The problem with gulls

Today was a travel day and so I decided to think of a bird topic to talk about and landed (forgive the pun) on gulls!

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: There is no such thing as a seagull! It’s a generic term that doesn’t apply to any specific species.

The problem with gull identification is the sheer variety of plumages that many of them go through, so that although a lot of the full summer plumage adults are fairly recognisable those in winter plumage, or juveniles, can be much trickier.

For example the very well-known, common and noisy (it’s probably most often the one you’ll hear making a lot of noise in our towns and cities) herring gull, when I look it up to check, has illustrations for juvenile, 1st winter, 2nd winter, 3rd winter, winter adult and summer adult, plus sub-species that are slightly different in northern Europe and western Europe. And many of these plumage variations are extremely similar to other gull species, particularly in non-adults….

Even some seasoned birders tend to look the other way, whilst others actively specialise in gull identification. I have always been of the former category to a greater or lesser extent: Lead me to a flock of gulls in a field or on a beach and I’ll tend to ignore them, or scan through quickly for those that I can easily identify. I am very, very unlikely to be the person who finds and identifies an unusual gull, or bothers to try to work out if any of the non-adults in a group of herring gulls, for instance, are actually something else. So my life-list of unusual gulls is limited to those I have seen abroad that were obviously a particular species because of clear adult plumage, habitat or geographical location, or those seen in the UK that had been already identified by someone more experienced.

I have tried to get better (or even get excited) by gull identification, but have failed somewhat – some of them are really beautiful, but I’m not sure that I’m ever going to have the will-power to try to work out all the non-adult versions. My failing of course!

Having written all this I thought I would go through my photograph collection to see what gulls I had pictures of. I suspected that nearly all would be adults, but thought it would be interesting to see what came up. There were actually more gull photos than I expected, so here are a selection for you to compare. Enjoy!

Adult common gull on a nest (Scotland 2023)
A pair of mediterranean gulls at Titchwell this spring, with black-headed gulls for comparison
A summer plumage black-headed gull
A black-headed gull halfway between summer and winter plumage (taken in 2005)
A Caspian gull, probably in 1st or 2nd winter plumage (Poland 2021)
A juvenile or 1st winter glaucous gull (this one was eating from a seal carcass on Cley beach in 2020)
An adult winter plumage laughing gull (Florida, 2020)
An adult yellow-legged gull (Portugal 2019)
Adult Sabine’s gull at Graffham Water (2011)

No new species for September 2nd:

Birds = 215
Moths = 219
Wildflowers = 275