CARSON BIRDING: Brush up on gull identification to stave off confusion

“YOUR GULLS COULD eat ours!”

That’s the impression our glaucous-winged gulls made on friends visiting from Australia. I think Don was only half-joking.

Australia’s common gull is the silver gull and about the size of our mew. Our common gull is the much larger glaucous-winged. This is the most-seen gull in the Puget Sound region.

Even in adult plumage, gulls can be a challenge to identify. Add to that the different plumages they wear during their early years and it’s easy to understand the confusion.

For each of their three first years, most gulls don different plumages each year. Some even continue changing their feathers into their early fourth year.

Put a 2-year-old glaucous-winged alongside a 2-year-old Western or herring and you are soon buried deep in the pages of your field guide.

It’s not that the birds don’t cooperate. Always on the lookout for someone else’s food, gulls are great panhandlers and will let possible benefactors get quite close.

Doesn’t really help. When it comes to these three, it’s a good idea to identify the adults in the area and lump the juvies with them.

Gull aficionados are now reaching for the smelling salts. They actually enjoy separating out the different species and noting which bird is which year.

Mew gulls are one of my favorite gulls. Most of the time, you don’t have to bother with color of eyes, red or black dots on their bills, leg color and wingtip color.

Once you have established this gull’s head in your head, you become pretty adept at spotting them. The bird’s head and bill tell you which gull you are looking at.

The mew’s head is small and rounded. Some say it resembles a pigeon’s head.

Compared to other gulls, its bill is short and less heavy-looking.

Gulls, for the most part, have pretty substantial bills.

As scavengers, they wield this bill when devouring fish carcasses.

Some large gulls even use it to attack the young of other gull species.

The great black-backed gull, a resident along the eastern coast of North America, is one of these fierce predators.

Even the lesser (smaller) black-backed gull looked pretty large to me the first time I saw one.

The mew gull is smaller than birds like the herring, Western, glaucous-winged, Thayer’s, Heermann’s, ring-billed and California, but there are even smaller gulls in our area.

Late summer into early fall brings large numbers of Bonaparte’s gulls into our inland waters. This handsome little gull undergoes a complete plumage change from spring to winter.

During the breeding season, it has an all-black head, gray and white plumage, red legs and a black bill. Nonbreeding birds lose their black heads and wear only a black spot behind each ear.

The Bonaparte’s is a gull, but it is tern-like in appearance and seems like a link between gulls and terns.

If you have an interest in identifying the gulls seen in Western Washington, there is a good local book to consider as a supplement to other field guides.

It is a complete field guide and a very good one, but I think the photos and coverage it contains on our local gull species is very helpful when trying to identify these birds.

“Birds of the Puget Sound Region: Coast to Cascades” is a local publication.

Its contributors are among this state’s acknowledged experts.

The illustrations are all photographs and they are excellent.

For more information on this book, the website is


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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