There was a time, before 2000, when Thurston County was the winter vacation wonderland for all sorts of gulls. Each winter, more than 10,000 gulls would visit our county. Their lives then were centered on a daily visit to a vast feeding area, the open Thurston County landfill, located north of I-5 in the Hawks Prairie area.
Things have changed drastically for gulls, and humans as well, since the dump was closed and capped in 2000, and turned into a transfer station. Now garbage is processed in a semi-closed area and is not available for gull feeding. There are no more flocks of 10,000 gulls, no more collections of gulls bathing on puddles on Hawks Prairie building roofs, and no more random collections of chicken bones and associated waste in nearby parking lots.
It’s progress, no doubt, but as a bird watcher I miss those glory (gory) days when we had national high winter counts for some gull species. Now, we have only modest numbers of gulls wintering here. Even so, gulls still are one of the most common and well-known of our bird species.
They certainly are regular visitors to downtown Olympia. We are likely to see and hear them flying overhead, and we see them gathering in parks and near outdoor restaurants ready to pick up the odd food scraps.
Of course, we live near the sea, so we often think of all gulls as “seagulls.” But there are many species of gulls, with different characteristics and life habits. Learning the differences among the many species is a worthwhile effort.
All gull species are remarkably successful animals. Different gull species are found on every continent. Wherever you travel, you may expect to be in the presence of gulls.
The secret of gulls’ success
This success is primarily the result of one characteristic: they aren’t picky eaters. Most (but not all) gull species are scavengers and thus are sometimes seen in unusual places and dining on unusual items. They take advantage of all sorts of feeding opportunities, from dead carcasses washed up along the coast, to capturing small fish and other prey along the water surface and edge, to harvesting exposed worms in recently plowed fields.
Most gull species present the average bird watcher with multiple identification challenges. First, they mature over 2-4 years and their immature feather patterns are very different from those of adults. Second, although the species vary widely in size, determining the size of a single bird without a nearby comparison can be difficult.
To begin our gull lessons, let’s focus on two medium-sized gulls, ranging from 15 to 18” (about crow-sized). They have similar behaviors and diets. They don’t breed here but rather along lakes and rivers inland and further north. Adults are seen in good numbers here in winter, post-breeding. Immatures might be seen in any season.
The adults of both species have white heads and necks, gray backs and black wing tips. In winter adults’ heads and necks have dark streaks. The color of their backs differs in shade; this, combined with relative size and other color differences, makes it possible most times to differentiate them. They both take two years to mature and have distinctive immature color patterns.
The Ring-billed Gull is the larger of the two and by far the easiest to identify.
The adults have a black mark on their yellow upper and lower bills, making an obvious ring. And they have bold, piercing yellow eyes. Juveniles are lightly speckled brown and white. Until they reach maturity after two years, they can appear in a variety of scruffy color patterns.
This species is known to be an aggressive scavenger. I remember years ago identifying my first Ring-billed Gulls at a fast-food parking lot as they were fighting over dropped French fries.
The second species is the Short-billed Gull (formerly named Mew Gull). Adults are noticeably smaller, and their yellow bills are much smaller and more delicate. They have dark eyes and no bill spots. The immatures of this species also appear speckled brown and white and, as with the adults, appear smaller overall.
Short-billed Gulls are more often found near the marine shoreline but also can range inland. In the Nisqually area we sometimes see 50 or more Short-billed Gulls investigating fallow or recently plowed farm fields.
In next week’s column we will focus on some other gull species. because we should all be acquainted with these interesting and abundant bird neighbors.
George Walter is the environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at george@theJOLTnews.com
Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 15-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.
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