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Gulls: Subfamily Larinæ

Six species of Gull occur commonly in New York and New England. Most of them are found only at the seacoast, though the Herring Gull often occurs on large inland waters, and the smaller Bonaparte's Gull is a rare migrant inland. One species, the Laughing Gull, breeds from the southern coast of Maine southward; the Herring Gull breeds all along the coast of Maine; the other four species are only migrants or winter visitants. The Kittiwake is a common winter visitant, generally at some distance off shore; the Black-backed Gull is a not uncommon winter visitant on the outer beaches; the Bonaparte's Gull is a common migrant, and the Ring-billed Gull is rare off the New England coast, but a common winter visitant off Long Island. All the Gulls are equally at home in the air or on the water; they also spend much of their time standing on the exposed flats and sand-bars, generally in flocks, sometimes of great size. They are great scavengers, circling continually over the water, and when they spy some bit of floating refuse, stooping to pick it up in the bill; they also subsist on dead fish cast up on the beach.

A Gull may be distinguished from a Tern, which it resembles in general appearance and in its powers of flight, by its rounded tail; Terns, moreover, constantly plunge from a height into the water, striking it with a splash; of the Gulls only the Kittiwake does this regularly. The brown Gulls seen commonly in winter are immature Herring Gulls, of the same species as the gray and white Gulls with which they associate.

BONAPARTE'S GULL. Larus philadelphia
14.00 in.

Ad. in spring and summer.— Head black; tail and under parts white; back and wings pearl-gray; outer wing-feathers white nearly to the tip, which is black; bill black; feet rich orange-red. Ad. in autumn.— Head whitish, a dusky spot back of the eye; otherwise like the adult in summer; bill black; feet pale flesh-color. Im.— Similar to fall adult, but tail crossed at the tip by a black band.

Bonaparte's Gull is a common migrant along the coast of New York and New England, a rare migrant on the Hudson, and a rather rare straggler to other inland waters, occurring in April and from August to October; it winters sparingly from Maine southward. It is an unsuspicious species, allowing a near approach. In grace it almost equals the terns, sinking gently on the water or feeding daintily just over the surf. In spring it is easily distinguished from all other gulls, except the Laughing Gull, by the black head and throat. In fall, when it has lost this plumage, it may be distinguished from the Herring Gull by its size, from the Kittiwake by its black bill and by its preference for the inshore waters, and from the Laughing Gull at this season by the wings, which have the general effect of white, tipped with black. The young birds have the tip of the tail crossed by a broad black band. Along the coast of Maine and north of Cape Cod the Laughing Gull is very rare; south of Cape Cod in the summer the Bonaparte's Gull does not occur.

LAUGHING GULL. Larus atricilla
16.50 in.

Ad.— Head black; back and wings bluish-gray; hind neck, tail, and under parts white; outer quill-feathers entirely black; bill and feet dark brownish-red. Ad. in autumn.— Similar, but head white, streaked on the sides and hind neck with dusky. Im.— Similar to winter adult, but upper parts brown, tail broadly tipped with black.

Nest, on the ground, of grass and seaweed. Eggs, grayish or greenish, thickly spotted and scrawled with brown and purplish.

The Laughing Gull is a summer resident of New England and New York, breeding in a few stations from Metinic Green Island on the coast of Maine southward. The largest colony is on Muskeget Island, near Nantucket. In 1900 over a hundred pair were nesting here, and when the terns rose in a vast cloud and filled the air with their harsh din, the Gulls floating above them uttered cries like the laughter of a lunatic. During the summer months the black hood easily distinguishes the Laughing Gull from any other gull or tern that breeds on our coast. Bonaparte's Gull, which is a spring and fall migrant along the coast, has in spring the same black hood, but in the fall both species lose it; they may always be distinguished by the outer wing-feathers which are black in the Laughing Gull, white with black tips in the Bonaparte's Gull. (See preceding species.)

RING-BILLED GULL. Larus delawarensis
18.50 in.

Ad. in summer.— Head, neck, tail, and under parts white; back and wings pearl-gray; ends of quill-feathers black, the first two, for over six inches, spotted with white near the tip, or tipped with white; bill yellow, crossed near tip by a black band which does not show except at very close range; feet pale yellow. Ad. in winter.— Similar, but top of head and hind neck streaked with brownish. Im.— Brownish-dusky above; tail blackish toward the tip; bill blackish.

The Ring-billed Gull is a common winter visitant off the coast of Long Island, and a rare migrant along the coast of New England. It is very difficult to distinguish this species from the Herring Gull. If it is seen with Herring Gulls, its smaller size and greater tameness should distinguish it.

HERRING GULL. Larus argentatus
24.00 in.

Ad. in summer.— Head, neck, tail, and under parts pure white; back and wings pearl-gray; ends of quill-feathers black, the two outer, for over seven inches, spotted near the extremity with white and tipped with white; bill yellow; feet pale flesh-color. Ad. in winter.— Similar, but head and hind neck streaked with grayish. Im in the first winter.— Upper and under parts brownish; tips of wings and tail blackish. Later in various stages with whitish head, and brown upper parts; tail white with a broad black tip; bill crossed by a dark band at the tip.

Nest, of grass, moss, etc., either on the ground or in trees. Eggs, grayish-brown, blotched with chocolate.

The Herring Gull breeds commonly along the coast of Maine and less commonly on some of the inland lakes of that State. On Great Duck Island off Mt. Desert, on Little Spoon Island, and on No Man's Land very large colonies now breed. In winter it is very common along the coast of New York and New England and is the common gull in all the harbors. Though none are now known to breed regularly west of No Man's Land off Penobscot Bay, flocks of greater or less size spend the whole summer off the north shore of Massachusetts, and a few are found at the same season off Nantucket and the Vineyard. Early in August these flocks receive accessions from the north, and by the end of September large flocks have returned to their winter feeding-grounds in the harbors of cities and settlements, large or small. At this season, too, and in spring, gulls visit inland waters, settling on ponds near the sea-coast as long as there is open water; along the Hudson and the Connecticut they are common migrants, but they are very rare migrants in Berkshire County, Mass. By the end of April, migration is practically over. On the breeding-ground they regularly light on trees, but during the rest of the year, they spend their time either floating on the water, or circling over it, in search of refuse, or gather in large coni panies on the exposed sand-bars and mud-flats. If disturbed on the breeding-ground the gulls circle about overhead, repeating ceaselessly a dry kak, kak-kak, or a loud cry like the scream of a Red-shouldered Hawk. In winter, when flocks are settling down on a sand-bar, they are often very noisy, whining and squealing in a high-pitched voice.

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The old birds have the head, tail, and under parts white, and wings and back gray; the wings are tipped with black. The immature birds are at first uniformly brown, but as they begin to change to the adult plumage, many intermediate stages are to be seen. The Herring Gull is by far the commonest species in winter; in summer the much smaller Tern, or Mackerel Gull, is commoner in certain waters, as about the islands south of Cape Cod, and along parts of Long Island Sound. It will be well, before attempting to identify the other, less common species of gull or tern, to study carefully the appearance of the gulls which are to be seen in every harbor along our coast, till one is thoroughly familiar with their size and their different plumages.

29.00 in.

Ad. in summer.— Tail and under parts pure white; back and wings apparently black (really dark brown); wings edged posteriorly with white; bill yellow; feet pale flesh-color. Ad. in winter.— Similar, but top of head and hind neck streaked with dusky. Im.— Upper parts dusky, tail dusky, crossed near the tip by a narrow band of brownish-white; head, neck, and under parts white, streaked and washed with brown.

The Black-backed Gull is a winter resident along the seacoast of New York and New England. A few individuals arrive in August, and a few linger till May, but the species is commonest in the winter months. It is much less common, however, than the Herring Gull, and as a rule keeps to the outer shores and beaches. Occasionally, however, one or two may be observed in a harbor or even in a fresh-water pond near the sea; there are generally one or two among the Herring Gulls that gather off T wharf in Boston. A common cry of the Black-backed Gull is a harsh kyow, suggesting the note of the Green Heron.

When a large flock of gulls are standing on a flat or sandbar, the mature Black-backed Gulls will be easily distinguished from the Herring Gulls, if they stand with their backs and sides toward the observer; the black wings and back will then present a striking contrast to the pure white head and neck. To identify a bird when flying, one must be sure to get a view of the upper part of the wings; even a Herring Gull will often appear to have dark wings, when the under surface is seen in shadow. The immature Black-backed Gulls can often be told from the immature Herring Gulls only if the two stand side by side, when the difference in size becomes apparent.

KITTIWAKE. Rissa tridactyla
16.00 in.

Ad. in winter.— Head, tail, and under parts white; a dusky spot back of the eye, which however may disappear as early as February; wings and back pearl-gray; wings tipped for less than three inches with unspotted black; bill yellow; feet black. Im.— Similar, but all except the outer pair of tail-feathers tipped with a broad black band; first three quill-feathers black; a blackish patch on the hind neck and another near the bend of the wing; bill black; feet yellowish.

The Kittiwake is a common winter visitor to the seacoast of New England, and a common transient visitor off the coast of Long Island, where a few birds winter. It is the most pelagic of our gulls (rarely approaching the beaches or harbors), seeking its food well out at sea. Flocks of these gulls circle about the fishermen, expecting the refuse thrown overboard after the fish are cleaned, and during the winter and early spring many follow the trans-Atlantic liners for days, playing with exquisite grace about the stern of the ship, and often plunging into the water from a considerable height. Their cry resembles the syllables keet, keet, wäck, wäck.

They may be known from Herring Gulls, which they resemble closely in coloration, by their much smaller size, and their more graceful flight. If the adult birds are seen at close range, the color of the feet and the different pattern of the tips of the quill-feathers will distinguish the Kittiwake from either the much larger Herring Gull or the somewhat larger Ring-billed Gull. The adult Kittiwake has black feet; the other two species have feet of pale flesh-color. In the Kittiwake, only a couple of inches at the tips of the wings are black, unspotted with white; this black tip offers a marked contrast to the gray wing. In the other two species the dark tip is over six inches long, is spotted with white near the tip, and inasmuch as it runs back some distance along the outer wing-feather, it does not give the impression of a well-defined tip, as in the Kittiwake. The immature Kittiwake is readily told by the black-tipped tail, and by the broad black edging along the forward portion of the wing.

[BLACK SKIMMER]. Rynchops niger
16.00-20.00 in.

The Black Skimmers were missing in the original book for the same reasons as the American Oystercatchers. In the 19th century these birds were hunt in such great numbers that disappeared from the area. Conservation efforts led to a recovery although they are still very vulnerable.


The Black-headed Gulls are missing in the original book. They are basically European birds but they can be found in Asia or the east coast of North America, including New York and New England, as some populations have established there well.

20.00-25.00 in.

Rare but not too difficult to find some of them on the coast of Long Island.

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