[CT Birds] I’m a gull watcher

Dennis Varza dennisvz at optonline.net
Wed Oct 31 19:36:12 EDT 2007

Hi Folks

First of all I am not your typical gull lover. I’m not one of those  
guys who spends hours at dumps looking for exotic gull, or fussing  
over every unusual looking gull working out subspecies and hybrids.  
Instead of rarities I am looking for understanding of the common  
birds. My interest in gulls stems from the lack of information on  
them in the state. There are hawk watchers a waterfowl people, and  
people interested in all the other groups. Who looks at gulls? I only  
know of 2 data sets on gulls, one is the Christmas Bird Counts, and  
the other is the surveys the state do every few years of nesting  
birds. Who knows and understands their comings and goings?

For the past month and a half I have been observing and counting  
gulls. It has become one of those things where the more you look at  
them the more interesting the become. The data is insufficient for  
any quantifiable pattern yet, but I have some interesting observations.

First of all gulls are generalists, so even though there are habitat  
and behavioral differences there is overlap by some individuals.  
Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls are very different. Think of  
Herring Gulls as bottom feeders. They are the ones on the mud flats  
and along rocky beaches looking for clams and crabs. Ring-billed  
gulls are more top feeders looking for food in the waves and water  
surface. When on the mud flats, they are on the edge looking for  
small things washed up. When the water is rough, they are out on the  
water looking for what has gotten stirred up. They are more likely to  
be found with Laughing Gulls than Herring Gulls. Ring-billed Gulls  
are also the most common begging birds in the parks. If Herring gulls  
beg they are most likely to be immature birds.

When there is a flock of gulls on the sandy beach you will find most  
of them being Ring-billed Gulls. There will always be a couple of  
Herring Gulls mixed in and most likely immatures. This has led me to  
speculation that they may be night feeders. Ring-billed Gulls nest on  
lakes. Lake plankton rise to the surface at night to feed on the  
algae and descend during the day to avoid predation. Maybe the gulls  
do the same thing on the shore and that is why you usually see them  
roosting on the beach all day.

Great Black-backed Gulls seem to be looking for large fish. When I  
have seen them feed it is usually fish. In feeding the are found  
furthest out on reefs and flats at low tide. They are also often seen  
flying in the middle of the sound. It also looks like they are  
somewhat territorial on the feeding grounds and one rarely sees more  
than 5-6 birds at a time.

Laughing Gulls are pelagic feeders on Long Island Sound. In the past  
I noticed that after storms there are large number of birds on shore.  
In the following days the numbers diminish. I’ve also noticed that  
Immature birds are mostly gone by mid-October. Most recently I’ve  
seen a couple of birds looking for food on mud flats. That is a  
puzzle. Also, on the Jersey and Maryland shore Laughing Gulls are the  
most common begging gulls. I have never seen them beg here.

Finally an observation I don’t understand and will be interesting to  
see how it plays out. It seems that immature birds are more common on  
inland lakes and reservoirs (around 50%) than on the shore (around 20%).

Dennis Varza

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