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home : birding w/don reimer : birding w/don reimer
January 29, 2020

2/4/2010 8:49:00 AM
The Unappreciated "Just Seagulls" -
Iceland Gull at Owls Head late last month  Photo by Don Reimer
Iceland Gull at Owls Head late last month Photo by Don Reimer

Of the different groups of birds pursued by birders, the members of the gull family are perhaps the least appreciated. The general public dismisses them as "just seagulls" that try to rob their sandwich at the beach. But, beyond their graceful flight and well-earned reputation as survivors, gulls offer several observation advantages over other species. Gulls are relatively easy to observe and study at close range, especially when they are perched in a stationary position. With a little practice, it is quite possible to distinguish between the sexes and identify the various age groups of most types of gulls.

The bird pictured above is a two-year-old Iceland Gull, a migratory species that nests in Arctic Canada. Each winter, limited numbers inhabit harbors and ocean inlets along the upper Atlantic coast and westward to the Great Lakes. They are opportunistic feeders that consume a wide array of food items.

Termed as one of the "white-winged" gulls, Iceland Gulls resemble Herring Gulls in several ways. They are slightly smaller, however, and lack the black wing tips. Besides the lighter-colored wing tips, we note a rounded head shape and long wings that extend well past the end of the tail. A few grayish adult-type feathers are evident on the wings and back of this particular individual. At two years of age, the gull's eye color has begun to change from dark brown to yellow. The legs are a deep pink color. Like most of the larger gull species, Iceland Gulls take four years to mature and acquire their full adult plumage. This means that they will pass through nine different plumage stages in their course to adulthood. As adults, they will show a light grey back and a yellowish-green bill.

One profitable way to study gulls is when flocks assemble together to rest or roost. During strong ocean wind storms, gulls often congregate on athletic fields and golf courses to ride out the heavy weather. At rest, individual gulls all will face in the same direction (pointing into the wind for immediate take-off in case danger appears). Scanning through such flocks, it is possible to pick out certain birds that are larger or smaller than surrounding birds or spot other gulls with a different-colored back, such as a Lesser Black-backed Gull. It is good to remember that male gulls are noticeably larger than females of the same species.

Sometimes gulls are easier to identify in flight when their general shape and size are more readily apparent. Try to focus on the head and tail of a flying gull for clues about its age. Most young gulls have a dark tail band and a dark or banded bill. These dark features diminish with each successive molt. Feathers perpetually wear out and fade throughout the year, adding to the challenge and fun of identifying Maine's gulls.

Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, February 11, 2010
Article comment by: Jonathan Erskine

Many years ago I was working and livung at the Tarratine Golf Club in Islesboro, when Hurricane Bob came through. I was amazed as hundreds of seagulls and killdeer lit on the golf course, all oriented in one direction, while the storm came through. Some of the seagulls seemed to be testing the storm. They would open their wings and float up a little, then land back about where they started.

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