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Gulls of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East: An Identification Guide by Peter Adriaens, Mars Muusse, Philippe J. Dubois and Frédéric Jiguet. 2022.  Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford. ISBN 9780691222837 (paperback). 6.75x 9.25in, 320pp

Review by Frank Lambert
(photos by Nigel Voaden)

Written by four dedicated gull enthusiasts, Gulls of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East is an up-to-date photographic guide that covers all species and distinctive subspecies of gulls so far identified in the Western Palearctic. The guide focuses on comparisons of similar taxa and the intricacies of identifying not only good species, but also some of the hybrids that occur in this region. The book contains almost 1,400 colour photos contributed by 106 photographers (credited on the last two pages).

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Three species of gull at KAUST, Saudi Arabia Gull (photo © Ute Langner)

Whilst some gulls are easy to identify, such as the smaller species that have relatively few plumages to learn, the identification of others require a significant amount of knowledge, or the ability to look at photos retrospectively. Larger gulls can take up to five years to reach full adult plumage, with their plumage changing gradually from the brownish colours of juveniles and immatures to the clean plumages of adults. At the same time, many of the larger gulls are remarkably similar, and pose a significant challenge to identify. The advent of high-quality digital photography has made the art of gull identification somewhat easier, but one often still needs a good knowledge base to pick out something different to the commoner species.

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Gulls of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East is not the first photographic guide to gulls, and indeed, an excellent guide to the Gulls of the World was published as recently as 2018. The former is however, the first photo guide to concentrate on the Western Palearctic region. 

Not every birder likes photographic field guides, and for those who still like paintings, there is always Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America (2004), also by Klaus Malling Olsen, which has both photos and 96 Plates painted by the very talented Hans Larsson. This is a very hefty book, however, and not suitable as a field guide, unlike the book being reviewed here.

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Azore's Gull Larus michahellis atlantis (© N. Voaden)

The taxonomy follows that of the International Ornithological Committee (at the time of writing) except that Thayer’s Gull Larus thayeri is treated as a full species, so that a total of 35 recognised species are included in the book. Taxa treated in the book include distinctive subspecies, such as Kumlien’s Gull (subspecies of Iceland L. glaucoides), Steppe and Baltic Gulls (both subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull L. fuscus) and Azores and Cantabrican Yellow-legged Gull (subspecies of Yellow-legged Gull L. michahellis).

However, whilst seven of the eight subspecies mentioned in Table 1 (gull taxa treated in the book) are given a full section, and hence treated equally to fully recognised species, the only reference to “Cantabrican” Yellow-legged Gull L. m. lusitanius, that I could find in the book was in Table 1 and on the range map for Yellow-legged Gull. This taxon is not mentioned by IOC at all, presumably because it is treated there as a synonym of Larus m. michahellis. Excluding lusitanius, the book has full accounts for 43 species and subspecies. In addition, there is a full account for Viking Gull (a hybrid between Glaucous and European Herring Gull that has been studied in Iceland), and short sections on “Small Hybrid Gulls” (e.g. Black-headed x Mediterranean), and “Large Hybrid Gulls” (e.g. Caspian x European Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed x European Herring). Nelson’s Gull (Glaucous x American Herring Gull) is not included because it has not yet been identified in the region or been studied in sufficient detail.

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Short-billed Gull Larus brachyrhynchus, Alaska (© N. Voaden)

One species that many readers may not be aware of is Short-billed Gull, which has sometimes been called Mew Gull. This species used to be lumped with Common Gull but it breeds on the other side of the Atlantic. It is a vagrant to the Western Palearctic, with one record from the Azores, but it seems likely that now that the identification features are well-documented and better publicised, more records are likely to follow.

Relict Gull L. relictus is included in the book, because they have been observed in Russia on the border with Kazakhstan. Europe’s Birds (2021 WildGuides), includes this species based on “ring recoveries” (allegedly, rings were recovered in Bulgaria and Turkey) but since neither ring was sent for verification, the records are somewhat enigmatic. Nevertheless, there must be a real possibility that this species occasionally wanders far to the west of its normal range.

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Relict Gull, Kazakhstan (© N. Voaden)

The Introduction starts with a section offering advice on the best ways to approach gull identification and providing a comprehensive glossary of terms used in the book, along with photographs highlighting and naming the various feather tracts that are important for identifying gulls. This is followed by a comprehensive section detailing how to age gulls and explaining the relevant facts about moult and its impact on identification.

This book uses ‘cycles’ to describe age classes, instead of terms such as ‘first winter’, ‘first summer”, which are probably more familiar to most readers. Terms such as 'first cycle' and 'second cycle' are preferred because the plumage changes gradually, especially in large gull species with protracted moults. During the first cycle, for example, most taxa undergo a protracted partial moult between late July and the following May, which may be slower, or even suspended, in parts of the winter. There are of course some exceptions (Iceland, Glaucous, Audouin's, Pallas's, Baltic and Heuglin's Gulls) that are explained in detail. For each taxon covered, the description goes through the various cycles, showing the variation and comparing with adjacent photographs of similar-looking taxa.

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For each taxon, there is a species account that starts with a description of Structure, and then delves into the plumages, starting with Adult and then going through the cycles. For small gulls, with only two cycles, the species account is four pages long, but this increases to 8-10 pages for the larger gulls with four cycles. Whilst larger gulls may have a fourth cycle, the species accounts do not go into great detail of this stage of the birds plumage since they are usually very similar to that of the adult, although retarded fourth cycle birds may occasionally be indistinguishable from some third cycle individuals.

Each account is illustrated with good quality photos showing the various plumages at different ages, including alongside photos of similar species, and hence providing an instant understanding of what to look for to differentiate similar taxa.

Species accounts contain up to 48 photos. The photos are relatively large and have had the background and surroundings digitally removed so that it is easy to concentrate on the picture of the bird in question. Some almost appear like a painting, probably because of digital enhancement, but they are all genuine photographs. 

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The distribution of most species is shown on a Range Map and described in detail alongside, except for species that only occur as vagrants, such as Short-billed Gull, Franklin's Gull Leucophaeus pipixcan, Relict Gull, and Slaty-backed Gull L. schistisagus which have a brief description of distribution but no map. Maps are detailed, and of a good size, and clearly show the breeding and non-breeding ranges but do not attempt to illustrate vagrancy, although this is described in the text. For Lesser Black-backed Gull, for which two taxa (graellsii and intermedius) are treated in one account, there are separate maps for the these subspecies.

Whilst this is an excellent book, one thing that is missing is a photographic gallery in the introduction, or indeed inside the book covers, that could be used to assist users in narrowing down the possibilities for the birds they are observing. Perhaps this could be added to a second edition. 

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Black-legged Kittiwake, Scotland (© N. Voaden)

It is clear from this book, and other recent photographic guides, that the huge advances in digital photography are changing the ability of anyone to identify what they see, even if retrospectively. The capabilities of such cameras is increasing dramatically year by year, and it is now possible to obtain the most amazing detailed pictures that show every feather clearly, even during brief views.

It is perhaps odd, therefore, that one thing that this book does not stress is that unless you own such a camera, you are much less likely to be confident about separating those most difficult of species. Learning about gull identification is not just a matter of studying a book, but also of studying the birds on your local patch or wherever you go birding. Rather than spend hours in a blustery cold wind, trying to focus on looking at the gulls in front of you, and memorising or writing down key features of the birds you are watching (assuming you remember what they are), identifying an unfamiliar gull ideally requires the assistance of a decent camera.

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Ross's Gull Rhodostethia rosea Devon UK (© N. Voaden)

In defining the purpose of this book, the authors' write that “The photographs show typical, text-book individuals of each taxon, providing a ‘search image’ for birds that can be identified with confidence outside their usual range. We hope that this book invites [encourages] people to take up the challenge of studying gulls and start learning”. Whilst I look at gulls every week on my local patch, I certainly don’t have the confidence to pick out anything but the obvious gull anomaly. I'm certainly no gull expert! So it seems highly unlikely that I would notice an American Herring Gull passing by, partly because there are so many other birds to look at. Owning this book is unlikely to change that fact in my case, although I intend to use it in the field occasionally, since it is not too heavy or bulky to slip into my field bag.

Gull enthusiasts are increasing in numbers, and this excellent book will hopefully encourage birders to pay more attention to the myriads of gulls that we all see every year. Whilst gull watching can be enormously challenging, carefully scrutinising individual gulls that look a bit different can be very rewarding. Any competent birder looking through gull flocks regularly and using a book like this will not only learn a lot about these often-confusing species, but might even stumble across something truly astonishing, like a Ross’s Gull, surely one of the most alluring birds in the Western Palearctic, and fittingly featured prominently on the cover of this scholarly field guide.

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