One Special Gull

Photo by Jacie Sanders

By Tom Dennis

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Larus fuscus 

With The Winter Bird Blast quickly approaching, let’s take a look at the Lesser Black-backed Gull, one of several winter gull species found in our area.  This is another bird that draws bird enthusiasts to the Blue Water Area since it’s relatively uncommon as well as fun to learn about and watch up close. This species is similar to the much larger Great Black-backed Gull so let’s learn how to tell them apart and find out why Lesser Black-backed Gulls are special.  

These gulls (notice that we don’t call them “seagulls” as no “birder” would use this common generic misnomer) are typically found in North America only during the winter while they breed across much of northern Eurasia and most winter along the coastal waters of Eurasia and Northern Africa. 

Most of these visitors come to our area from Iceland, Britain, and Western Europe to winter on the Atlantic Ocean coast as far south as Florida. They are rarely seen inland however, a few show up on open Great Lakes waters and are often seen along the St. Clair River even during the harshest winters.  

They are a medium-sized gull, slightly smaller than Herring Gulls and are slender with long wings.  Winter adults have a dark grey back, obvious streaking on the head and neck, yellow legs, yellow bill with a red spot on the lower mandible, and a dark “smudge” around the eye contrasting with the mostly white head.  It takes them four years to attain complete adult plumage and immature birds can be hard to distinguish from other gulls, especially Herring. Look for the whitish head with a dark smudge around the eye, dark bill, long evenly dark wings and whitish rump and base of the tail.  Weighing in at just under two pounds puts them at half the weight of the hefty Great Black-backed which can also be distinguished by its pink legs.

These birds are opportunistic, omnivorous feeders and feast locally on fish, insect larvae, crayfish, worms, mussels, seeds, fruit, small mammals, small birds, scraps and carrion.  They forage or steal food from other birds. The call of the Lesser Black-backed Gull is just what you expect a gull to sound like as it is very much like that of the Herring Gull. They nest on the ground in colonies where immature birds, nonbreeding adults, and failed or off-duty breeders form “clubs” near the colony where they spend time loafing, resting, and preening…just slightly better than watching soap operas or off-track betting!

Winter Bird Blast is Saturday, February 8th and you can learn more there about the unique waterfowl of the Blue Water area.  It starts at 9 AM at the Don Dodge Auditorium in the St. Clair County Building and includes a field trip to view many of our local gulls, ducks, and more. 

Visit the Blue Water Audubon Society Facebook page for details about this family-friendly event. You are also welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot.  Our next meeting will be held on Monday, February 3, starting at 6:45 PM.

Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, gardener, and naturalist.

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