India – and what are they?
Identification of large white-headed Gulls is very challenging. In India, there has not been much interest in Gull watching, though now there are many birdwatchers here who are interested in this and reports and photographs of large White-headed Gulls are fairly common on various birding websites.
Situation in Gujarat:
It is generally accepted in the latest reference books (Grimmett et al 2011, Rasmussen & Anderton 2012) that there are three types of large white-headed Gulls in Gujarat:
Heuglin’s Gull – L.f.heuglini: These are bulky Gulls with dark upperparts and relatively late moult. The dark on mantle ranges from almost a blackish-blue to quite dark grey. But the upperparts are always much darker than the paler Gulls seen with them and hence it is possible to differentiate quite easily. The lightest heuglini are still much darker than the Gulls with lighter upperparts. These are also Gulls which are late moulting. Many are in moult in January. I have observed such Gulls with only p6 or p7 longest in first week of January, but these are rare. Most complete their moult by mid-Jan. Head streaking is variable but most show streaking on head with strong streaking on neck. Almost none are white headed in winter. These are presumed to be breeding to the north. These are very common in Gujarat.
Steppe Gull – L.f.barabensis: These are Gulls with pale upperparts, much paler than heuglini. These are also early moulting birds, which complete their primary moult usually by mid to end November. These are white headed in the winter and almost always never show any head streaking. They are round headed and with delicate features, and are not bulky. These are thought to be barabensis. These are also fairly common in Gujarat and found in good numbers here.
Caspian Gull* – L.cachinnans: These are bulky Gulls with pale upperparts (even paler than barabensis) and with earliest moult, mostly completing moult by early November. These show some streaking around the eyes and on the nape in the winter. But these are rare and more data is needed to know its status here.
(*Though Rasmussen and Anderton (2012) give L.cachinnans as ‘hypothetical’ for India, it is usually accepted that L.cachinnans occurs in Gujarat and in India)
Observations in January:
On 12 January 2014, I visited Okha, Gujarat. Okha is a fishing village located on the noth-westernmost point of Saurashtra, on the coast of the Arabian Sea. It is a fishing village and since fish is processed here, there are large numbers of Gulls. There were a large number of Gulls present here on this day also. Majority of the Gulls were Heuglin’s Gulls. Many were Steppe Gulls. Caspian Gulls were not noted.
However I found a group of around 20 Gulls, which were quite different from the Heuglin’s and Steppe Gulls present in the area. These were very pale mantled, late moulting, bulky Gulls with either yellowish or pinkish legs. There were a few juveniles also in this group. I was unable to identify these Gulls, as they were much paler backed from the Heuglin’s Gulls in the area. I was able to take many images and these are given below:
Fig 1: A group of these Gulls at a small puddle in the area. Note the pale mantle , late moult, head streaking .
Fig 2: Adult. Note heavy head streaking, pale mantle, yellowish legs. Pale eye with reddish eye-ring.
Fig 3: Adult. Note streaking on head, pale mantle, yellowish-pink legs. Pale eye with reddish eye-ring
Fig 4: Adult. Late moult with only p7 grown. Pale mantle, deep yellowish legs. Pale eye with reddish eye ring.
Fig 5: Adult. Slightly darker mantle than earlier birds- but still much paler than heuglini. Heavy head streaking with blotches on the nape. Pale eye with reddish eye-ring. Streaking similar to Vega Gull.
Fig 6: Adult. In flight
Fig 7: Adult. Pale mantle with yellowish legs. P9 longest. Very dark eye
Fig 8: First-winter
Fig 9: First-winter.
Fig 10: First-winter
Fig 11: First-winter in flight.
So what are these Gulls? Majority of these Gulls were in active moult in second week of January. Hence these must be breeding to the north, in the arctic. These are certainly not Heuglin’s, Steppe or Caspian Gulls, since their structure, moult, mantle colour and other features do not match them. Buchheim (2006) also noted three individuals of such type of Gulls at Okha and speculated that these might be taimyrensis, birulai or vegae. A detailed paper on Taimyr Gulls by van Dijk et al (2011) showed that Taimyr Gulls are genetically distinct and they simply refer to them as L.taimyrensis. However all long distance ring recoveries from wintering Taimyr Gulls were from the pacific coast of Asia, mainly on the Sea of Okhotsk. They state that Gulls resembling Taimyr Gulls winter in low numbers in Iran and Bahrain, noting that the unidentified birds seen by Buchheim (2006) also could be these. Olsen and Larsson (2004) also speculate that birds matching taimyrensis could frequent W India. Thus the possibility that a small number of Taimyr Gulls could winter in India is not ruled out.
It is possible that these are either Taimyr Gulls or Vega Gulls of the birulai sub-species. However the probability that these are Taimyr Gulls looks more feasible as the structure, mantle colour and other characteristics fit Taimyr Gulls more, but the possibility of birulai cannot be ruled out.
Large scale ringing programmes or satellite tagging of an adequate number of Gulls on the Taimyr Peninsula and in other nearby areas would lead to a better understanding of whether these are Taimyr Gulls or something else. This also shows that it is still unclear which large white-headed Gulls winter in India.
Note on Photographs:
All photographs were taken at around 11am in harsh sunlight and I have not done any post-processing to show true colour in these Gulls. Images taken with Nikon D7100 DSLR Camera with Nikkor 300mm F4 lens + Nikon 1.7 TC
I thank Andreas Buchheim, Klaus Malling Olsen, Nial Moores and Norman Deans van Swelm for their help.
Buchheim, A. 2006. Adult large white-headed gulls at Okha. Birding Asia 5: 40-53.
Grimmett, R.,Inskipp, C., & Inskipp, T.2011. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. 2 nd ed.Pp.1-528. London: Christopher Helm & Oxford University Press.London.
Olsen, K M & Larsson, H .2004. Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America. Second edition. London
Rasmussen, P.C & Anderton, J.C.2012. Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide. 2 vols. 2 nd ed. Pp.1-378; 1-684. Washington D.C and Barcelona. Smithsonian Institution and Lynx Edicions
van Dijk, Klaas., Kharitonov Sergei, Holmer Vonk & Bart Ebbinge.2011. Taimyr Gulls: evidence for Pacific winter range, with notes on morphology and breeding. Dutch Birding 33: 9-21
Prasad Ganpule. Opp. Nazarbaug, Morbi – 363642, Gujarat, India.