Gulls get a bum rap. Ask any birder to tell you their favorite bird. They might say a species of raptor or a long-legged wader, but never a gull. Same goes for the average beachgoer, who considers the scavengers to be nothing but a nuisance that you don't want flying over you. What a shame. The very attributes that make gulls unpopular also make them utterly fascinating to watch. You just have to have the right frame of mind to begin with.
Let's start with their name. To a serious birder, there is no such thing as a seagull—except, admittedly, for a certain independent and enlightened individual named Jonathan Livingston. Try to look up the word "seagull" in a bird book. It's not there. They're just plain gulls.
Gulls generally have heavy bodies, stout bills with a slight hook at the tip, webbed feet, long pointed wings and short square tails. People often mistake terns for gulls, but terns are smaller, more streamlined birds with forked tails and slender, sharp-tipped bills. Terns also tend to dive into the water bill first-behavior you'd probably never observe in a gull. Most gulls land on the water feet first and then pluck their food.
You can observe some fourteen species of gulls in North Carolina depending on season, location, and luck, but only five of them are common enough to see regularly. The laughing gull, Larus atricilla, is a very common summer resident (less so in winter) along the coast and estuaries, but is rarely seen far inland. It is a smallish and handsome gull, with a black head, dark red bill, and white crescents above and below the eyes. In summer, it's the only gull you're likely to see with a black head. In winter, the color fades to a whitish gray.
Laughers, as the birders like to call them, are my favorite gull. They're the ones that follow along the ferries hoping for a tossed breadcrumb, and their acrobatic flying borders on the realm of the unimaginable. I like to think that Richard Bach was tossing crumbs to laughing gulls from a North Carolina ferry boat when he got the inspiration to write his popular short story. Few other birds can fly with such grace. Watching them, you can easily imagine that you're watching Jonathan Livingston Seagull himself. As for the gull's name, when you hear a group of them calling, you instantly know why their called laughing gulls.
Like the laughing gull, the adult Bonaparte's gull, Larus philadelphia, also has a black head in summer; but in North Carolina, you're only likely to see one during the winter, when its head changes to mostly white. It's also smaller than the laughing gull and has a more ternlike appearance, especially in flight. It likes to hang out over the ocean near the shore or on inland lakes and sounds. Bonaparte's gulls are opportunistic feeders like other gulls; but unlike most other gulls, they like to feed in flight, dipping their bills to the water's surface to catch fish.
Ring-billed gulls, Larus delawarensis, are larger than laughing gulls and have (you guessed it) a dark ring on the tip of their yellow bills. They're common year-round residents of the state, but especially so in the winter. Ring-bills are the gulls you're likely to see scavenging for scraps at a McDonald's parking lot or in a garbage dump. They're also the ones that tag along behind tractors as they plow the coastal plain fields.
Herring gulls, Larus argentatus, are larger than ring-billed gulls and are the most common of all our gulls. They have a white head and chest, gray back, and black wing tips. Their legs are pinkish and their yellowish bills have a red spot on the lower mandible. Herring gulls are more common in winter, but you can easily find them during summer. Like ring-billed gulls, herring gulls are fond of hanging out at landfills.
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The last of the commonly observed gulls in North Carolina is the great black-backed gull, Larus marinus, which, as the name suggests, has a black back. Not only is it the largest gull in the state, it's the largest gull anywhere. It lives year-round along the coast, but is especially common in the winter.
Only three gull species nest in North Carolina: laughing gulls, herring gulls, and great black-backed gulls. According to the 1993 Atlas of Colonial Waterbirds of North Carolina Estuaries, the 1993 nesting season had 17,970 laughing gull nests, 960 herring gull nests, and 47 nests for the great black-backed gull. Nesting sites for all three species ranged from natural estuarine islands to manmade islands created from dredge spoil. Because dredge spoil islands are generally untrammeled by people and inaccessible to many predators, they have become important nesting sites for gulls and several other species of colonial waterbirds in the state. In 1993, no gull nests were found on natural beaches.
The remaining gulls that appear in North Carolina range from locally common to extremely rare. Some spend most of their time over open water off the coast (true "seagulls") and some occur in the state only as accidentals, sometimes being brought in by storms. With that in mind, you'd think that it would be easy to identify gulls in North Carolina. After all, all you have to do is learn to identify the main five common species and you've pretty much got it covered, right? Well, the trouble with that is it's often difficult to identify even the common species. If all the birds you see are adults of the same age, there are no big problems. But with gulls (as in many other bird species), immature birds look much different from their parents. So different, in fact, that when you have a group of several species together, with both adults and youngsters in the group, even serious birders can have a difficult time telling them apart. Furthermore, a gull's plumage often looks completely different in the winter than it does during the breeding season. And if that's not enough to puzzle you, ornithologists don't even always agree on the species status of certain birds. So, what's the answer? Do what I do. Don't worry about it. Identify the ones you can be sure of, but more importantly, just enjoy them.
Several years ago I went on a winter camping and photography trip to Cape Lookout. At that time there was no ferry service in the winter so I hired a local fisherman to take me out from Beaufort. He dropped me off at the old Coast Guard dock and picked me up a few days later. The weather was horrible for taking pictures, but I'll never forget observing the herring gulls. From the dock, a concrete road extends for a quarter-mile or so and the entire surface of the road was covered in broken shells. At first I didn't understand how they'd gotten there, but then I saw the first gull dropping a shell onto the concrete so it would break, then quickly fly down to eat the mollusk or hermit crab that lived inside. For hours I watched them and I began to see that there was more to it than just dropping a shell onto a hard surface. The bird had to fly high enough so the shell would break on impact, but not so high that another gull could swoop in and steal the meal. They were not always successful and I witnessed many fights. You can observe the same behavior at many concrete docks, boat ramps, and similar places where there's a hard surface for the gulls to drop shells on. Unfortunately, the surface of roads and bridges will break seashells just as well as a concrete dock, sometimes resulting in unpleasant encounters between bird and automobile.
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My favorite activity with gulls is feeding them and taking photographs. As a naturalist, I am well attuned to the problems that can result when humans carelessly feed and molest animals. But with gulls you can usually feed them without guilt. Most gulls are opportunistic feeders and eat just about anything they can get their beaks on. That's one reason why they are so prolific and successful. They'd just as soon have a dropped French fry from a fast-food joint as they would a hermit crab. And since this behavior is one they'd choose even without us feeding them, tossing a few crumbs isn't likely to disrupt their lives. This scavenging method of feeding and the territorial way they go about it (gulls love to fight each other for food) is one reason why they get such a bum rap. Of course, gulls don't exist to conduct themselves as we humans might think they should. They just survive. On the positive side for us humans, gulls help immeasurably in keeping the beaches and marshes cleaned up of things we might find offensive.
Most people toss breadcrumbs when feeding gulls, but I like to use hard corn. I buy it by the bucket from grain mills or agriculture supply houses. And many individuals sell "deer corn," which is the same thing. Corn is ideal because it is cheap, it throws better than crackers, and it's a natural food, which makes it better for the gulls. I also like to use corn because it doesn't float—a definite advantage when photographing gulls. You don't want to see a bunch of floating crackers in your bird photos.
One of the best places to feed gulls is from the stern of ferry boats. Since they are flying along with you, you can witness all the spectacle of their amazing flight. When feeding them on a beach, all you witness is a hysterical cacophony of feathers and cackling. Make sure you toss food from the stern of the ferry and not from the bow. Try the latter and you'll hear a quick snort from the boat captain telling you move to the back of the boat. And you'd better listen to him, too, or else you're going to have a lot of passengers angry with you over all the bird poop on their cars. If you want to photograph the gulls from a ferry, it's best to have someone else tossing the food. I can tell you from lots of experience that it's extremely difficult to toss corn with one hand and follow a laughing gull through the camera lens with the other hand.
Of course, you can watch and feed gulls just about anywhere, not just from ferries. Most docks and boat landings on the coastal plain have resident gulls, and some areas are inundated with them. A little consideration is in order when feeding gulls at these locations, however. For one thing, most people don't think too much of the idea of having a flock of gulls hovering over them, so don't toss food anywhere near other people. For another, some dock owners and park personnel consider the gulls a nuisance and frown heavily on them being fed. In fact, gulls that hang around places like airports and bridges can become more than just nuisances; they pose safety risks to pilots and drivers. I like to go to remote places where there are no public facilities and I don't have to worry about causing someone to have a bad hair day, or worse. To me, the most fascinating part about feeding gulls is their seeming empathic ability to locate someone tossing food. Many times I've started throwing out corn without a gull in sight, and within minutes there would be a flock overhead. This works well from a photography standpoint because it allows you to get everything set up beforehand, knowing that you can attract the gulls right where you want them.
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Next time you go to the beach, take along a bag of corn and have some fun watching the beach bums. And if you pay attention, you might see the Son of the Great Gull Himself teaching the Outcast Flock how to fly.