Gateway to nature: seagulls really are shore gulls
The mantle – or wing surface – of an adult herring gull is gray, and the lower yellow bill has a red patch near the front. Photo by Roy Lukes.
Throughout the summer we see two regular species of gulls: the herring gull and the somewhat smaller ring-billed gull. Occasionally, a few Bonaparte’s gulls are also seen, as as a primarily migratory species, a few immature birds may hang out around the shores of Lake Michigan. Black-backed gulls large and small also make an occasional appearance.
This column will cover the eight most commonly seen species in Wisconsin. Most people call them seagulls, but few species are actually found beyond the oceans. The vast majority prefer to stay along the shores or on inland lakes, and breeding colonies are found on the islands surrounding Door County. The first record in Lake Michigan of a nesting black gull was documented in 1995 on Spider Island, east of Newport State Park, during Wisconsin’s first breeding bird survey.
Great black-backed gulls have bred along the Atlantic coast and in the eastern Great Lakes for many years, but now extend further west and south along the Atlantic. They also nest further north in the Canadian Maritime provinces and could become a threat to puffin populations. This species is the largest gull in the world, with a wingspan of five to five and a half feet.
The little black-backed gull breeds in Eurasia and can be found on migration to extreme northeastern North America. It winters most often along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, but it is also known to visit the eastern half of the country.
Icelandic gulls and burgomaster gulls are breeders in the far northern part of our continent in the Arctic Circle and are only seen in Wisconsin during the winter months. The Glaucous Gull is the second largest in the world and both are completely white in their second year.
The two smallest are Franklin’s Gull and Bonaparte’s Gull. They are 13 to 14 inches long, compared to the large black-backed, which is 30 inches long. Both male and female adults are black headed during the nesting season.
The franklin’s seagull nests in the Prairie provinces of Canada and similar territories in Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas, nesting on the ground or on floating mats of cattails and rushes. It migrates south across most of North America and winters along the Pacific coast of the United States, Central and South America.
Bonaparte’s seagulls nest in conifers throughout most of Canada, from southern Hudson Bay and west to Alaska. We see them more often during migration than most other non-breeding gull species.
One of the last two most common species is the Gull. It nests on rocky shores and cliffs or on grassy mounds of islands around Door County. It is this species that is important in how my late husband, Roy, became the first director and chief naturalist of the Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor.
Harold Wilson and Merle Deusing were respectively chairman and vice chairman of The Ridges’ board of directors, and they were going to ring herring gulls nesting on the Adventure Islands in the summer of 1963. They invited Roy to help them. All three were federally licensed bird banders, but even with their experience, it was difficult to catch the young gulls as they hid under shrubs and nettles while being pelted by stingers. adults. On the way back to Ephraim, Wilson and Deusing asked Roy to take the job. It started in the summer of 1964.
Herring gulls are considered four-year-old gulls because this is the time it takes for them to reach the gray and white plumage of adulthood. First-year gulls are predominantly brown and white, with a pale black bill at the base. The ring-billed gull is a three-year-old gull, reaching adult plumage in its third summer. Both species have pale gray wings with black tips.
You can often see Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls in farm fields in the springtime as they follow plows that reveal grubs and earthworms as they turn over the soil. If you take a close look at the beaks and compare the body sizes, it is easy to tell them apart. The herring is 25 inches long and the ring-billed herring are 19.
Adult herring gulls have a red patch near the front of the lower mandible. Ring-billed gulls are exactly as the name suggests – they have a black vertical ring around the front part of the yellow bill. If you stop at a fast food restaurant and see gulls flying around the parking lot looking for fallen food, they are probably Ring-billed Gulls – they are great scavengers!