Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Winter Gulls - Lesser Black-backed and Iceland/Kumlien Gulls

There are some birds that only come to New England in the winter, among them the Lesser Black-backed Gull from N.W. Europe and the northern Atlantic, and the Iceland/Kumlien Gull from northern Canada. The Lesser Black-backed Gull  reportedly first bred in Iceland in the late 1920's and has been breeding in Greenland since 1990. There is no record of breeding in N. America, but since 1980 there has been a dramatic increase of nonbreeding individuals in the fall and winter. They have become fairly common along the Atlantic coast and the shores of the Great Lakes, but are uncommon further inland.

They do appear however to be fairly regular winter visitors to the CT River area near Gill and Turner's  Falls in MA. Following a recent report of a sighting I was happy to find the gull there in a mixed group roosting on the ice.

What distinguishes them from other gulls are gray upper parts, yellowish legs, head and neck streaking, and a medium size bill that is slender and often tapered. They are much smaller than the Great Black-backed Gull and also smaller than the Herring Gull, standing behind it in this photo. The two gulls in front are Ring-billed Gulls. 

This photo of a LBBG among a flock of Herring Gulls was taken in the same area in the winter of 2008.

The other fairly uncommon winter visitor is the Kumlien Gull
, a subspecies of the Iceland Gull. In fact all the Iceland Gulls in N. America reportedly belong to the Kumlien taxon. it is named after a Swedish-American naturalist named Thure Kumlien. The finer points of this distinction in plumage elude me, but the Kumlien Gull breeds in northern Canada and the Iceland Gull proper in Greenland. Most of the visiting Kumlien Gulls in this area are first or second cycle individuals.  In a large flock of roosting Herring and Ring-billed Gulls you can usually find one or two. I took these photos in late December 2010 and 2009, in the same area on the CT River and the Montague Power Canal in Turner's Falls.

In this year's Kumlien Gull, shown here in front of a Herring Gull. note the fresh gray upperparts indicating a second cycle individual. The bicolored bill confims this. The first cycle gulls in the photos below have a uniformly dark bill.

Also on my recent visit there I was fortunate enough to I observe two Ring-billed Gulls practicing synchronized swimming.

And here's a Herring Gull admiring her mirror image. Oops --sorry, it's upside down! :-)
Cheers and Happy Birding!

Thanks for stopping by. Please leave a comment.

Information based on Howell's and Dunn's "Gulls of the Americas"  and on articles in Wikipedia.org. Strangely Cornell's Birds of North America had no listing for the Lesser Black-backed Gull.


  1. Great series Hilke. Boom & Gary.

  2. Hilke,
    Thanks as always for adding to my education. I am glad there is so much to know about gulls and taking a virtual field trip with you is certainly enlightening!

  3. I especially like the last two shots. Nice job on the ID's.

  4. Great photos and a very interesting post. Fascinating details on the plumage changes - I did not know that Gulls migrated as far as that.

  5. Brilliant images of birds I love watching even on our local tips (waste dumps. The synchronized swimmers photo is a classic. Great info.

  6. When I lived in NY I became familiar with the Great Black Backed Gull..they really stand out I can see the differences of the Lesser you have shown--
    Lots of good info on the Kumlien Gull never had the pleasure to see that one.
    GREAT flight photo and I love the reflection shot!!
    Very good post!

  7. I love watching the gulls around here and hope to get some nice shots as soon as I un-decorate from Christmas! Your photos are wonderful!

  8. I am so challenged by gulls in general so thank you for picking this topic. I take pictures of gulls but rarely add them to my database because I can never figure out the species. Just another bird challange to work on. Thanks for the great pics.

  9. I like sea gulls too. Whenever I need to relax, I close my eyes and imagine myself walking along a beach and then hearing sea gulls. The sound of the sea gulls seem to do the trick.

    Thanks for the information on the gulls.

  10. Excellent pictures Hilke... Still species I've to see this year, although the rare ring-billed gull is on the lsit already. One is staying at the main pond of the city ;-)

  11. Great info on the gulls - they are so hard to tell apart. The synchronized swimming and the mirror photo made me smile.

  12. Thank you all! I love photographing gulls because they usually hold still, but identifying them is another matter.
    @Chris It's ironic how one species of bird is common in one place and a rarity in another. Here everyone can see Ring-billed Gulls in the winter, namely on the local shopping center parking lots scouting for edible trash.

  13. Great post on the gulls, Hilke! I just love your last photo, great reflection.

  14. Excellent series, Hilke!!

    I hadn't realized there was no confirmed breeding for NA for LBBG, that surprises me. They are certainly regular in the Great Lakes.

  15. Hilke, I just visited there looking for these birds but did not see them. I will have to try again. Perhaps on a warmer day? :-)

  16. What a great variety of Gulls!
    They are fascinating to me, but soooo hard to ID :D
    Just came back with a few shots from Bahrain and they are driving me nuts ;)
    Love the synchronized swimming pic!


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