The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is situated to the west of the Arabian Gulf, with this region of the country being a good place to see large white-headed gulls that breed in western Asia (mainly the republics of the former USSR) and eastern Scandinavia. From mid-August the first gulls can be found along the coast in small numbers gradually increasing in numbers as the winter progresses. The first arriving birds are mainly Steppe Gull Larus barabensis, with a few Armenian Gull Larus armenicus and during the wintering months over 75% of the large white-headed gulls are barabensis. These birds mainly occur along the coastline of Tarut Bay between Dammam and Al Khobar although a few also occur in Half Moon Bay. The birds join the Slender-billed Gull Chroicocephalus genei already present and as winter progresses 1000s of Black-headed Gulls, Larus ridibundus and a few Great Black-headed Gulls Larus ichthyaetus also occur.
Initially, before 1970, only two common species of large white-headed gull were recognised in Saudi Arabia, Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus and Herring Gull L. argentatus, following Vaurie (1965) and Hüe & Etchécopar (1970), two of the principal reference works in use in the Middle East at that time. These authors restricted Lesser Black-backed Gull to the two very dark mantled forms breeding in Europe, nominate fuscus and graellsii, and included all the paler mantled west Asian forms, including armenicus, cachinnans, heuglini and taimyrensis, in the Herring Gull (argentatus) complex (Scott 2007). The publication of Birds of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia (Bundy et al 1989) also used a simplistic approach to the Large White-headed Gull complex. By 2002 Armenian Gull armenicus and Caspian Gull cachinnans were recorded as separate species and Heuglin’s Gull heuglini the weakly defined taimyrensis and Steppe Gull barabensis were included in Lesser Black-backed Gull L. fuscus along with the nominate Baltic Gull fuscus. In 2007 (G. Sangster et al), suggested the following species, to better reflect recent advances in knowledge of the evolution and systematics of large gulls. These were recognized by British Birds (UK):
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus (polytypic, including fuscus, intermedius, graellsii, heuglini, taimyrensis, barabensis)
Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans (monotypic)
Armenian Gull Larus armenicus (monotypic)
American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus (polytypic, including smithsonianus, vegae, mongolicus)
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis (polytypic, including michahellis, atlantis)
Herring Gull Larus argentatus (polytypic, including argentatus, argenteus)
From this point onwards it became clear that five large white-headed Gull types were identifiable with caution in Saudi Arabia (see note below on variation in gulls).
Steppe Gull Larus barabensis whose breeding range is western Siberia - Steppes of north Kazakhstan
Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans whose breeding range is the Black Sea, Caspian Sea and Aral Sea
Heuglin’s Gull Larus heuglini whose breeding range is the northern Russian tundra from Kola Peninsula to west of the Yenisey River
Armenian Gull Larus armenicus whose breeding range is the inland lakes of Armenia, Georgia, eastern Turkey and northwest Iran
Baltic Gull Larus fuscus whose breeding range is the Baltic and north Norway coasts to the White Sea
Only three currently recognised species are present in Saudi Arabia in the winter months, and these are:-
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus (including Baltic Gull Larus fuscus, Steppe Gull Larus barabensis & Heuglin’s Gull Larus heuglini)
Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans
The classification used here adopts 2cy, 3cy, sub-adult and adult. Note that from January onwards, a "first” winter gull is in its second calendar year (2cy).
Primaries are numbered outwardly, with the inner primary being P1 and the outer primary P10.
The species/taxa order below corresponds with the status of the birds in Saudi Arabia with commonest first and scarcest last. (A taxon is a taxonomic category or group, such as family, genus, or species).
Gulls show much variation in size, colour, moult and other key identification features and as a result a wise birdwatcher will leave many gulls as unidentified eg Larus sp, armenicus ‘type’, putative armenicus or tentative armenicus
Some other help is here (click on each link to open):Gull Research Organisation
Taimyr Gull on breeding grounds