Sea Gulls are found from the oceans to the Great Plains to any parking lot.
Herring Gulls Larus argentatus (right) are large, raucous, and sometimes aggressive. They grow to 20", with a wingspan of up to 55". These birds quickly learn to accept handouts, and will attack small children on the beach to steal food from them. Discourage this behavior by never feeding them. Immature specimens are as large as adults, but dirty brown.
Gulls are typically scavengers, feeding upon whatever carrion and flotsam they can find. They are also not above stealing food from other birds. Jaegers are sea birds which specialize in stealing food from gulls !
Laughing Gulls Larus atricilla are smaller, tern-like, with a black head and a laughing call. This is a common summer gull along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, but its numbers have dropped in recent years because much of its coastal marsh habitat has been destroyed, and because Herring Gulls prey on its eggs and young. Laughing Gulls are very agile flyers and easily catch bits of food tossed into the air.
Black Skimmers are gull-like birds that catch small fishes by slicing their knife-like lower jaw through the surface of the water. The lower jaw is longer than the upper. They are usually seen in protected backwaters and bays; over-winter in the south.
A CLOSER LOOK AT NEW JERSEY'S GULLS
BY WADE WANDER AND SHARON ANN BRADY
photos by the authors
Although the 1975 appearance of the rare Ross Gull lured thousands of birders to Massachusetts and catapulted gulls into temporary national prominence, these abundant and boisterous birds still go largely unnoticed. Living in a coastal state, most New Jerseyans are well aware that we have a more than ample population of 'seagulls': but most people are not aware of the variety of species. plumages, behaviors, and habitats that make gulls one of our most fascinating groups of birds:
To begin with, the name 'seagull' is really misleading, for all New Jersey species but one are birds of the coast and estuaries rather than of the open sea. In fact, unless there is a fishing fleet operating in the area, gulls are almost totally absent out of sight of land. Actually, many species of gulls are quite common inland. Several species, such as Franklin's Gull, even breed in the interior of North America. Another, the California Gull, is, oddly enough, the state bird of Utah ( because a hungry flock saved early Mormon settlers from an equally hungry plague of locusts ! ) In New Jersey, gulls can be found inland anywhere, anytime. but are most often seen making their daily rounds from the coast to reservoirs and lakes, or in plowed fields eating insects.
Great Black-backed Gull - Adult From below this species is easily identified by its robust body; long, heavy wings; and extensive black on underwings.
Great Black-backed Gull - Immature First-year birds such as this are similar to immature Herring Gulls, but much lighter on head, neck, base of tail, and underparts.
'Seagull' is misleading in another way by its common usage to denote all gulls, regardless of species. This is unfortunate, as even a casual New Jersey observer can expect to find five species of gulls - Herring, Ring-billed, Laughing, Great Blackbacked, and Bonaparte's - while a truly diligent birder may turn up six more - Iceland, Black-headed, Glaucous, Little, Lesser Blackbacked, and Black-legged Kittiwake.
Though they differ in many ways, all 11 species do exhibit 'delayed maturity'; depending on its species, an individual bird, although the size of an adult, takes from two to four years to reach sexual maturity and the accompanying adult plumage. During this time, juvenile gulls display an endless variety of intermediate plumages - so much so that you'll hardly ever see two identical immature gulls. Even the adults of most species will alternate summer and winter plumages - so its quite a challenge to be able to accurately identify every species in any plumage! All the standard field guides, such as Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds, Robbins', et al. Birds of North America, and Pough's Audubon Water Bird Guide, illustrate species and plumages not pictured here and provide more detailed information on gull identification.
Of the common species, the Herring Gull is the Starling of the gull world. Although they are numerous enough along our shoreline, the best place to see really astounding numbers of Herring Gulls is in garbage dumps, where their ecological role as opportunists and scavengers has enabled them to be one of the few species to benefit from man's waste-disposal methods. Although the Herring Gull is increasing as a breeder in New Jersey, like most other gull species found here it is much more common in winter.
New Jersey's most ubiquitous gull - and the one most commonly seen inland - is the Ring-billed, a denizen of every location from plowed fields to parking lots, golf courses to country lakes. The Ringbilled Gull does not breed in the state but is nevertheless quite common here during the summer, because there are two or three years' worth of immature birds just loafing around until they grow up.
The Laughing Gull, on the other hand, does breed here - in several immense colonies in our southern salt marshes. Throughout the summer its raucous 'laugh' is one of the most familiar sounds all along the seashore. The Laughing Gull is unique among New Jersey Gulls in that it leaves for a Florida vacation in late fall and is unusual here in winter.
Laughing Gull - Adult Unmistakable in summer with its dark red bill, broken white eye ring, black head, and dark gray mantle. Winter adults ( seldom seen here ) lose the black headdress, retaining only a grayish cap across back of head.
Herring Gull - Adult A large gull with medium-gray back and upper wing surface (mantle), black wingtips, pink legs. In summer the head and breast are pure white; winter birds, such as this one, display a mottled brownish
Our largest and most impressive gull, the Great Black-backed, is rapidly expanding its range southward and has recently begun breeding in New Jersey. Like the Herring Gull, the Great Black-backed is a bird of the garbage dumps and seashore, where it dominates other gulls by virtue of its large size and aggressive behavior. It is our most predatory gull, frequently raiding nesting colonies of other seabirds and occasionally killing rats and even birds as large as Black Ducks.
Bonaparte's Gull, in contrast, is among our smallest gulls, light and graceful on the wing. The best time to observe it is in winter, when you'll find flocks of up to a thousand or more Bonaparte's Gulls along the coast. When migrating to and from its breeding colonies, this species may sometimes be seen briefly on our larger inland lakes. Interestingly, the Bonaparte's Gull uses a nesting site unique among gulls, most species of which are ground-nesters; the birds you see here were fledged from nests in spruce or fir trees in northwest Canada!
Among the six rarer species, the Iceland and Glaucous gulls ( informally called 'white-winged' gulls because of the absence of black in their primary flight feathers ) are winter visitors from the far north. In New Jersey, immature rather than adult birds are most often seen, usually at garbage dumps in the company of Herring Gulls. A days birding in the Hackensack Meadowlands might produce up to half-a-dozen Icelands and maybe one Glaucous - out of 10,000 Herring Gulls !
Ring-billed Gull - Adult Looking like a smaller version of the Herring Gull, this species differs by having yellow legs and black ring on yellow bill. 'Winter hoods' are visible on these birds; head is white in summer
Ring-billed Gull - Immature Marked by its black-tipped pink bill ( no ring ), brown splotches on gray mantle and upper breast.
The Bonaparte-like Black-headed and Little gulls are rare but regular winter visitors from Europe! They are not 'dump birds, ' but do display equally unsavory tastes in their preference for sewer outlets in Raritan and New York bays.
The Black-legged Kittiwake is our one gull that is unusual within sight of land - although it occurs in flocks of thousands well offshore in winter. During strong easterly winds, however, it might be seen in small numbers from any location along the Jersey coast.
Although a really skillful birder might spot something like a Franklin's Gull, or with some real luck even a Yellow-legged Herring Gull, the rarest of New Jersey's 'regular' gulls he's likely to see is undoubtedly the Lesser Black-backed Gull. One or two individuals of this European species, a smaller version of our Great Black-backed, are reported every winter in our area.
Despite the many species and their varied plumages, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of gulls is their behavior. Even an assemblage of resting gulls is constantly active with comings and goings, squabbles and preenings. Usually, however, gulls are preoccupied with feeding; perhaps, as Henry Beston empathized in The Outermost House, they can never do more than 'dull the edge of their hunger.' So gulls are past masters at scrounging a meal, whether by begging scraps from homebound fishing boats. blitzing incoming garbage trucks, or shattering clams with a 'bombs away' over rock or road. Although a gull locating a promising food source may perform distinctive aerial maneuvers to inform other gulls of his discovery, the pandemonium of feeding, fighting, and food stealing that soon erupts, with its cacophony of piteous and outraged screeching, would convince anyone that each and every gull lives indeed at the edge of starvation.
Glaucous Gull - Immature Larger than a Herring Gull. The nearly snow-white plumage of this second-year bird is in striking contrast to the grays and browns of most other gulls. First-year birds are very pale, mottled brown. Adults acquire a pale gray mantle but retain the white wingtips. Plumages of the smaller Iceland Gull are similar.
Great Black-backed Gull - Adult Its large size and black wings and mantle contrasting with snow-white head, tail, and underparts make this lordly bird our easiest gull to identify. Plumage is the same in winter.
Studies of gulls' intriguing repertoire of displays and calls were among the important early contributions to the development of ethology ( the study of 'natural' animal behavior ), and scientists such as Dr. Joanna Burger of Rutgers University continue to study new aspects of gull behavior today.
So the next time you see a flock of 'seagulls, ' stop, take a closer look, and enjoy the varied appearances and behavior of these fascinating birds. We're sure you'll find in them an unexpected beauty and an interesting array of personalities.
Here is a list of some of our favorite locations to observe gulls:
Hackensack Meadowlands - For sheer numbers of Herring and Great Black-backed gulls. Also the area with greatest numbers of 'white-winged' gulls.
Liberty Park - Its location on New York Bay makes this park a good place for Black-headed and Little gulls.
Raritan Bayshore - Particularly in the vicinity of South Amboy in late May or early June, this is the best area to see Black-headed and Little gulls. Hundreds of Bonaparte's winter here.
Sandy Hook - Great Black-backed and Herring gulls are predominant here. Good for Laughing Gulls in summer and Bonaparte's in winter. White-winged gulls may occasionally be seen.
Shark River and Manasquan River - Just about any species is possible at either estuary - both sport a history of rarities. At the docks along Channel Drive in Point Pleasant Beach the gulls are exceptionally approachable - good for close-up looks and photographs.
Island Beach State Park and Barnegat Inlet - Another area where it is wise to be alert for anything, but especially good for Bonaparte's Gulls and Kittiwakes.
Delaware Bayshore ( especially Reed's and Moore's beaches ) - One of the most spectacular sights in New Jersey birding is the tremendous concentration of Laughing Gulls here in May and June.
This article first appeared in New Jersey Outdoors - July / August 1977
Terns are smaller and more graceful in flight than gulls. The Common Tern Sterna hirundo (right) grows to 14", wingspan 31". Their forked tails makes it easy to differentiate terns from Laughing Gulls, which also have black heads.
Terns are found in the same habitats as gulls, that is to say, just about anywhere near water. Their call is a common sound along waterfronts everywhere.
What do you get when you cross a pigeon with a duck?
This large ( 27", wingspan 50" ) seabird is more likely to be seen around back waters than in the open ocean. Cormorants seems rather poorly adapted to its lifestyle - they barely float, and their feathers are not waterproof like other waterfowl. As a result, they can often be seen standing on rocks and pilings or in trees in just this pose, sunning themselves to warm up and dry out after diving for fish. Despite this apparent disadvantage, they are quite successful, and even manage to over-winter in the area. Cormorants are amazing swimmers and divers, able to catch fish underwater in their own environment.
The Double-Crested Cormorant
by Sue Canale
Double-crested cormorants ( Phalacrocorax auritus ) are a common sight in New Jersey, although many people may not be familiar with them. If you frequent any of the state's larger waterways, you've probably seen one. These large greenish black waterbirds have orange facial skin, including an orange throat pouch, and webbed feet. They are often seen perched on pilings or towers with wings outstretched as if basking in the sun, which is exactly what they are doing. Immature birds are easily distinguished from their adult counterparts by the gray or tan plumage on the head and neck.
About 30 species of cormorants exist worldwide, with six occurring in North America. The double-crested cormorant is the most common, and is the only one often observed inland. It is named for the two small tufts, or feather crests, that are briefly present on the heads of adults in breeding plumage.
The legs are located far back on the body, and when in the water, their bodies are totally submerged; only the head and neck are exposed, similar to the posture of loons. They can be differentiated from loons, however, by their slender hooked bill, which will be tilted slightly upward when swimming. Although both species dive for their dinner of fish, loons have thicker, longer bills that appear more pointed at the tip.
Double-crested cormorants have a breeding range that extends from southwestern Alaska to Mexico. They also nest on lakes from central Alberta to James Bay & Newfoundland, south along the coast to the Gulf of Mexico. The population we see here in New Jersey migrates south to spend its winters in the Gulf of Mexico, the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles. Along the Pacific coast and in southeastern US, populations are resident year round.
In New Jersey, flocks flying in their typical sloppy or loose Vs are most frequently seen in the spring and summer. This trait, in combination with their dark coloring, probably led to the colloquial designation crow-ducks by early European settlers.
Double-crested cormorants nest in colonies in a variety of places, from rocky outcroppings, ledges, and sandy islets to trees near water and even power towers. New Jersey's five breeding colonies occur in four different physiographic regions, ranging from an inland site in Bergen County to a Delaware Bay site in Cumberland County. Their nests are generally constructed from loose twigs and wreck debris. They usually lay 3 to 4 light blue eggs that may have a white chalky covering. Incubation is shared by the adults and lasts from 25 to 28 days. Young cormorants fledge at about 10 weeks of age.
Double-crested cormorants were not recorded to breed in New Jersey until 1987 when colonies were discovered in lower Newark Bay. It may only be a matter of time, however, before we see increases in colonies and breeding populations. Large numbers of subadults and non-breeding birds can be seen loafing here during the breeding season, which lasts from mid April to the end of August.
The diet of the double-crested cormorant consists of small shallow water baitfish ( primarily alewife, rainbow smelt, and yellow perch ) and aquatic invertebrates, but will also take many game fish - a fact that has not gone unnoticed by sport anglers. Unfortunately, their diet has contributed to the major predicaments facing them: contamination and direct competition with human interests.
Aquaculturists and catfish farmers are often economically impacted by the appetite of these and other fish eating birds. Like most avian species, cormorants are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which includes provisions allowing individuals who experience economic losses to control the species. The Great Lakes population illustrates the need for sound biological assessment of local ecosystems and the need to balance the population with human economics. The cormorant colonies discovered there in the early 1920s grew so rapidly that anglers were calling for control measures by the 1940s. Early efforts concentrated on egg destruction, including spraying eggs with a formaldehyde and soap solution. By 1960, most sanctioned control had been suspended, but a more insidious control was taking hold.
Fish-eating bird populations were severely impacted by the effects of toxic chemical bioaccumulation, mainly DDE ( produced when an animal's body tries to rid itself of DDT ) and PCBs. DDE inhibits birds' ability to transfer calcium carbonate from their bones to the eggshell. Thinner eggshells cannot support the weight of an incubating bird. Because cormorants incubate their eggs by wrapping their webbed feet around them, essentially standing on them, they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of DDE.
By the early 1970s, toxic contamination had reduced the breeding population of Great Lakes double-crested cormorants by 86 percent. Legislative restrictions and voluntary reductions in the use of DDT and associated pesticides gradually enabled avian populations to rebound. By the late 1990s, the number of breeding pairs in the Great Lakes had increased to more than 8,000, but this resurgence precipitated a conflict involving the local sportfishing industry, which felt that the birds were devastating their livelihood. Nearly 900 of cormorants were illegally shot and killed. While the individuals responsible were apprehended, this incident serves to remind us of the challenges inherent in balancing the implementation of sound wildlife management practices with human economics and the ecosystem dynamics of an area.
Sue Canale is a senior biologist with the Division of Fish and Wildlife's Office of Information and Education. Formerly on the staff of the division's Endangered and Non-game Species Program, she now focuses on marine education
This article first appeared in New Jersey Outdoors - Summer 2001
Ospreys, or "Fish Eagles", Pandion haliaetus, are fairly common along shorelines, marshes, and larger inland waterways. They dive for fish, catching them with their talons - which is quite a sight to see. At the last moment in its headlong plunge, the bird pivots to strike the water feet-first.
At 22", wingspan 54", Ospreys are smaller than eagles, but larger than hawks, and form their own family. Once threatened by DDT, which thins the shells of their eggs and makes then susceptible to breakage, Ospreys have made a great comeback, and may be seen around almost any salt marsh. They nest in trees, or on special platforms that are erected for them. Several nesting pairs of Bald Eagles also live in the region.
These are birds which are occasional to regular visitors to our region, but do not live here year-round. Pelicans are summer visitors, Gannets are winter visitors. Others mayappear any time, usually after being blown inshore by a storm. Because they can be carried thousands of miles off-course in storms, many other types of sea birds, from Europe, Africa, South America, the Arctic, and even Asia may make guest appearances as well.
Brown PelicansPelecanus occidentalis are southern birds that are occasionally found as far north as Cape May, rarely up to Nova Scotia. However, with the warmer temperatures of late, they seem to be expanding their normal range northward.
These enormous ( 41", wingspan 6-1/2' ! ) sea birds fly low over the water in lines, like geese, plunging down head-first to catch fish.
Diving for fish
Storm Petrels are small ( 6.5", wingspan 16" ) birds are truly sea-going, coming ashore only to reproduce. Petrels are apt to follow ships at sea, and can be quite common offshore, where they flit about just inches from the waves, never alighting. Floating droplets of oil, byproduct of natural decomposition, form a significant part of their diet.
Wilson's Storm Petrel Oceanites oceanicus is considered to be the world's commonest seabird. Leach's Storm Petrel is similar, but has a forked tail instead of rounded.
are gull- to tern- sized wanderers of the open sea that are sometimes found inshore. Generally dark plumage and rounded tails are identifying marks, although distinguishing between species is difficult. Up close, tubular nostrils become evident, a trait shared with related petrels. These are associated with the salt-secreting glands that allow the birds to drink seawater.
Shearwaters fly low over the water, and also dive beneath the surface, "flying" underwater with partially folded wings. They feed on fish and squid. My experience is that these birds are remarkably tame, swimming right up to the boat for tidbits of food.
Shearwaters on the wing, above and below the surface
Northern GannetsMorus bassanus are the sole North Atlantic members of the Booby family. They resemble overgrown gulls, larger, with longer necks and wings. Distinguishing marks are a pointed tail, yellowish head, and dark gray or black outer wings.
Boobies are fish divers like their cousins the Cormorants. Unlike Cormorants, though, Gannets make spectacular plunging dives from high altitude into the water after their prey.
Gannets live and breed in the far north, but over-winter offshore in our area and south, when they can usually be seen swooping low over the waves singly or in pairs. They are powerful and agile fliers but clumsy on land, particularly in takeoffs and landings.
It is not at all uncommon for small songbirds to be blown out to sea in a strong west wind ( or a north wind, for Long Island. ) Unable to make their way back to land, these tiny fliers eventually tire and drop into the water, or get picked off by sea gulls. In desperation, they will alight on anything solid to rest. An anchored dive boat makes an easy target, and may collect several hitchhikers over the course of a day. This little guy was so exhausted that he even perched on a finger for photographs. Generally, though, you should just leave them alone and not frighten them further, and they will fly away on their own once the boat gets back to land.
Now this is uncommon. This little bat hitched a ride with us out to sea. When it woke up, it flew around the boat in a panic, and almost bashed its brains out trying to find a perch in the rafters. Except for a few pictures, we left it alone.
Even bugs get blown out to sea - where do you think all those black flies come from? Butterflies are more common than dragonflies.
I make no claim as to the accuracy, validity, or appropriateness of any information found in this website. I will not be responsible for the consequences of any action that is based upon information found here. Scuba diving is an adventure sport, and as always, you alone are responsible for your own safety and well being.