Know Your Gulls!

(And also, what isn’t a gull!)

In my home county of Northumberland we are at the beginning of the seabird breeding season on the Farne Islands. For visiting photographers, the huge population of breeding puffins, terns, guillemots and razorbills are usually the stars of the show. But such a high concentration of eggs and chicks attracts predators and scavengers too, the gulls!

It’s easy to get distracted by the puffins and terns and miss out on photographing some of the gulls and their behaviour. Look out for black-headed gulls waiting to steal sand eels from puffins returning to their burrows and keep an eye on the larger gulls looking for an easy meal!

Most visitors to the Farne Islands can recognise a puffin when they see one. Fewer people can identify the many other species, especially the gulls. The generic ‘seagull’ term is applied to very different species in the gull family…

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull, Farne Islands.Great Black-backed Gull, Farne Islands.

The Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marrinus) is the largest member of the gull family. Adults are stout-bodied, with broad wings spanning over 1.5 metres. Their upperwings and backs are a very dark grey, almost black slate colour. They have dull pink coloured legs and like other gulls, a bright yellow bill with an obvious red spot. Incidentally, there are many theories about the purpose of this red spot but they all generally involve the feeding instincts of their chicks.

Great Black-backed Gull, Farne Islands.Great Black-backed Gull, Farne Islands.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Inner Farne.Lesser Black-backed Gull, Inner Farne.

The Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) is smaller than the Greater Black-backed gull but has very similar dark slate grey upperwings and back. Their yellow legs are probably their most immediately identifiable feature to tell them apart without an obvious size comparison.

Herring Gull

The Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) is roughly the same size as the Lesser Black-backed Gull. It has much lighter coloured silvery-grey upperwings and dull pink coloured legs which are very similar to the Great Black-backed Gull.

Herring Gull, Inner Farne.Herring Gull, Inner Farne.

These three large gulls are formidable predators on the islands. I’ve witnessed small groups of Greater Black-backed gulls predating an entire ‘creche’ of eider duck chicks, swallowing them in one gulp. Guillemot chicks, or ‘jumplings’ as they are often known are also very vulnerable to these gulls, especially when they fledge and make their journey down the cliffs to the sea. It’s not unusual to see opportunistic gulls taking an egg and breaking it open to devour the contents.

Herring Gull predating the contents of an egg, unknown species. Staple Island.Herring Gull predating the contents of an egg, unknown species. Staple Island.

Black-legged Kittiwake

The Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) is probably the gull which is most suited to the title of a ‘seagull’ as it only comes to land to breed and nest. It is much smaller than the black-backed and herring gulls but probably a lot more noisy! The name is derived from its very distinctive call, a shrill ‘kittee-wa-aaake’. It has light coloured silvery-grey upperwings and black wingtips. The beak is bright yellow and is missing the red spot seen on larger gulls. The inside of its mouth is a very distinctinve deep red colour, as is the ring around its eye. As it’s name suggests, it has black legs.

Black-legged Kittiwakes nesting on The Brownsman.Black-legged Kittiwakes nesting on The Brownsman.
Black-legged Kittiwake on Staple Island.Black-legged Kittiwake on Staple Island.

Black-headed Gull

Despite their name, Black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) don’t have black heads! During the breeding season their heads are a very dark brown colour and their white eye ring is quite distinctive. In the winter the head turns white with small dark brown patches on either side. They have a dark red bill and legs.

Black-headed Gull on Inner Farne - spring / summer plumage.Black-headed Gull on Inner Farne – spring / summer plumage.
Black-headed Gull - winter plumageBlack-headed Gull – winter plumage

Not a Gull! The Fulmar

Why include the Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) if it isn’t a gull? Well, to the untrained eye it is often mistaken for a gull and it’s easy to see why. It has a very gull-like white body with grey upperwings and back. I’ve included it here to help readers identify it and distinguish it as an unrelated species. The Fulmar is not part of the family of gulls, its closest relative is actually the albatross! It’s very different when in flight, it has a much more ‘stiff winged’ shape rather than the more languid wing movement associated with gulls.

A pair of Fulmars, The Longstone.A pair of Fulmars, The Longstone.

Close up, the fulmar’s beak reveals another identifying feature. As a ‘tubenose’ it is made up of several distinct plates rather than a continuous covering. Just don’t get too close though, the Fulmar’s defence mechanism is to projectile vomit an oily substance from their stomach when under threat!

Fulmar, Brownsman.Fulmar, Brownsman.

Other Gulls

The gulls (and Fulmar!) discussed above are not exhaustive but you are pretty much guaranteed to see them. Other much less common gulls which are occasionally spotted on or around the islands include the Little Gull, Meditaerranean Gull, Common Gull, Iceland Gull and Glaucus Gull.

Photography Workshops

My 2017 Farne Islands Puffins & Seabirds wildlife photography workshops are all sold out now (as usual!) but I can be available for bespoke / self-forming groups or one to ones etc. For more information, please click here.

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