyperboreus and Ring-billed Gulls L. delawarensis.

The book starts by showing simple profiles and silhouettes of the gulls and then has a really helpful double-page spread illustrating and describing basic anatomical terms. One useful feature of the book is the annotated photographs, using pointers to highlight key identification features. Pete Dunne’s love of gulls clearly comes out in the introduction, and it is this passion he wants to share! The hope is that by simplifying the approach to identification, more birders will give them a go. The chapter on ‘Traditional gull ID problems’ introduces ageing and moult, and the use of well-written, light-hearted text, and extended captions to the excellent photographs, works really well.

The species accounts form the bulk of the book, and these are well laid out and beautifully illustrated with photographs that have been well chosen to show specific plumage features. There is a short section called ‘Profile’, which nicely captures the look and feel of the species, and text on ‘Status and distribution’, although the maps are a bit out of date for some species. The main focus is on plumage characteristics and the authors aim to use size, structure, and basic plumage features to aid identification while making some attempt to simplify changes in appearance due to moult cycle. Reducing the number of age/moult categories to three, namely adult, sub-adult and immature, arguably doesn’t work so well and there is constant reference to terms such as first-winter within the sections. Ultimately it is questionable whether this guide truly manages to achieve the aims of the author with regard to simplifying age categorisation. It would seem that gull identification and moult cycles are intrinsically linked?

Extended captions to the photographs make learning easy. The chapter on ‘Dark horse gulls’ (rare or unlikely species) includes Slaty-backed L. schistisagus and Kelp Gulls L. dominicanus, which are certainly on the radar of many keen gull watchers on this side of the Atlantic. The short chapter on hybrid gulls reinforces what a headache gulls can be at times. The book ends with a ‘Quiz and review’; a selection of 35 photographs, and comprehensive answers.

The overall design of the book is excellent and the photographs are the best collection I’ve seen. For me, one of the standout features of the book is the number of photos showing flocks of mixed species, which is really educational. Kevin Karlson is to be congratulated on his stunning images.

If you’re planning a trip to North America and you’re into gulls, you’ll find this a really accessible book that will help you to make the most of your experience out there. If you have a passion for gulls in Britain, then I also thoroughly recommend this book. The combination of simple approach, brilliant photos and the readable style encourages all birders to dip their toes into the wonderful world of gulls!

Dawn Balmer