Great Black-backed Gull

Hey guys, welcome back! The Great Black-backed Gull. On average, these guys are the largest gull species in the world (I say on average, as individuals can vary in size, and the number two gull, the Glaucous Gull, can occasionally have individuals larger.) It’s hard to really convey the size of these guys. Picture a large, female Red-tailed Hawk. Yeah, even at the smaller end of average, the Great Black-backed Gull is larger. By quite a bit. I remember when I lived in New York, and was riding my bike and birding on Randall’s Island, I was riding slow looking out onto the East River, scanning for birds, when I looked in front of me, and about 10 feet away, perched on a lamppost, was a Great Black-backed Gull. I had never been that close to one before. The thing nearly scared the hell out of me because I wasn’t expecting to see anything right there in front of me, let alone something of that size! In fact, they’ve been known to hunt grebes and even puffins! For a size comparison, look at the below picture. The Ring-billed Gull in the foreground is about 20 feet closer to the camera and still looks dwarfed by the Great Black-backed Gull behind him.

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The Great Black-backed Gull dwarfs this Ring-billed Gull in size, Ft. Tilden, Rockaway, NY

But unlike the previous gull entries to this blog, the Great Black-backed Gull is not very widespread. They’re only found along the east coast of the U.S. north to the maritime provinces of Canada, and west to the eastern Great Lakes. They are easily identifiable by their sheer size, but also, as the name suggests, their black backs. Truth be told, it’s more of a dark grey, but noticeably darker than any other gull in its range. They have a bright yellow bill, and pale, pinkish legs. Their habitat, diet, and behavior is pretty typical of gulls, though due to its size, they tend to be much more….tyrannical than their smaller counterparts, often stealing food, and harassing other gulls. Few birds mess with these guys.

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Great Black-backed Gull, Rockaway, NY

As we’ve learned, identifying gulls can be a challenge. One that gets more difficult when discussing juvenile gulls. Beginning birders may not realize this, but it takes many gull species around four years to get their adult plumage. (Not atypical for birds, some Bald Eagles take 4 or 5 years to get their trademark “bald” head!) You may remember that picture of the juvenile Herring Gull from last post; it’s almost entirely dark grey. Indeed, flipping through a field guide’s gull section, often brings up pages and pages of birds labeled “first year” or “second year.” It’s confusing enough to try and remember what the juvenile of a species looks like, but a first year old gull can look completely different from a second year gull. And they look different than a third year! I don’t have any real tips or tricks to help you discern a second year Great Black-backed Gull from a second year Herring Gull, except for size. I’ve spent my life living in either the Great Lakes or the East Coast where there’s really only about four gull species that were common enough to see juveniles, and so size was pretty much all I needed. I can say that, in general, a first year gull is darker in color; a mottled grey and sometimes brown, and every subsequent year they become whiter until they’re pretty much their stark white and grey selves.

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Great Black-backed Gull, Sag Harbor, NY

As annoying as a lot of people find gulls to be, you gotta respect the Great Black-backed gull. It’s hard to see it gliding over the beach and not find it at least a bit majestic. They really are, in many ways, the kings of the Atlantic. And thus wraps up our water/seabird month of February. Come back next time when we will kick March off with a raptor that loves hanging out at bird feeders! See you all then!

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