The first time I ever birded the coast I saw what I was certain were a pair of California Gulls. I was in Maine, and so this was quite the discovery for a beginner like myself. “I need to alert someone to this!” I thought. “I need to call the National Audubon Society!” I didn’t, thankfully, because the birds I was looking at were absolutely not California Gulls, but rather common Herring Gulls. Looking at my field guide with my beginner eyes, though, the two species looked almost exactly alike.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Gulls are the most difficult group of birds to identify. All the different species are just variations on the same basic theme: a gray back on a white body. There’s no, like, Red Gull, where you can look out and say, “Oh yeah, there’s a Red Gull. It’s the one that’s red.” Nope, of the twenty-or-so gull species you may encounter in America, they’ve all more or less got a gray back and a white body.
Quick side note: These birds are called “gulls”—not “seagulls.” Yes, gulls can be found by the sea, but also along rivers and lakes and even parking lots and landfills and dumpsters and lots of places. Get hip to the lingo, and call them “gulls.”
To make things even more difficult, while many birds have three basic looks—juvenile plumage in their first year of life followed by alternating breeding and nonbreeding adult plumages—a gull has several more. A gull’s transition from brown juvenile to gray-and-white adult can take as many as four years, with a bunch of confusing plumages in between.
A few more rapid-fire annoying things about gulls:
- Different gull species have a habit of mating with each other, producing hybrid birds with plumage characteristics of two species. Great.
- Since gulls spend so much time in open areas their feathers can get bleached by the sun, adding to the identification problems.
- Because many gull species breed in the far North, most American gull-watching is done in winter. In the dead of freezing, windy winter.
Despite these difficulties (or maybe because of them), gull-watching can be extremely rewarding. The patience and skill required to correctly pick out a rare gull is the sign of an advanced birder, and it’s what makes “larophiles” (from Laridae, the family name for gulls) something like royalty in the birding world.
So have I hooked you yet? Are you ready for the kind of birding experience that involves standing still in a blowing February wind looking at the last page of a Where’s Waldo book—you know, the one where it’s just a bunch of Waldos? Good, then stick with me, because we’re going to start with Ring-billed Gulls.
Ring-bills are the best beginner gull because they’re common in the lower 48 (especially in winter) and have a pretty “classic” gull look: white body (duh), light gray back (of course), black wing tips (like most gulls!), yellow legs (sure). In winter, when they’re more common, they’ll have some amount of gray smudging or flecking on the head, typical of non-breeding gulls.
But there’s one field mark on Ring-billed Gulls you should look for first. Take a wild guess at what it is, keeping in mind that bird names are not very creative. You’re right! They have a ring around the bill.
Bill patterns are very helpful in gull identification. Most adult white-headed gulls have yellow bills with some additional coloring. Many species have red or black spots on the lower part of the front of the bill, called a gonydeal spot. Adult ring-bills, however, don’t have a spot, they’ve got a clean black band towards the tip of the bill, surrounded by yellow.
For my money, it’s the most helpful common gull identification point there is. If you see a gull with red on its bill, it ain’t a ring-billed. If you see a gull with a clean white body and gray back, and a yellow bill with a black ring around it, you’re most likely looking at a Ring-billed Gull, especially if you’re in a parking lot or, say, at a park (these guys are pretty social). Let your friends know, they’ll be impressed.
Or actually, maybe wait, because it’s not foolproof. For one thing, it’ll only work on adult birds. If the gull you’re looking at has anything but clean white, black, or gray feathers—if it has dirty gray or brown feathers on its back, say—it’s not an adult and suddenly a bunch of other species are in the mix. In that case, take a picture, get a good field guide, and tuck in to the insane world of gulls.
Where to go from here? Keep studying, and keep looking at gulls. I’ve found that when scanning a flock of gulls (or any birds, really) the “Sesame Street” method works best. That is: “one of these things is not like the other.” Look for things that stand out as unlike the other nearby gulls. Does one have a darker shade of gray on the back? Odd-colored legs? No black in the wing-tips? Each of these markers is an indication of a different species.
Look at you! You’re identifying gulls! You’re not a feeder-watcher anymore, friend, you’re a birder. Now get back inside before you freeze to death.