Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Arctic Wild Neighbors: Herring gull

The herring gull is a large very adaptable gull. It prefers to be around other gulls, except when there's food.

When it comes to food, herring gulls are incredibly opportunistic. They'll eat fish, grains, carrion, and just about anything else that can be found reasonably palatable. On their breeding grounds (which includes the area from the Great Lakes northwards to the southern edge of the arctic circle) they'll raid the nests of other birds to eat the eggs and chicks. They'll also raid the dumpsters of fast food restaurants, and they are not above stealing food from other birds as well.

There are few things in nature more entertaining than watching a group of four or five herring gulls bicker over a fish or some other tasty morsel.

Just today I was very entertained as I watched a herring gull steal a fish from a common merganser at Hammond Lake. When the herring gull took flight with its booty, four other herring gulls followed in aerial pursuit of the thief. One of the gulls caused the other to drop the fish into the choppy waters. Then another of the herring gulls snagged the dropped fish out of the water like it was picking up a fumbled football and took off towards the parking lot like a running back headed towards the end zone. An all out sprint on the wing. But just then a bald eagle swooped in to take part in the action. Knowing better than to challenge an eagle, the fish was dropped into the water again as the gulls scattered. The fish was then promptly picked up by the eagle, clearly the apex predator (or should I say apex thief) in this lakeside ecosystem.

Gulls have got character, that's for sure!

I missed the initial shot of the fish being stolen from the common merganser duck, so enjoy them from here...

Five herring gulls tussle over one fish.

The first year gull's got it!

Talk about a full mouth!

Bald eagle shows up, gull drops fish, eagle daintily picks it up.

Nobody's challenging him/her!
The herring gull is a four year gull, meaning that it takes four years to reach maturity. The variability in plumage during the four years from egg to adulthood is one of the things that makes identifying herring gulls very fun and challenging.

 For more facts and photos of the herring gull click this link.

A first winter herring gull.
A first or second winter herring gull.
A second or third winter herring gull.
An adult herring gull standing next to the smaller and much more abundant ring-billed gulls.
I highlighted the herring gull here because part of the population breeds within the arctic circle and because it is the arctic breeding gull that is most-likely to be encountered during a Pennsylvania winter. However, there are two additional species that breed in the arctic who show up in very small numbers during the Pennsylvania winter each year; Iceland gull and glaucous gull. Each of these are rare compared to herring gull, but well worth looking for.

You can read more about Iceland gull and Glaucous gull by clicking the following links:

Iceland Gull

Glaucous Gull

And lastly, I leave you with this photo, which (to me) shows just how challenging and exciting gull watching and identification can be. Not only are there varying ages of gulls present represented by different plumages, but there are also a number of species present, each with its own distinctive shape, size, and plumage characteristics for different ages.

Mixed flock of gulls containing at least four species: Herring, ring-billed, glaucous, and Iceland.
 If you'd like to get a look at herring gulls and try your luck for glaucous and Iceland gulls head on over to the shore of one of our big lakes like (in Tioga county) Hammond Lake, Tioga Lake, or Cowanesque Lake. Better yet, if you want to up your chances make a trip to the finger lakes (starting at Stewart Park at the south shore of Cayuga Lake would be my recommendation).

Happy birding!

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