Lovable gulls for gull-haters!

adult Bonaparte's Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) in breeding plumage, in April in Ohio. Photo by Kenn Kaufman.

by Kenn Kaufman on October 21, 2010 · 19 comments

in Birding North America

First: ugly Gulls!

I admit it: I love gulls.  They are endlessly fascinating and challenging.  If we look at a gull flock closely, we find that no two individuals look exactly the same.  They vary with age, season, and individual, many species are confusingly similar, and they often hybridize, further adding to the challenge of figuring them out.  Of course, many birders hate gulls for the same reasons that I love them.

This was an American Herring Gull that had skipped out of our local garbage dump for long enough to eat rotting dead fish on the beach.  It’s April, and the bird is in moderately worn plumage:

American Herring Gull in Ohio in April. Photo by Kenn Kaufman.

But that bird doesn’t look nearly as bad as this one: a worn, faded, gross-looking bird, standing around on a Texas beach in May.  The first birder to positively identify this one will receive a valuable coupon, good for 50 cents off on the purchase of a Boeing 747:

Large Larus gull in very worn first-cycle plumage. Photo by Kenn Kaufman.

But they’re not all bad …

With birds like that wandering around, it’s no wonder that some birders hate gulls.  But if you are one of those, I’d like to offer some antidotes.  Some gulls are genuinely nice-looking creatures.  Consider this Heermann’s Gull, a common bird along the Pacific Coast of northwestern Mexico and seasonally common north along the coast of California, occasionally getting as far as southwestern Canada:

adult Heermann's Gull at Morro Bay, California, in January. Photo by Kenn and Kim Kaufman.

Here’s another bird to consider: the Dolphin Gull, common around the southern tip of South America.  Sure, it has sort of a pig-faced expression, but at least it’s easy to identify:

Dolphin Gull at Ushuaia, Argentina, in January. Photo by Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman.

And if that doesn’t do it for you, take a look at the remarkable Swallow-tailed Gull of the Galapagos.  This stunning bird flies around at night – it’s the only gull in the world that’s mainly nocturnal – and its white bill tip is thought to be an adaptation to help with feeding its chicks in dim light.

adult Swallow-tailed Gull in the Galapagos Islands in December. Photo by Kenn Kaufman.

Bonaparte’s Gull: it’s not like all the other gulls

For most readers of this blog, though, it would take some traveling to see most of these birds, so I offer up a substitute that’s widespread in North America:  Bonaparte’s Gull (as the top picture).

adult Bonaparte's Gull in April, molting into breeding plumage. Photo by Kenn Kaufman.

This small, delicate gull was not named for Napoleon, but rather for his distant relative, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, who was a skilled naturalist.  As shown in the first photo at the top of this post, Bonaparte’s Gull in breeding plumage has a black hood, but winter adults are white-headed with a small black ear spot.

adult Bonaparte's Gull in winter plumage, in Ohio in November. Photo by Kenn Kaufman.

Bonaparte’s Gull nests in forested regions of Canada and Alaska, and nests in the forest, placing its nest one to five meters (or about three to fifteen feet) above the ground on a branch of a coniferous tree.  (I’d like to see one of those big, honking Herring Gulls try to do that!)  First-winter birds have a more complicated wing pattern and a black tail band, as shown below.

Bonaparte's Gull in first-winter plumage. Photo by Kenn Kaufman.

Bonaparte's Gull in first-winter plumage. Photo by Kenn Kaufman.

Where my wife Kimberly and I do much of our birding – along the Lake Erie shoreline in Ohio, USA – there will be tens of thousands of Bonaparte’s Gulls in November, with smaller numbers remaining as long as there’s any unfrozen water.  But Bonaparte’s also can be found seasonally over most of Canada, the USA, northern Mexico, and the northern Caribbean; it strays to Europe (especially Britain and Ireland) and has appeared in West Africa and Japan.  So many birders have the opportunity, at least occasionally, to enjoy this gull.

What about you – do you hate gulls?  Love them?  Do you think Bonaparte’s Gull makes a good ambassador for the group, or would you choose a different gullfriend?

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Schmoker October 21, 2010 at 4:13 pm

I’m a larophile. Great post on this challenging bird group! Also, congrats to the author ensemble for this promising new blog.


Gyorgy Szimuly October 21, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Gulls are just awesome like many other birds just different way. Most birders hate them because their identification is the most challenging task in birding not talking about understanding the their taxonomy. 🙂
Immatures and 2 and 3 years old birds are still not looking like an adult and they change their plumage too many times before reaching the striking adult plumage.

Best, Szimi


Margaret October 21, 2010 at 4:57 pm

We are lucky here in the Western Cape, South Africa to only have a few Gull species to worry about! Hartlaubs Gull is our most common, though its classified as rare, but locally very common, and very tame in coastal cities. Kelp Gull or Cape gull is our only other one, much bigger, looks very like Blackbacked Gull. We do get Sabine’s Gulls in Feb or our summer, close inshore, and Franklins and Blackheaded are exciting vagrants. Greyheaded Gulls are found everywhere in the country that Hartlaubs arent, but have started in inbreed here in the Western Cape. Really enjoyed your Blog, nice to see Gulls from other countries.


Randy October 21, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Nice article, Kenn. I also like the Laughing Gull. Though, they are hard to find in NW Ohio!


Mike October 21, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Terrific post, Kenn! I’m no larophile but I’ll take a tilt at your Texas gull. That flat head makes me think Western Gull.


Grant McCreary October 22, 2010 at 1:24 am

Not sure that I’m a full-fledged gull-lover, but I certainly appreciate them. Bonaparte’s, being common, widespread, and snazzy, makes a good ambassador. For the stunners, though, I would add Ivory Gull. I never would have thought that an entirely white bird would be so striking.

I’d love that coupon for my own jet, so I’ll wager a guess. Great Black-backed is the first thing that came to mind.


Jan Axel October 22, 2010 at 1:53 am

I’m officially a gull-lover. The Bonapartes also wander all the way down here to Panama (where it is very rare), but my first one was this year at the Niagara Falls!


Wren October 22, 2010 at 2:09 am

Like Randy, my favorites are the laughing gulls. It was really a bit spooky the first time I heard one.


Gunnar Engblom October 22, 2010 at 6:45 am

Most immature gulls are quite ugly…but if there is a prize to the
prettiest one of the youngs…in my opinion it would go to Belcher’s Gull in
Peru. Rick Wright has some pics of Belcher’s Gull on his blog from his
recent trip to Peru with us.


Kathy H October 22, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I saw thousands on Bonaparte’s Gulls a couple weeks ago while on Vancouver Island (West Coast Canada). Most were in Winter plumage. And we get them out here in the Cdn Priaires too (but the most abundant black-headed gull out here is the Franklin’s)

Nice blog, Gunnar et al; great post, Kenn


Wildbirdygirl October 22, 2010 at 6:42 pm

I love gulls, I recently moved and now live near the coast so often there are lots of sea gulls flying overhead. I think they are very elegant. I am not well up on gulls but from the photo I believe we have the Bonaparte Gulls here in England.


Gunnar Engblom October 22, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Bonapart’s Gull is not unsimilar in pattern to Black-headed Gull – a
European counterpart..and the likely species you have encountered.


Dawn October 22, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Great Gulls Galore! I certainly don’t hate gulls. I would love to see the striking Swallow-tailed Gull, or the funky beaked Dolphin Gull. I agree with you , I think the Bonapartes Gull would be a great ambassador Gull……for all the reasons you mentioned….
After this post I can see I need a few more Gullfriends..:)


Michael October 27, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Unleash the gulls!!!

Thanks for the great post.


Hilke Breder October 29, 2010 at 10:52 am

I love gulls, can spend winter nights looking through my many gull photos, trying to identify them all by species and age. Bonaparte’s are my favorites, along with the Black-headed Gulls in my native country, Germany. Two other species with an appealing expression are the Iceland Gulls, particularly the immature ones that we see in the Northeast in winter, and the Black-legged Kittiwakes.


NeilDManthorpe November 13, 2010 at 11:32 am

Never been that sure about gulls until last week in Hungary. Always been of the view that there is one species of Middle White-headed Gull! One great big lump – which is what most Herring Gulls look like anyway. Then I got to see Caspian Gulls in eastern Hungary and they are clearly different from the Herring Gulls on my local gravel pit. Perhaps I will go back and look more closely. Or is that a sign of madness?


Amar Ayyash August 5, 2011 at 9:37 am

Nice post, Ken. Gulls are a lot of fun. They can usually be brought in, easy to watch and offer a challenge if you’re up for one. Here’s a link to my blog that’s devoted to gulls: http://anythinglarus.blogspot.com/


Shannon Larkin July 2, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Dear Kenn,

Some students in my graduate program would like to use
the still image of the black-headed gull found at the top of the page in a short documentary on cancer.  The image would be
used in a quick slideshow demonstrating multicellular biodiversity.


We are happy to credit you.  May we have
permission to use the image?




Shannon Larkin


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