The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Laughing Gulls Are Our Common Full-time Residents
by Ro Wauer

On a recent visit to the beach, the only gull I found was the laughing gull. But because their plumage can vary so much, even during the nesting season, they can look very different. The typical summer-time appearance of an adult laughing gull includes a black hood, reddish bill, white neck and underparts, and slate-gray wings and tail. A very attractive gull! Winter birds loose their black hood and reddish bill, and they are overall grayish color. And then there are the younger (1st and 2nd year) birds that possess a very different plumage. Laughing gulls do not get their breeding plumage until their third year. That pattern of plumage development is fairly typical for all the gulls.

Laughing gulls received their name from their calls that are loud and penetrating, a high-pitched laugh, like “ha ha ha ha,” with the last note descending into a strange wail, suggesting mirth. In flight, they often give a slightly different call, like “kee ah, kee ah.”

Laughing gulls are commonplace along the entire Gulf coast, but they only rarely occur inland to any extent. During stormy weather in the Gulf, however, they often come inland at least a few miles. Then is when they can be expected on open flats, from parking lots to open fields. They can be especially abundant at those times in parking lots where they can find discarded food. Gulls possess an amazingly diverse diet that can range from live fish on the coast to washed up carrion to discarded crackers, candy, and almost everything else that can be found. Oftentimes when feeding they show a noisy and aggressive behavior, chasing one another about in an attempt to steal food or intimidate the individual gull that has found some choice morsel. They even have been found to steal food from much larger birds, such as pelicans.

The majority of our laughing gull observations are at the beach, but boaters can hardly get away from these curious and omnivorous gulls. They can be expected considerable distance off-shore in search of food or simply soaring about, utilizing thermals just like hawks and vultures. But more often they are found loafing along the beach or sitting on posts or other structures near the shore. And in the water, they are buoyant and swim very well.

Ring-billed gulls can also be found in summer along the Gulf beaches, although they are far less numerous than the laughing gulls. And during the winter months, at least two additional gulls can be expected along the shore or over the Gulf: Bonaparte’s and herring gulls. The largest of the four is the herring gull; winter adults possess a gray mantle and back, black tail, and yellow bill with a red spot on the lower mandible. Adult ring-billed gulls can always be identified by yellowish bill with a black ring. And the smaller adult Bonaparte’s gull has a black bill, black cheek spot, white underparts, and reddish legs and feet.

Gulls, often called seagulls, are some of the most difficult birds to identify during the non-breeding season. That is especially true in South Texas where a dozen or so additional species have also been recorded, primarily in winter. Many of these frequent landfills where they are able to find food. Trying to find one of the difficult to identify species amid thousands of wheeling, calling gulls can be rather trying, to say the least. However, there are a number of avid gull-lovers that spend considerable time each winter searching for one or more of the rare, out of range species. And every year one or more strays, like Herrmann’s, Black-tailed, California, Thayer’s, Iceland, lesser black-backed, slaty-backed, western, glaucous, great black-backed, and kelp gulls, put in their appearance along the Texas Gulf Coast. Our area of North America produces some unbelievable bird records.

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