Saturday, March 5, 2016


Gulls. They are a most unloved species by humans.  I grew up with them in my hometown of Two Rivers and took them for granted. They are loud, obnoxious, messy and can be downright cunning! Today, I find gulls to be some of the most fascinating birds out there.

Heermann's Gull
It's not easy being a gull. People shoot at them, throw things at them and often use foul language around them at the beach.  Sure they crap on people's things, steal their beach snacks and like to congregate in large groups, but the opposite can also be said about people:) Every day gulls clean up people's messes around public areas. They also face other human threats. Take for example this near threatened Heermann's Gull.  Did the bird lose a foot to a fisherman's net?  Considered to be one of the most beautiful gulls of North America, it's one that faces declining numbers.

Left-California Gull Right-Heermann's Gull

The California Gull with its' nice round head and smaller build with both a black and red dip on the bill makes it an easier gull to ID. It's also the state bird of Utah.

Yellow-footed Gull
The Yellow-footed Gull is the most special gull of all.  Many American birders try their best to find this bird in the US so that they can count it on their ABA list.  Just a few are seen and known to breed in an area known as the Salton Sea.  Unfortunately, the Salton Sea is disappearing and these gulls could be restricted entirely to the Gulf of Mexico if this US habitat vanishes.

Herring Gull
Who has pretty pink legs?  Why this Herring Gull of course! 

Ring-billed Gulls are everywhere and tend to be smaller than most other gulls. They are inland gulls and are quite common in many areas.

Ring-billed Gull
Many times people make the mistake and call gulls "Seagulls".  In the birding world, this is taboo.  Just use the word "Gull" and you'll be okay. Although, there are many gulls that fly over the sea.....Just saying:)

Great black-backed Gull
The Great black-backed has a VERY dark back and is rather large. Just like the name suggests:) Once they were rare off the shores of my hometown.  However, their numbers seemed to have grown around the Great Lakes area over the years during the winter months.

Great black-backed Gull
And then there are Herring Gulls.  This is the gull of my hometown.  This species can get confused with many other species of gulls such as the Thayer's and Iceland Gulls.  So what are the field marks that help distinguish one gull species from the other?

Herring Gull

Well one.  Have patience. Here are some tips......

1.  Size.  If you have other gulls around,which is often, it can help easily ID the various species that will amass on beaches or over your car. 

Bonaparte's Gull
2.  Leg color.  Are they pink, bright pink, yellow, dark yellow, etc etc.

3.  The bill and the gull dip(the color dot on the bill).  Is there a red dip or black dip or both? Is the bill strong?  Or smaller?  When juvenile gulls in their various cycles are thrown into the mix, it can get REAL tricky.  Fast:)

Laughing Gull-note black cap extends further up the head.  Orange legs are also...oranger:)
4.  The primary tail feathers. Do the edges of the end and side feathers on the wings have a dotted white or all white feature? Or no feature at all? 

Can you ID these gulls?  There are 4 species of gulls in this one shot. 
Is there any black?  If the gull is completely gray, you might have a Glaucous Gull!

Franklin's Gull
5. Head shape. Is it round? Odd shaped? The black capped gulls(or the gulls with the "hoods") can be told apart by how far their black hood extends on their head. 

Juvenile Sabine's Gull
6. Eye color, ring around eyes, head color and calls can also be helpful.  In other words, you need patience.  Or find a birder on your walk and ask:)

I found my biology mentor Dr. Sontag on the trails in Manitowoc.  He was the perfect cure for my ID ailment. 
It takes a while to figure it all out, but it's great once you do!  I still have a lot of work to do, but I enjoy gull ID very much. 

Gulls are amazing birds. They are the acrobatics of the air.  The silent stalkers from behind. The inspiration behind a painter's need to fill the skies along the sandy shores of the ocean.

When I look at gulls, I am reminded of my home.  And it makes me happy.  A world without gulls would be a very dull one.    


  1. Goodness so much information about gulls Chris, I won't ever call them seagulls again and will look for defining markings/colours.

  2. Chris, well, now you have educated me. I did not know that the spots on the bill were called, "the dip." And I did not know it was "taboo" to call them "seagulls." As you know, we have our share of gulls here on the east coast. I like the gulls, but sometimes they certainly are a challenge to identify! I am lucky enough to have seen a yellow-footed Gull, bit I would sure love to see a Herrman's Gull! This was a fun and informative post!

  3. Sorry, Chris, but I'm one of those who find it difficult to get excited about gulls. It's possible that it's because I also find it difficult to identify them, particularly in pre-adult stages. Perhaps I'd do better if I followed your tips - I'm about to list them on my phone for future reference !!!

    Best wishes to you both - - - Richard

  4. I spend hours looking through flocks of gulls at the weekend. I can;t imagine a weekend without them.

  5. Great post! As someone who grew up (and still lives) along the coast, I love to watch gulls and find their antics endlessly fascinating. I was interested to read that the Heerman's gull population is declining as I would have said (just based on visual observation) that it is the most common or second most common (after Western gull) where I live. I'll be paying even closer attention to them now to see if I notice a change in numbers.

    1. It's interesting. Their numbers seem to be moving north along the coast of California and seem to be in higher numbers between San Diego and Ventura, CA

  6. Well, I live on a lake that, at this moment is full of gulls of several different kinds. I also live close to Lake Michigan that has many of the same gulls and some that are different. And then there is the WalMart parking lot ... it too is full of gulls. I know the names of several of the gulls that frequent our lake, but haven't studied much beyond that. This post is most interesting and has tweaked my interest in exploring all of the gulls I have seen over the years. Thank you for reminding me not to take them for granted. I have always enjoyed their antics and look forward to getting better acquainted with them.

    Andrea @ From the Sol

  7. I think you probably hit the nail on the head at the beginning of the post... people don't like them because they remind them of themselves...hahahhah...loud, obnoxious.. thieves ... crappers..etc....

  8. Great post. I wish it had been available to help me last year! Australians are spoilt as we only have 3 gulls which are easy to identify, so we struggle when travelling!

  9. A great post Chris on species that sadly often get such bad publicity. I am ok on adult gull id but have to admit I struggle immensely with all the different plumages of non-adult gulls!! Still as always with birding we are always learning :)

  10. Excellent and informative post, Chris! Your photos are superb and better than any of my field guides to point out the identifying features. I get few gulls in my south Florida neighborhood as we are 18 miles inland. Nearly all are Ring-billed.


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