Ohio is a great place to “see” gulls
|Ring Billed Gull
For those of us who call Ohio home, it’s obvious that not all gulls live by the sea. But would you believe that the Buckeye State is considered to be one of the very best places on the planet to “see” gulls? It’s true, and winter offers an excellent opportunity for viewing a large variety of gulls, as thousands flock together on the open waters of Lake Erie and along its shore.While gulls can be found throughout Ohio, 19 of the world’s 51 gull species have been recorded on our great lake. Of that number, two actually nest here: the Ring-billed and Herring gull. I recently learned these facts and other interesting “gull-bits” when a flock of gull experts and admirers gathered near Lake Erie to discuss these sleekly-designed birds.
Two terms frequently used to describe gulls are “opportunistic” and “adaptable.” The opportunistic label fits because most gulls will eat just about anything, including natural fare such as fish, other birds, amphibians, rodents, insects and carrion as well as any tasty treats that get tossed into fast-food dumpsters. Adaptability is evident in the wide-range of terrains they call home from the frigid, snow-swept Arctic to the steamy tropics of the South Pacific.
Gulls are distinguished by their round, aerodynamic heads, slightly hooked beaks and squared or rounded tails. They’re slower to reach maturity than songbirds and other yard birds common to Ohio. The first two to four years of their lives, young gulls have brownish-gray mottled feathers before achieving adult plumage. During those “ugly duckling” years, their markings and colorations change, making identification a challenge.
The most often seem far inland are Ring-billed gulls. They are drawn by the readily available meals found within fast-food parking lots and local landfills. Adult Ring-bills have a wingspan of about 4 feet and are 18 to 20-inches long. They have pale bluish-gray feathers on their backs and shoulders wings are tipped in black with white spots. The rest of their feathers, including the head, are white. Their eyes and legs are yellow, as well as the bill, which sports the namesake black ring.
Ohio’s other nesting gull is the Herring gull. It looks very much like a Ring-billed, except that it is larger by about 4 inches, has a red spot on the bottom of its bill and has pinkish-colored legs. Herring gulls also take advantage of easy fast-food meals, but are not prone to straying very far from Lake Erie.
North America’s largest gull, the Great black-backed, is also a common visitor particularly in winter and especially along eastern Lake Erie. At 30 inches in length and with a wingspan of more than 5 feet, it is easy to spot this gull in a crowd.
The Arctic-dwelling Glaucous gull is another large gull, almost as big as the Great black-backed. It is notable as being Ohio’s most common white-winged gull. The much smaller Bonaparte’s gull is a common early-winter visitor to the lake. Preferring a diet of fish, you won’t find this gull doing any dumpster diving. Look for it along the lake’s eastern shores.
And, since gulls are very sociable, it’s likely that there will be a few oddball species in these large flocks, such as a Thayer’s, Iceland or Lesser black-backed gull.
Ring Billed Gull in flight
For the uninitiated, the ability to distinguish between species can be frustrating. One of the best tips I received during the recent gull symposium was to learn which gulls are common to the area and at what time of year. To help with identification, take note of the bird’s size, head and wing-tip markings, under-wing pattern, bill size and shape, overall coloration as well as bill, leg and eye colors.
Another excellent suggestion is to take a camera. That way if you can’t identify the bird on the spot, you’ll have the image for future reference.
One of the great things about viewing Ohio’s gulls is that you won’t have to hike very far from the car to reach their natural habitat. But remember, winter gull watching particularly along Lake Erie can be a chilly challenge, so don’t forget to dress warmly.
To further spark your interest in these remarkable birds, here are some gull facts to consider:
- Because of their flexible diets, gulls help tidy up Ohio’s outdoors by consuming dead animals and other organic matter.
- It is not unusual for gulls to take live prey, such as Starlings, in mid-air.
- Gulls are long-lived, some with a lifespan of nearly 30 years.
- Each night, Ring-billed gulls leave fast-food parking lots and landfills for a body of water where they can safely congregate either on the water or along the shore.
Call me gull-able, but I think these birds rate as some of Ohio’s most watchable wildlife.