Welcome to my Identification Guide to Winter Gulls – Part 1. Our urban spaces are regularly frequented by gulls during the autumn and winter months. They have completed their breeding cycle and have now dispersed from their summer quarters to maraud around our parks, gardens and other open spaces in search of easy pickings. The birds we see at this time of year will have lost their crisp summer finery and will be decked out in plainer, less distinctive plumage. These raucous visitors will be a mix of UK residents and many from overseas, especially the Baltic regions, Scandinavia and northern Europe. There will be adults and, depending on species, sub adult birds experiencing their 1st or 2nd winter.
Perhaps you are not aware that there are several species of gull wintering within our borders; hardly surprising since they are quite similar both in size and general colouration. This guide is aimed at providing you with the basic identification features for the smaller gulls you are likely to encounter at this time of year. It is not a detailed taxonomic feature and is aimed strictly at the amateur naturalist or people with an interest in wildlife and who want to know more. To avoid unnecessary complexity, in this article we will cover three species of roughly equal size, superficially similar appearance and habits: Black-headed Gull, Common Gull and Mediterranean Gull. The larger gulls will feature in Part 2 of this guide.
All gulls take more than one year to mature. The larger the species, the longer it takes to reach full adult plumage and breeding age. With the smaller species subject of this article, it takes 2/3 years to obtain adult status, until such time some degree of juvenile plumage is retained. This can cause some confusion, so we will illustrate the more obvious plumage stages of each species to hopefully make things clearer.
The essential features to note with gull identification will be a combination of:
Head Markings – any dark patches or spots can be diagnostic.
Leg colour – this will vary from species to species and within a species as it ages.
Beak colour – this will change throughout the life of the bird and is a good indicator of age.
Relative colouration of mantle and wing – the comparable shade of grey will help you narrow down species.
Black/White colouration on wings and tail – the extent and configuration of this is a useful feature
It is worth pointing out that there is great variation between individuals at various times of year. Birds will age at different rates depending on when they were hatched, where they come from, general health etc. Therefore this guide will, by necessity, cover the most likely encountered plumage stages. Ok then, let us begin. First a general overview.
Black-headed Gull. This is by far the commonest of the small gulls, and is widely distributed across the country. It will be a familiar coastal and wetland inhabitant during summer, where it’s chocolate brown hood and raucous squabbling renders it very noticeable. In winter, the brown head and red eye ring disappear.
Black-headed Gulls are gregarious and will gather in groups to exploit free handouts intentioned for your local ducks and swans. They are graceful and accomplished flyers, with slim and quite pointed wings. Overall, they are a light grey tone with a very noticeable bright white leading edge to the wing and black tips to the primary flight feathers. The black tipped, red or orange beak is slim and sharply pointed, and the legs orange or blood red depending on age.
Mediterranean Gull. An increasingly common resident that favours coastal habitats, but can turn up inland. It will compete with Black-headed Gulls for free handouts. In summer, adults have a deep black hood and are very smart birds. It is a more solidly built bird than the Black-headed with broader wing bases and chunkier, bright red bill. Feet are very dark red. Adults are surprisingly pale and can appear almost white at distance. Winter birds of all ages have a dark ‘mask’ around and behind the eye.
Common Gull. The Common Gull is not common at all in summer in lowland Britain, but does visit us during autumn and winter. It can be found in towns, open countryside and coastal locations, where it often exhibits piratical tendencies to rob other birds of their booty. If you see a daisy chain of gulls calling loudly around the rooftops, the chasing birds will be Common Gulls.
It is an altogether different beast from the other two species, with an aversion to close contact with humans. They are more robust, deeper chested and with longer wing projection. They have slightly broader, more rounded wings, and in adults yellow/green beak and legs. The upper side is a much darker grey, contrasting starkly with a thin white leading and thicker, very noticeable, white trailing edge to the wing. The wing also shows extensive black on the primary flight feathers with noticeable white ‘mirrors’ at the extremity.
Ok then, let’s get down to the nitty gritty……..
Fig 1. Black-headed Gull – Adult. Key features on winter plumaged adult birds at rest are 1) Slim, pointed, blood red beak with a dark tip, 2) small dark patch just in front of eye, indistinct white eye ring, and 3) a distinct round, dark smudge covering the ear with two thin dark bands arching across the head.
Fig 2. Mediterranean Gull – Adult. Superficially similar to the Black-headed Gull, it does have several unique features that should allow separation. 1) Thick, blunter, scarlet beak with a black band near tip. 2) Clear white eye ring with less distinct bright red orbital ring. 3) Distinctive dark ‘mask’ around and behind the eye with light mottling over the head.
Fig 3. Common Gull – Adult. Key features to look for on resting birds: 1) Yellow/green beak with a faint dark band near tip. 2) Dark eye with no noticeable eye ring, and 3) evenly mottled head with no dark patches.
Fig 4. Black-headed Gull – Adult. All features as Fig 1 can be clearly seen together with 1) Mid-grey mantle and wings, 2) Black wing tips, and 3) dark red legs.
Fig 5. Mediterranean Gull – Adult. All features as Fig 2 together with 1) Very pale mantle and wings, 2) Absence of black on wing tips and 3) dark, almost black legs
Fig 6. Common Gull – Adult. All features as Fig 3, together with 1) dark grey mantle and wings, 2) extensive black wing tips and white inner flight feathers (feathers that will form part of the bright white trailing edge – see Fig 9 below), 3) pale green legs.
Fig 7. Black-headed Gull – Adult. In flight these birds are quite distinctive. Look for 1) the striking white leading edge to the wing, visible from quite long range. 2) Black tips to the outermost primary feathers, and 3) light grey mantle and wings. An effective tri-coloured wing.
Fig 8. Mediterranean Gull – Adult. These birds can appear almost pure white against a dark background. Look for 1) a single thin black leading edge to the outermost primary, and 2) uniform silvery grey mantle and wings.
Fig 9. Common Gull – Adult. Quite distinctive from the other two species with 1) A thin bright white leading edge and 3) broader white trailing edge to the wing, which contrasts starkly against 2) extensive black primary feathers, and 4) much darker grey wings.
So much for the adults, but what about the youngsters? These smaller gulls take 2 or 3 years to reach maturity. The Black-headed Gull takes only 2 years and the other species take 3 years. This means that you will effectively have a 1st winter plumage for all three species and a 2nd winter (sub adult) plumage for only the Common and Mediterranean Gulls. The Black-headed Gull will have adult plumage in its 2nd winter, i.e. 18 months or so after hatching. 2nd winter Mediterranean and Common Gulls can be very similar to adults and we won’t complicate matters too much with those. All clear? Great.
All juvenile gulls are mottled brown when fledged. The image below is of a newly fledged Black-headed Gull taken in late summer. As the autumn progresses, the birds will undergo a moult into their winter garb. They will shed most, but critically not all, of their juvenile feathering and replace them with new growth which resembles adult plumage to a greater or lesser degree.
This means that any of our species seen in winter that has areas of brown plumage (retained juvenile plumage), is an immature bird. In general terms, the extent of retained juvenile plumage will denote the age. General structure of the bird is a great aid to narrowing identification, so the notes above pertaining to adults will apply equally to the younger birds. It can be a little tricky, but there are clear differentials…..
Fig 10. Black-headed Gull – 1st Winter. The same dainty shape as an adult, but with 1) lighter shade, pink/orange beak with dark tip, 2) dull orange legs, 3) varying degree of dark brown feathering on the wings, which is nowhere near as extensive as the other species (see Fig 13), but note 4) same head pattern as adult.
Fig 11. Mediterranean Gull – 1st Winter. Points to note: 1) beak is 50% pale orange and 50% black, 2) legs are dark red, 3) extensive brown/black wing feathering (see Fig 14), and again note 4) same head pattern as adult.
Fig 12. Common Gull – 1st Winter. Points to note: 1) pink beak with dark tip, 2) pink legs, 3) extensive brown/black wing feathering, and 4) extensive mottling over head and breast.
Without wishing to confuse things too much, Figs 13 and 14 show the large differences between 1st winter Black-headed and Mediterranean Gull in flight. The larger size and far more extensive brown and black flight feathering of Mediterranean Gull is evident in Fig 14, as is the darker bill. All three species have a black band on the tail. For reference, the Common Gull 1st winter plumage is quite similar to the Mediterranean Gull.
2nd winter Mediterranean Gull – Fig 15 – very similar to adult, but retains black tips to the outer primaries. 2nd winter Common Gull – Fig 16 – has variable amounts of retained brown feathering in the wings, but most of the wing and mantle is like the adult bird. There is the remnant of a black tail band which will vary between individuals, and there are small white ‘mirrors’ on the outermost primary feathers.
Hope that helps point you in the right direction. For more articles in this series click here.
Don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE to the website by entering your email in the box on the side panel.