"What do you see out there?" he asked.
"Oh...Just a bunch of seagulls," I replied unenthusiastically recalling all the seagulls at West Park in Nampa that I chased as a kid.
"A gull is not just a gull. Look closer!" he demanded. You know, he sounded disgusted that I didn't yet appreciate the finer joys of challenging bird identification. He busted out the field guide and showed me page after page of gulls.
A couple of days ago I had to haul an old broken down freezer to the dump. I've never been so excited to go to a smelly ol' landfill before, knowing I would be attending a self-given seminar on gulls. Class started early as I drove along Hill Road. The Optimist Youth Sports Comple fields and parking lot were covered in gulls. I pulled off, broke out the spotting scope and field guides and started studying. By the time I actually made it to the dump I felt pretty proficient on the three types of gulls shown below.
I also learned that I can quickly narrow down in my field guide which gulls I am seeing with just a couple of steps. These may not be new to you, but I feel like I just discovered them myself:
1. Look at the bill color - Is it solid yellow, solid black, or does it have black or red or both on the tip? Is it pink or reddish?
2. Look at the leg color - yellow? pink? black? greenish?
3. Look at the eye color - pale? dark? reddish? Is there an eye/orbital ring? If so, what color?
4. Look at the wing-tip color - dark? light? spotted? plain?
The combination of these characteristics will help you to successfully and rapidly find your gull in a field guide, or a least substantially narrow down the possibilities. Now you can focus on color pattern of the wings and head to finalize your identification. Color pattern of the feathers varies greatly with the age of the bird, and so does the color of the bill, legs, and even the eyes. Most field guides emphasize these differences very well.
To prove my point, here are some ID tips focusing on bill color, leg color, and eye color for three gulls common to my region of Idaho: