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What kind of "Seagull" are you seeing?
This week I’d like to encourage you to notice gulls.
We tend to refer to every gull we see in the UK as a 'seagull', but what you're looking at could actually be a herring gull, a black-headed gull, a common gull, a kittiwake, a great black-backed gull, a lesser black-backed gull, or, if you're really lucky, a Mediterranean gull, Iceland gull, Sabine’s gull, little gull, glaucous gull, or yellow-legged gull (which are far less common or are winter visitors).
I'm not gonna lie, I'm still pretty bad at telling gulls apart myself, but here are the six species of gull I think I saw in 2022, along with a few features that might help you ID them.
Kittiwakes are medium-sized gulls that have a small yellow bill and a dark eye. Their back is grey, with white underneath. Their legs are short and black. The RSPB describes them as “gentle-looking” and note that “in flight [a kittiwake’s] black wing-tips show no white, unlike other gulls, and look as if they have been dipped in ink”. Kittiwakes are one of those species who are named after their call, so listen out for cries of “kittee-wa-aaake”!
One of my favourite gull sightings of 2022 has to be the kittiwakes that live on the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and the Tyne Bridge. If you live in Newcastle or Gateshead you should definitely pop down and see if you can spot them making their nests next spring! If not, there’s a kittiwake cam you can watch!
Herring gulls are the large, noisy gulls you may have encountered at the seaside, trying to steal your chips.
Adults herring gulls have light grey backs, white under parts, and black wing tips with white spots (known as 'mirrors'). They have pink legs with webbed feet. Herring gulls have large yellow hooked bills marked with a red spot.
This species is on the red list due to ongoing population declines and wintering population declines.
The common gull looks like a smaller, gentler version of the herring gull, but with green-yellow legs and a yellow bill without any red markings. Despite its name, the common gull is not that common in the UK and they are actually on the Amber list.
These gulls have a slightly misleading name, as if you see one in winter they won’t have their characteristic dark head, which is actually a dark chocolate brown. Black-headed gulls’ legs and bill are red-orange to brown.
The RSPB notes that the black-headed gull is “most definitely not a 'seagull' and is found commonly almost anywhere inland”. Black-headed gulls can often seen in small flocks of very vocal birds.
Not to be confused with the little gull.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull
These gulls are smaller than a herring gull and have a dark grey to black back and wings, yellow bill and yellow legs.
According to RSPB, “the species is on the Amber List because the UK is home to 40 per cent of the European population and more than half of these are found at fewer than ten sites”.
Great black-backed gull
Great black-backed gulls are very large (with a wingspan of up to 165cm) and look extremely powerful. Adults are darker and larger than the lesser black-backed gull and their legs are pink. The RSPB says these birds have “a heavy flight and can look quite hunched when perched”. You may spot them fighting other gulls for food.
Help with ID
It’s worth noting that many of the identifying features mentioned, particularly the colour of gulls’ legs and bill, can change with age, making ID quite tricky at times! That being said, I still think it’s worth getting to know the most common species and giving gull ID a go. Here are a few more places to look for help:
The Cornell Lab have a great feature on the All About Birds website, where you can compare different species
This Discover Wildlife guide to gulls has some useful info and some interesting videos.
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