Iceland Gull, Larus glaucoides
By Tom Dennis
The Iceland Gull is a winter-only bird in the Blue Water Area and it’s one of the species that makes our area special and draws bird enthusiasts from around the world, even Iceland. The nearest they get to their namesake island of Iceland is Greenland. This species, the ghostly gull of the far north, is similar to the slightly larger and more common Herring Gull but let’s read on to see what makes this creature so special and to learn how you can recognize it amongst the dozen or so gull and gull-like species seen locally.
These gulls (notice that we don’t call them “seagulls” as no “birder” would use this generic misnomer) are commonly found in North America during the winter along the northern coasts of both oceans. On the West Coast, they are common south to the San Francisco Bay area but on the East Coast, they are only common in the Canadian Maritime Provinces. They are less common on the East Coast to South Carolina and into the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, except Lake Superior. Sighting of these birds this far from the oceans coast makes them a huge draw. They are usually seen in small numbers in most winters, with sightings peaking in January and February. They breed only in the Canadian Arctic and in Greenland in areas that are inaccessible to most people. Therefore they are largely unaffected by humans and their populations remain relatively stable.
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They are a medium-sized gull, slightly smaller than Herring Gulls and for those of you who remember seeing Thayer’s Gulls, they are now considered a variant of the Iceland Gull. The wings and back are white to pale gray and the white-tipped wings extend past the white tail. Some adults, usually western birds have black on the first four or five primary wing feathers however, the tips are always white. The bill is dull yellow with a red spot on the lower mandible and juvenile birds have a grey bill with a black tip. Adults also have light brown mottling on the white head and neck, have yellow eyes with a red eye-ring, and pink legs. Juvenile birds are almost completely white for the first two years with third-year birds having adult plumage but a yellow-green bill with a black tip and dark eyes. Their wingspan ranges from 45 to 59 inches, they weigh from 1 to 2.4 pounds and are 20 to 25 inches in length.
Like most gulls they are omnivorous and opportunist feeders and feast locally on fish, mollusks, small birds, crustaceans, offal, fruit, seeds, garbage, and eggs. They forage both as a predator and a scavenger and they also steal food from other birds. The call of the Iceland Gull is similar to the “laughing” cry of the Herring Gull, but at a higher pitch. They breed in isolated pairs or in colonies on coastal ground and cliffs where both sexes build a nest lined with seaweed, moss, or grass.
If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot. Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, for meeting details and be sure to friend us.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, and naturalist.