Contrary to popular belief, there is actually no such thing as a “seagull.” Birds in the family Laridae are often dismissed as “just another seagull,” but this family offers a great variety of species that can be seen around Long Island coasts, fields, and sometimes even the least expected places like parking lots and landfills. That is because almost all gulls are omnivorous scavengers who are willing to eat virtually anything. Gulls, unlike other seabirds, rarely go far out to sea, preferring to stay near the coast. Learning to identify gulls can be tricky because of their wide variety of plumage in the years it takes to reach maturity, although there are always key features that you can look for to aid your quest. Bonus points for taking on this challenge from your beach chair!
A classically “seagull” looking gull, the herring gull (Larus argentatus) has light grey back and wings, white underparts, and dull pink legs at all ages. Although juveniles range in plumage through the first four years of their life, you can start to identify this species by learning their chunky shape. Herring gulls prefer to drink fresh water, but in a pinch they, and other gulls, can drink the saltwater that would kill other animals. The saltwater is absorbed into the bloodstream, processed through salt glands above the eyes, and then excreted from their nostrils. If you see a gull shaking its head at the beach, it is actually shaking the salty droplets off its beak. Herring gulls will eat many things, including clams, fish, and crabs, along with unguarded beach picnic detritus.
With slate-grey back feathers and a white head, the lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) is just slightly smaller than the herring gull. Although the lesser black-backed gull hails from Europe, their population is growing in North America and are now commonly seen in the US. It takes this bird around 4 years to reach its adult plumage. Juvenile plumage ranges from splotches of dark brown to white. Since juvenile birds can be confusing, try picking out adult birds by plumage and see if you can match the size and shape to juveniles in the area.
The great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) is the largest species of gull in the world! This impressively large gull has a wingspan reaching over 5 feet and a heavy yellow bill. It is the only adult gull species in the Long Island area with a black back and pinkish legs. Like other gulls, the great black-backed gull will scavenge for carrion, dead fish, and trash, but will also steal food from other gulls and seabirds. They will even prey on small birds and chicks of other species. In the 19th century, great black-backed gulls were almost driven to extinction for their fashionable feathers and by the egg collecting trade. The population of the great black-backed gull has steadily grown thanks to legal protection and their adaptability to utilize landfills and other increasing man-made food sources.
A medium sized gull with yellow legs, the ring billed gull (Larus delawarensis) is aptly named for the adult’s neat black ring at the tip of its short bill. The rest of the bird’s plumage matches other gulls’ grey back and white head and chest. Ring billed gulls will nest communally with other gull species, and often return to nest year after year in the same locations where they hatched. Gulls like the ring billed will also frequent tilled farmland to eat earthworms that have been exposed. At other times, gulls can be seen “loafing” on the beach, in fields, or parking lots. This is a term used by behaviorists that means “doing nothing at all.”
Laughing gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla) can be seen along Long Island coasts in spring, summer, and fall; they are more uncommon in winter since they usually migrate to warmer southern states. This joyous black headed adult has grey back plumage that fades to black wingtips. Its bill is dark red in the summer and black in the winter. Unlike some other Long Island gull species, the laughing gull will stay near the coast rather than wandering inland.
Other uncommon species of gulls that have been seen on Long Island are Bonaparte’s gull, Iceland gull, glaucous gull, and much more rarely black-legged kittiwake that sometimes get blown to shore in storms. However, the aforementioned common species of gulls have been seen at the Refuge, taking a break from the beach while bathing and drinking in our freshwater ponds. Try to “see”-a-gull the next time you visit the Quogue Wildlife Refuge!
By Cara Fernandes