Wait – that’s NOT a Seagull?
What most people call seagulls are really many different species of the same bird family.
October 18, 2016 - Author: Brandon Schroeder, and Elliot Nelson, Michigan Sea Grant
The last time you went to the beach you probably had no trouble finding some wildlife in the form of a noisy flock of seagulls. But was that truly a seagull trying to make off with your lunch? Ask a bird researcher or check in a bird book and you’ll soon find there is no such thing as a seagull. What most people refer to as seagulls are actually birds in the scientifically classified family Laridae. Look in any North American bird guide and you’ll see this group listed as the “gull and tern” family with more than 35 species in it.
Most species of gulls and terns are found over open water or on coastal habitats such as beaches and shorelines, which is how they earned the generic name “sea” gulls. However, these birds can be found in a variety of habitats from wetlands and ponds to farm fields and parking lots.
The Great Lakes are rich in diversity of gulls and terns. The large number of rocky islands and shoals along with large coastal wetland areas provide great nesting and feeding habitat for these species. According to the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas, three species of gulls and four species of terns can be found breeding in Michigan. Approximately a dozen additional species have been documented migrating through or spending the winter months along our Great Lakes shorelines.
Meet a few species from the gull and tern family who you might encounter along Michigan’s waterways:
- Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis): The most common species of gull you’ll find on the beach in the summer. This resilient species can also be found in parking lots, landfills and even farm fields. The dark band on their bill, along with their yellow legs and smaller size is the best way to identify them.
- Herring Gull (Larus argentatus): A much larger bodied gull, these birds tend to stand out in a mixed group of gulls. While lacking the black-ring around the beak, they do have a telltale red spot on the lower section of their bill. These larger heartier gulls tend to be more common in the winter months.
- Bonaparte’s Gull (Larus Philadelphia): This is a smaller more elegant gull with a striking black head. Don’t expect to find these birds in summer or winter as they breed in Canada and winter in places like Florida and Texas. However, during April/May and October/November these birds can be found migrating in large flocks. Look for them over the open water of large inland lakes and the Great Lakes.
- Great black-backed Gull (Larus marinus): This is the largest species of gull in the entire world! While they scavenge some of their food they will also steal food from other birds and mammals and will even actively hunt other gulls. Relatively rare in Michigan, this species is most common in the winter months, however there are records of pairs nesting in the Great Lakes. The large size, massive bill and dark back and wing feathers help this gull stick out in a crowd.
- Glaucous Gull: This large pale gull is sometimes referred to as the ghost of winter. It breeds in the high arctic, but in the winter some of these birds head “south” to the Great Lakes. Look for the all white wingtips of these birds which can be found November-April along shorelines and at landfills.
- Terns: Common Terns, Caspian Terns, Forster’s, and Black Terns represent the sub-family of terns, who are unmistakable in flight. They can be recognized by their angular wings and tails that all end in sharp points along with their tucked in ‘chin’ looking straight down into the water as they patrol for fish. Their aerial acrobatics are most enjoyable, especially when they hover over the water then dramatically dive in at high speeds to catch their aquatic prey.
Other gulls are more rarely seen migrating or occasionally passing through Michigan, but adding to the viewing opportunity include: Laughing Gull, Franklin's Gulls, Little Gull, Thayer's Gull, Iceland Gull, Lesser black-backed Gull, Sabine's Gull, and Black-legged Kittiwake.
This biodiversity (or wide variety of life) in our coastal bird community contributes to the health of our Great Lakes ecosystems. Many gulls are scavengers and help “clean up” dead or sick animals and fish. Gulls and terns also act as a vital part of the food web. They contribute socially and economically through the many people who enjoy a day viewing gulls – whether it’s children enjoying watching their antics on the beach or an ardent birder spending time and money traveling to a flock to pick through and identify each species.
So take a closer look the next time you enjoy a stroll along our Great Lakes shorelines. You may be surprised in the number and diversity of gulls, terns, and other coastal birds you see.
Several coastal birding trails across Michigan can help guide your next birding adventure, including:
- Saginaw Bay Birding Trail
- Sunrise Coast Birding Trail
- North Huron Birding Trail
- Superior Birding Trail
- Sleeping Bear Birding Trail
- Beaver Island Birding Trail
Citizen science forums such as iNaturalist or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird offer an added opportunity to both document your sightings and gain help in identifying species. By submitting your sightings to these sites you are also helping out as a citizen scientist, documenting biodiversity in our Great Lakes coastal environments.
Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.