Seagull? Everyone knows what a seagull is, but why do we use that name for them? They are gulls, GULLS. We don’t have “seaducks” or “sealoons” or “seaterns,” so why “seagulls?” I don’t know, but I’ll never stop asking that question. Although all of them visit the sea for at least part of the year, more than half of the gull species breed on fresh water.
On Puget Sound, there is one very common gull, the Glaucous-winged (Larus glaucescens). In winter, most of the large gulls you see are Glaucous-winged, just as most of the small gulls are Mew Gulls. A moderate variety of species make up the other few percent.
Although in winter they wander inland to near-coastal freshwater lakes and well up the larger rivers, Glaucous-wings are basically marine birds. They breed throughout the protected marine waters of the Pacific Northwest in good-sized colonies on islands and scattered as single pairs at ferry docks or on rooftops. On the outer coast, the Glaucous-winged is replaced by the Western Gull as a breeding species.
Fully fledged juveniles are brown, coffee-with-cream colored with fine markings on most feathers. The wings and tail are very slightly darker than the body feathers and relatively unmarked. The bill is black, the legs dull pinkish. Limited molt begins during the fall, and the brown feathers of the back are replaced by gray.
Large gulls, including this species, seem to molt during a large part of the year, so plumage changes signaling a transition from immaturity to maturity occur not only between years but within years. The largest gull species take about four years to reach maturity, and their plumage changes throughout that time.
A typical first-year gull is brown, like the Glaucous-winged described here. By the time it is a year old, certain changes are evident in its plumage. Typically the mantle (= back) has become some shade of gray, and white feathering is increasing on the head and breast. The bill becomes pale (pinkish) at the base. The rest of the body and wings and tail look about the same.
By the second spring (about 20 months old), much more of the head and underparts are white, the bill has more pale color at its base, and gray feathers are appearing in the wing coverts. The wings and tail are still the same shade of brown, although both have been molted once.
By their third spring, Glaucous-winged Gulls look much more like adults. The bill has dark markings restricted to the tip and may be starting to turn yellow. Most of the head and body feathers are white (except for dark streaks and smudges on the head and neck). The wings are largely gray, the primary feathers with slightly darker tips and restricted white spots at the very ends. The tail is white, with or without gray spots toward the ends of the feathers.
One of these birds could easily be mistaken for an adult, but the white primary tips are more restricted, there is often a dusky wash across the upper surface of the wings, and the bill usually has a dark tip or subapical ring. there is much variation in plumage at this age. Some individuals look more like two-year olds, others more like fully adults. A small percentage defy categorization.
When the gull is mature, it has an entirely white body and tail and gray mantle, with slightly darker wingtips with white spots in them. The iris is brown, the bill bright yellow with a red spot on the lower mandible, the feet pink. The circumorbital skin is also pink. In nonbreeding plumage, the head and neck are suffused with dusky markings, and a black smudge appears on the red bill spot.
Back in the 1950s, a small group of these gulls from the Protection Island colony were raised to maturity in captivity by Zella Schultz of Seattle Audubon Society, and the variation within any given year class was surprisingly great. This is presumably because different birds have different hormone levels and apparently molt at slightly different times and/or with different degrees of completeness.
That tremendous variety of gulls that we see out there is caused, at least in part, by the gradual plumage change from young to adult in each species. Learn it in the Glaucous-winged Gull, and you will feel a sense of satisfaction at having made complexity somewhat simpler.