So many birders cringe a bit and then chuckle when they hear people talking about sea gulls. I always think about a story from quite a few years back. When my grandson was about 6 years old, I took him to Sandy Point, on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis, Md., and taught him to use binoculars.
I had a fairly simple birding guide for him to use. I would show him a herring gull or a ring-billed gull in the book, and he would find and point the bird out on the jetty using his new binoculars. We had a wonderful time and it was an excellent learning session for my eager grandson.
Naturally, one of the first things I taught him was that there was no such species as a sea gull, and to use the birds’ proper names instead. Little did I know how the young man would take this to heart.
Several weeks later, my daughter phoned to inform me that my grandson had gotten into a confrontation with another boy in school about the fact there is no such species as sea gulls. Apparently the other kid didn’t have a bird-crazy grandmother.
There are three common gulls we see here in this area. Certainly you have heard the constant and very loud “Har har har haah” while you are trying to snooze in your beach chair at Stump Pass State Park. This call is made by the laughing gull, an obvious name when you hear them flying in groups in search of food. This is the most common gull we sight at the beach in this area. At approximately 16 inches in length, it’s considered a small gull.
During the summer, this handsome gull has a black hood on its head; during the winter, the head is white. The summer plumage is called breeding plumage. The laughing gull has an orange beak in summer and a blackish beak in the winter. Laughing gulls are Florida residents. They can be found along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and north up the Atlantic Coast.
Another gull we see frequently is the ring-billed gull. This gull is very easy to identify — the name tells it all. The beak has a black ring encircling the tip. In its summer breeding plumage, the ring-billed gull has a snow-white head. It is a soft gray on the back except for black wingtips and has a white body. The legs are yellowish green. At about 17 inches, the ring-billed is only a bit larger than the laughing gull.
We do see these birds at the beach, but they’re more likely to be found in interior areas (especially around landfills). Immature and non-breeding birds have brownish-gray streaks and are quite dull in appearance.
When you see a herring gull, you will immediately realize it is quite a bit larger than the laughing and ring-billed gulls. Herring gulls are probably one of the most recognized gulls along the coastal north Atlantic. Herring gulls are approximately 24 inches long. They have a yellow beak with a bright red dot below. Light gray feathers cover on the back and the body is white. The legs are pink all of the time.
The herring gull takes four years to mature into those colors; it starts out a mottled brownish and changes to a brownish gray as it matures. We see this species flying around fishing boats and at marinas waiting for the fishermen to dock. You also will see huge flocks of herring gulls alongside the ring-billed gulls at landfills.
Gulls are handsome birds, but are such an ever-present part of the beach landscape many people don’t even notice them. Most non-birders are rather oblivious of their presence, until they fly over their vehicles in huge flocks. When this happens, it’s best to run your car through the car wash ASAP.
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.