Yeh, Gulls can be difficult

Please consider all images as copyrighted and ask permission to use for any reason. Thanks, DEClapp

Gulls are found worldwide; mostly in the Northern Hemisphere but still worldwide. Many are related to salt water and pretty much all of them are related to water. Those that may nest in the continental interior usually fly to the coast for the non-breeding part of their year. Some migrate, many don’t. Some are very large and a few are quite small. Many are white-headed and others are black-headed. There is not such thing as a “sea gull”. They are all gulls and some do live near the sea – are usually seen by the sea – but the phrase “sea gull” is really quite meaningless to a birder or naturalist.

These are obvious and gregarious birds. They nest in colonies and on the ground. Because they are large and noisy they can drive off many predators; in fact they can be quite predatory themselves. They prefer open areas where they can take advantage of winds and are often found gathering at places where humans deposit waste materials. As a matter of fact the most significant management action taken by humans that impacted gulls was the closing of open dumps and trash pits. Gulls are opportunistic feeders and the open dumps provided easy food. Over the past decade or two landfills have been covered and capped and wintering gulls have had a harder time finding food.

An interesting thought regarding gulls at this moment; they are evolving as we watch. The average gull may be white-headed and gray (or black) backed and seen most anywhere in the world. But the reality is that they range in size and color pattern in a step by step by step way from small and light to large and dark. Many of them (are they all species really?) can interbreed with other gull types.

The standard north American gull may be what we call the Herring Gull (HEGU), but it has nearly identical genetic cousins in the Mew Gull (MEGU), the Heermann’s Gull (HEEG), the Ring-billed Gull (RBGU), the California Gull (CAGU), the Thayer’s Gull (THGU), the Iceland Gull (ICGU), the Glaucous-winged Gull (GWGU), and the Glaucous Gull (GLGU)– and these are just its gray-backed relatives. There are another cadre of five types of near-Herring Gulls that are black-backed. That means that there are 15 types, or species, that are all cast from the same mold; or have descended from the same gull ancestor. There is another group of gulls that have black heads and are closely related to each other and less closely to these 15 species; these are the Little (LIGU), Bonaparte’s (BOGU), Black-headed (BHGU), Franklin’s (FRGU), and Laughing Gulls (LAGU). Then there are five species of Arctic gulls that we see infrequently. But it is very exciting to see when we do see them (Sabine’s (SAGU), Ross’s (ROGU), Red- (RLKI) and Black-legged Kittiwakes (BLKI), and Ivory (IVGU)). And this is just in North America – phew.

So let’s take a look at some assorted gulls – mostly US gulls. I won’t cover the various age plumages that gulls pass through but let me just say that what makes them troublesome is that there are many different plumage arrays as they age toward maturity. The larger gulls usually take four years to reach that adult plumage and the smaller gulls take two or three years. That creates a big mess of plumage stages that gulls go through. It isn’t always easy to age an individual – but as I said, we will look only at adults. There is one from outside North America included – but there are a few gulls in New Zealand, Australia, and southern South America. Maybe we will look at those family members some day.

Let’s start off with the standard North American gull – the Herring Gull. If you get the chance to visit a herring run (a stream) in April in Massachusetts you can be enthralled by the migrating fish and auditorially assaulted by the Herring Gulls that are looking to grab a migrating herring. The fish are 11-12 inches long and these birds can gulp one down in a flash. This is a four-year gull and offers a confusing test for gull watchers as it passes through varying brown and grayish plumages before coming iconic in appearance. They can be found all along the Mexican coast and throughout the USA and Canada. There are also Siberian and European populations. This is a very successful creature living in and adapting to all sorts of coastal and inland habitats.
A very similar gull is the Lesser Black-backed Gull. It is small and more charcoal on the back (mantle) than the herring gull and not as large or as black as the Great Black-backed Gull. The yellow legs are characteristic of this type. It is primarily a European bird but spreading into the Canadian Maritimes and on south from there. It is mostly a visitor from Iceland and Britain but it is likely to become a scarce breeder very shortly. As they say – wait ’til next year.
In the Pacific Northwest and down along the California coast we have the Glaucous-winged Gull It is obviously of the same heritage as the others but was separated by the ice age (or ice ages) and form a distinct population that is able to hybridize readily with other gulls of the region (Herring, Glaucous, and Western). The flight feathers (primaries) are tipped in gray not black as seen in most other species.
This gull is quite white overall – it is a Glaucous Gull the largest of the white-winged gulls This individual was on a post near the Long Island ferry dock at Orient Point but could have been coastally anywhere from Washington DC up and around the top of Canada and then down as far as Seattle. Yet like most gulls they could turn up just about anywhere. The two-tone bill on this bird shows it to be a juvenile born earlier in the same year I photographed it. They breed well above the tree line in very northern Canada.
Obviously this is another white-winged gull, the Iceland Gull. It is smaller than the Glaucous and more likely to be seen in the northeast. This is a smaller gull with the same sort of white or dusky plumage that you see the the Glaucous Gull. In general the Iceland is a species of Northeast USA and the similar Thayer’s Gull a species of the Pacific Northwest. But they overlap and may simply be two populations of the same bird. Perhaps separated for a few thousand years (generations) allowing the Thayer’s group to become a bit darker especially in juvenile plumage.
The Ivory Gull is one of the deep Arctic gulls. It is pure white and a very rare visitor to the USA. This is a bird of the pack ice and gets its food from Polar Bear scraps and droppings. Aside from the diet, it is quite elegant and strikingly white. The bird above with the orange-tipped bill and deep black legs and eyes is an adult.
Then there are the black-headed gulls. Many of them will lose the black head feathers in a post-breeding molt and regain them the next breeding season. These two birds are Laughing Gulls, the most common of the black headed gulls on the east coast of North America. There is a similar cousin, the Franklin’s Gull, which is very similar and significantly more inland in nature.
Here is a quiz. What difference do you see in these three birds? They are about the same shape and size. The two on the left look like Laughing Gulls. The one on the right doesn’t have a full black hood and the back is much lighter. As a matter of fact if you draw the hood onto the right hand bird it will be a different shape than the hood on the Laughers. It is actually a winter-plumaged Black-headed Gull.
These three are Bonaparte’s Gulls; named for Napoleon’s nephew who was one of Europe and North America’s great ornithologists a couple hundred years ago. These are smallish gulls that often look like terns as they skim and cavort over the water. They can be found all over the US during the winter but breed well north into Canada and Alaska. They will develop black hoods as the breeding season approaches. They can be confused with Black-headed and Little Gulls as well as wintering Black-legged Kittiwakes.
One last gull, there are many more really, is the Swallow-tailed Gull from the Galapagos Islands. It has big eyes and a rather long thin bill. It is nocturnal and flies out from the islands at night to feed in the open ocean. It is a very attractive gull and always a highlight when in the eastern Pacific. The Galapagos offer all sorts of rare and unusual things but always in moderation. There are a few reptiles, a few birds, and so on. The reef fish can be a bit daunting but there are only a couple gulls.

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