Now that we’ve covered many of the land and water birds of the area, it’s time to move on to some of the trickier birds we can encounter.  As bad as sparrows are; as confusing as confusing fall warblers may be; as frustrating as those darned Empidonax flycatchers get – I find these birds to be the worst of the lot!  However, take heart – we’re going to start by looking only at the adult plumage, which is pretty easy to distinguish, even in the winter.  As we get more experienced, telling the buoys from the gulls gets easier, and some of us even get to be very good at distinguishing the various plumages of the young birds; no small challenge!  It’s useful to do a little work on this, because it turns out that our area can host some nice rarities of the gull persuasion, but if you don’t know the common, normal birds well, you won’t notice the one that looks a little different, so you miss the Glaucous-winged Gull or the Franklin’s Gull because “all those gulls look alike to me!”

OK, let’s start with the ubiquitous city gull – the Ring-billed Gull.  This is the gull commonly encountered pretty far inland, where it has become an urban bird due to its adjustment to nesting on flat rooftops instead of beaches.  The widespread presence of fast food burger places doesn’t hurt.  Ring-billed Gulls are medium-sized gulls, which is useful if you see several species together in a group – otherwise, since size is hard to estimate in the field, it doesn’t tell you much.  This is the standard gull – white body, gray back, black wingtips, and a strong and acrobatic flyer with its crooked wings.  The clearest way to identify this bird is by the black ring around its bill that the adults have.

Summer/breeding birds have the neat, clean look of the bird on the left, but winter birds kind of let themselves go, and get the scruffy, unwashed look of the bird on the right.

The next most common gull is the larger Herring Gull, a bird more of the shore than the city, which looks much the same, apart from the bill.  Instead of the black ring, Herring Gulls have a large red lump on the lower bill.  The distinction between summer and winter adults is much like the Ring-billed, although Herring Gulls may have more dirty brown speckling on the head and neck.

The other obvious difference is that Herring gulls have pink legs and feet, while Ring-billed Gulls have yellow legs and feet.

At this point, I think I should mention that these gulls take either 3 or 4 years to reach full adulthood, and that the young birds tend to have variably browner plumage, and black-tipped bills.  For now, we’ll continue to focus on the adults.

The next gull in this group is the very large, and noticeably darker, Great Black-backed Gull, which is much more coastal than the previous two.  These gulls show very little of the winter browns on the head and neck as adults, and look basically like big, dark Herring Gulls.

Lastly, the uncommon winter visitor Lesser Black-backed Gull is smaller than, and isn’t usually as dark as, a Great Black-backed (although it is definitely darker than a Herring Gull), and has yellow legs and feet like a Ring-billed Gull.  It’s also much ‘dirtier’ around the head and neck in the winter than the Great Black-backed.