Category Archives: Gulls

Quick Guide to Gulls: Glaucous Gull

Unless you know where to go and what to look for, you may never see a Glaucous Gull in New England.  eBird can help you with where to look (see Glaucous Gull sightings map), and this post should help tune your spotting skills.

Photo of Gull mix

A useful starting point is to find a large group of gulls and methodically scan the wing-tip color of each bird.  Glaucous Gulls (along with young Iceland Gulls) have white or light-colored wing-tips, in stark contrast to the dark wing-tips of the more common Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed Gulls.

Size is another factor.  Whereas Iceland Gulls are smaller than an average Herring Gull, Glaucous Gulls are larger.  For example, below is a photograph of two white-winged gulls who caught my eye in South Portland, ME.  The bird, left of center, with wings stretched is a Glaucous; the other white-winged gull is an Iceland.

Photo of Glaucous Gull and Iceland Gull wings

Another useful field mark is bill color.  Both 1st and 2nd winter Glaucous Gulls have bi-colored bills -- pink tipped with black -- like the bird on the right in the photo below.  Older Glaucous Gulls (not pictured) have other characteristics, which I won't discuss here as they are less frequently seen in New England than young birds.  In contrast, young Iceland Gulls have mostly-dark bills.  (Note: The dark-billed gull below is a juvenile Herring.)

Photo of Glaucous Gull (immature)

At the risk of oversimplifying, if you see a large, all-white gull with a bi-colored bill, you've likely found a young Glaucous Gull.  The following photo shows a Ring-billed (top left), Iceland (center), Glaucous (right), and Great Black-backed (bottom).

Photo of Glaucous Gull and Iceland Gull

Of course, at times these field marks are difficult to notice, and size can be hard to judge.  In some cases, a particular gull will simply strike you as different.  With this in mind, can you spot the sleepy Glaucous Gull in the top photo?

Quick Guide to Gulls: Great Black-backed Gull

Photo of Great Black-backed Gull

The Great Black-backed Gull (GBBG) is the largest gull worldwide and can be found with regularity in many parts of New England. While not as numerous inland as Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, they are the third most common gull who I encounter. Adult birds are quite distinctive, with black-backs, pinkish legs, and large yellow bills marked with a red spot. Lesser Black-backed Gulls (LBBG), while similar in many respects, are substantially smaller birds, with lighter-colored backs and yellow legs. In New England, LBBGs are much less common, turning up most frequently in coastal locations in winter.

Photo of Great Black-backed Gull

GBBGs take roughly four years to obtain adult plumage and in the process take on many different looks. Regardless of plumage variation, GBBGs stand out in a mixed flock of gulls, due to their impressively large size. The above photo shows an adult Great Black-backed Gull along with Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.

Quick Guide to Gulls: Herring Gull

It takes four years for a Herring Gull to obtain full adult plumage (a transition that takes three years for the Ring-billed Gull). The following photos show a sampling of their winter plumage.

Photo of Herring Gull (1st winter)

Photo of Herring Gull (3rd winter)

Photo of Herring Gull (adult winter)

I can't anyways pin down the exact age of an immature gull, but for now I'm more than satisfied just being able to sort out the various species that I encounter. Regardless of age, note the pink legs of Herring Gulls.

Quick Guide to Gulls: Ring-billed Gull

Gulls are a group of birds that can challenge birders of all levels. Lay people often refer to them generically as seagulls, but as you'll see (in this and future posts), the diversity within and between species of gulls begs greater specificity. Watch a group of gulls for any length of time, and you'll witness this first-hand.

Gulls vary widely in size and coloration, with young birds of a given species taking from one to four years to obtain adult plumage.  Young gulls are usually browner overall, and look crisper with age.

Photo of Ring-billed Gull (adult)

A common gull found practically continent-wide is the Ring-billed Gull. Adult birds (above photo) have yellow legs, yellow bills marked with a ring of black, and black-tipped wings. When standing with wings folded, small white spots are visible on those black tips.

Photo of Ring-billed Gull (immature)

First-year birds are darker and have black-tipped bills, instead of an adult's signature ringed-bill. The above photo shows two adults with a first-winter bird. The gray back on this young bird is beginning to come in.

Next time you spot a group of parking lot, restaurant, ocean or lakeside gulls, stop and see if you can pick out an adult and an immature Ring-billed Gull.