Photo credit: Dan Lory

As I sit here trying to think what to write about the strangely named Glaucous Gull, I am unexpectedly overtaken by feelings of remorse that Hiroki never had access to a crucial tool for his early development and happiness. I just realized that the dentist who took care of us while Hiroki was growing up never had the magazine Highlights in his waiting room. Hiroki was deprived.

When I was growing up, Highlights was the only thing that prevented the dental experience from spiraling into a chasm of despair. The word games and other puzzles were a welcome distraction from the intimidating sounds and smells of the dentist office. My favorite was the "One-of-these-is-different-than-the-others" puzzle. I'm not talking about the easy version: a dress shoe, a gym shoe, a hiking boot, and a cowboy hat. I'm talking about the version that lined up eight detailed drawings of a pickup truck, for example, and you had to find the one that was missing the ball on the trailer hitch, or some other minuscule detail that set it apart from the others.

An immature Glaucous Cull flanked by a Ring-billed Gull and a Herring Gull.

An immature Glaucous Cull flanked by a Ring-billed Gull and a Herring Gull.

That game is great training for bird identification. But when it comes to gulls, the game gets bumped up to a whole new level of difficulty. Looking at a flock of 90 gulls, it's not enough just to find the one that differs from all the rest. Gulls of the same species have a wide variety of plumages, depending on age and time of year. They're all different to some degree. So if you hope to ID a gull of a different species, you have to find an essential difference. The game has become metaphysical.

Back to the eight pickup trucks in Highlights magazine. Now, in the gullified version, every truck has slight differences from the others. But that bump on the quarter-panel of #2? Just a different year. The scratches and dents on #8? It's just been through a rough winter and needs a paint job. But look at #5. The slightly larger gap between the tires and the body tells you it's got heavy-duty shocks. And the smudge around the tailpipe tells you this one is a diesel. Totally different beast from the other seven. Trust me.

I am really glad gull fanatics did not write for Highlights.

Adult Glaucous Gull among a group of Herring Gulls

Adult Glaucous Gull among a group of Herring Gulls

Actually, after all I said about the difficulty of gull ID, the Glaucous Gull happens to be one of the "easier" ones. It's the second largest gull in the world, so by sheer size alone, it stands out in a crowd. An adult Glaucous Gull has a soft gray back (glaucous means gray), and it lacks the black wing tips that are obvious on most other gulls. So it's ironic that when it flies, it actually catches your eye because it is so plain.

The Glaucous Gull's normal range is a large circle around the north pole. It's a rare visitor to our area. A few stray south from the arctic region every winter to bring some much needed variety to our otherwise glaucous winters.

Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.