First documented record of Vega Gull in Beijing

Perhaps surprisingly, the taxa known as Vega Gull (Larus vegae vegae or Larus argentatus vegae or Larus smithsonius vegae, or simply Larus vegae, depending on your taxonomy of choice) had, until recently, never been reliably recorded in Beijing.  This is most likely due to several factors: first, the fact that vegae appears to be highly coastal, so is likely to be at least scarce and maybe rare in the capital; second, the difficulty in separating vegae from mongolicus (Mongolian Gull), the most frequent large white-headed gull in Beijing; and third a lack of awareness about the potential of this taxa to occur in the capital.  

Large white-headed gulls are not resident in Beijing.  The vast majority we see are the migratory Mongolian Gull (Larus vegae mongolicus, Larus argentatus mongolicus, Larus smithsonius mongolicus) in spring (primarily late February to mid-April) and autumn (late August to November) as they make their way to and from their inland breeding grounds and their coastal non-breeding range.  Flocks of 100+ are not uncommon at reservoirs such as Shahe, Ming Tombs, Miyun Reservoir and Guanting.  Occasionally, a few ‘taimyrensis‘ Lesser Black-backed Gull and Pallas’s Gull are mixed in and it has long been suspected that the occasional vegae might get caught up in these flocks but, despite several reports, none has ever been documented.   Mongolicus and vegae look remarkably similar in breeding plumage when they both have clean white heads but, in the non-breeding season, vegae sports much heavier streaking on the head, including the crown and neck, often reaching the breast.  Mongolicus usually retains a largely clean white head with only limited streaking around the eye and a pale grey, lightly marked ‘neck shawl’.  Given mongolicus’s relatively early breeding season, this taxa attains breeding plumage earlier than vegae, which mostly breeds further north.  Thus, in Beijing, any adult large white-headed gull with heavy streaking on the head and chest in late March should be examined carefully and documented.  

On 20 March young birders, Liu Aitao, Lou Fangzhou and Wei Zichen scrutinised a flock of large gulls loafing close to the southern shore of Shahe Reservoir.  Their awareness, perseverance and tenacity meant that they secured some wonderful images of a candidate vegae, documenting it sufficiently well to become Beijing’s first confirmed record of Vega Gull.  

Congratulations are in order and one of the observers, Liu Aitao, kindly wrote the account below of their find and offered it for publication here.  Aitao and his friends are notching up some great records in the capital and, best of all, they have a lot of fun doing it!

Over to Aitao…

Saturday, 20th March 2021:

After a fruitful morning of birding (including four lifer Lesser White-fronted Geese) at the Ming Tombs Reservoir, Wei Zichen, Lou Fangzhou and I decided to head to another birding hotspot – Shahe Reservoir – in the hope of seeing some gulls we had missed this season.

Upon arrival, we set up our scope on the staircase among rows of photographers who lined the south shore of the reservoir. The wind started to pick up, but the birds made up for the harsh weather: a flock of 60+ Tundra (Bewick’s) Swan, 20+ Common Shelduck, small flocks of Common Goldeneye and a handful of other species of waterfowl rode on choppy waves; Great Cormorants flew past by the hundred; and, in the shallows, around a hundred gulls rested, occasionally flushed by unknown disturbances, just to waver in the wind and settle right back to the same spot; a Eurasian Siskin quietly feasted on a Willow tree overhead while a few Barn Swallows flickered in the breeze.

We set our gaze on the gulls. The three of us took turns looking through the scope as we ate our lunch. Identifying the gulls was no easy feat. The messy classification of the gulls in the Genus Larus in East Asia and the different moult stages of the individual birds in conjunction with the incessant cold winds that constantly shook both our scope and us made the gull-watching an intimidating challenge. But with our perseverance came rewards; a few minutes in, we picked out a ‘taimyrensis’ Lesser Black-backed Gull, a scarce but regular spring migrant, among the cluster of Mongolian Gulls. Then we spotted another, and another. Three Lesser Black-backed Gulls already put smiles on our faces, but while we were verifying the ID with each other, another odd-looking gull caught our attention. It was an adult gull with many features that seemed odd to us compared with the many Mongolian Gulls. In particular, the heavy streaking on its head and neck seemed too dense and extensive for Mongolian Gull, and the grey on its mantle and wings was not dark enough for a Lesser Black-backed. Furthermore, when it hopped out of the water, its legs were not yellow but obviously pink, denying the possibility of it being a Lesser Black-backed Gull. We were immediately intrigued by this find. I then vaguely recalled that Terry once mentioned the possibility of seeing a Vega Gull in Beijing, so I messaged him asking about how to ID Vega Gulls. Following his advice, we spent the next hour trying to observe and photograph this gull as much as we could, paying special attention to its primary flight feathers, wing shape and colour, streaking on the head, legs and looking for any other differences compared with the Mongolian Gulls. Throughout the 2.5 hours, the gull hopped out of the water once and took off flying twice, providing us with opportunities to photograph its outstretched wings and legs. Another 4th winter gull close by also showed very extensive streaking on the head and neck, so we also took some photos of that bird for further inspection.

Adult Vega Gull, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021 (Photo by Liu Aitao). Note the relatively extensive head-streaking.
The adult Vega Gull (centre) with Mongolian Gulls, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. Photo by Lou Fangzhou.
Vega Gull (Larus vegae vegae), Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. The first documented record of this taxa in Beijing (Photo by Lou Fangzhou).  
Vega Gull in flight, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021 (Photo by Lou Fangzhou).
Vega Gull, Shahe Reservoir, 20 March 2021. Photo by Lou Fangzhou.  

Back at home, all three of us (Wei Zichen, Lou Fangzhou and I) did some further research about Vega Gulls and sorted through all of our photos and footage of the gull we encountered on the day. Wei Zichen referenced his “Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America” (Olsen) book, Lou Fangzhou provided most of the photos (and the best ones) and consulted other birders he knew, and I read up on any information I could find on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Birds of the World. Although the two gulls we found matched many features of Vega Gull we could find in literature and online resources, other information we found confused us… I compiled all the photos and videos we had and sent them to Terry for further investigation. Terry came to the conclusion that the two gulls we found *could* in fact be Vega Gulls. Since there has not been any confirmed prior sightings of Vega Gulls in Beijing, despite his likely accurate initial judgement, Terry was extra meticulous in the identification of our two gulls. He contacted the Ujiharas in Japan – who have vast experience with Vega Gull – for their opinion. To our delight, Michiaki Ujihara’s opinion aligned with Terry’s judgement, citing the adult gull’s excessive head streaking in late March and shorter-winged impression in flight. Although the identity of the other 4th winter gull remains uncertain, the adult bird is the first documented record of Vega Gull in Beijing!

Although there are so many readily enjoyable aspects of birding, to me it’s moments like this that truly make me appreciate the joy of birding. The constant unpredictability and variability of the birding scene, the thrill and excitement of discovering something unusual/new, the “gruelling” process of correctly identifying a confusing or “difficult” bird, the knowledge I gain and conversations I have during the identification process are all genuinely what makes birding so enthralling and captivating. This sighting of a Vega Gull may only be one small discovery in the grand scheme of things, but it just goes to show that there will always be countless possibilities and opportunities when it comes to birding, especially in Beijing. I hope our Vega Gull finding can encourage more birders to always keep an open mind and open eyes while out in the field. With a little bit of luck, perseverance, curiosity and an open mind, we all have the chance to discover something new in nature.

Finally, I would like to use this opportunity to greatly appreciate Terry for his continued support and guidance. Without him, I would never have been able to make this exciting find. Additionally, I would also like to pay my gratitude towards Michiaki Ujihara for confirming the ID and Wei Zichen & Lou Fangzhou for accompanying me on my birding excursion and spotting this gull with me.

Liu Aitao (centre) with Lou Fangzhou (left) and Wei Zichen (right) in the field. Photo by 贺建华 (Hè jiànhuá).

Additional notes: Due to the disparities between classification systems, I simply called the gulls “Vega Gulls” and “Mongolian Gulls”. I hereby cite the commonly used IOC v11.1 Master Bird List and the most up to date Clements Checklist (2019). According to the IOC list, Vega Gull refers to both the Mongolian Gull (Larus vegae mongolicus) and the Vega Gull I referred to in this text (the nominate subspecies of the IOC Vega Gull Larus vegae vegae). Whereas the Clements Checklist still treats both Vega Gulls and Mongolian Gulls as subspecies of a whole cluster of gulls all classified as Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus mongolicus and Larus argentatus vegae). However, as mongolicus and vegae have distinctive breeding ranges and noticeable morphological differences, I personally think it is important to acknowledge their differences and treat them differently.

Liu Aitao

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