Seagulls of Thurston County – Part 1

By George Walter

There was a time before 2000 when Thurston County was a winter vacation wonderland for gulls of all kinds. Every winter, more than 10,000 seagulls came to our region. Their lives then revolved around a daily trip to the open Thurston County Landfill, a large feeding area north of I-5 in the Hawks Prairie area.

After the landfill was closed and capped in 2000 and turned into a transfer station, things changed dramatically for seagulls and people, too. Garbage is now processed in a semi-enclosed area and is not available for seagulls to feed on. No more flocks of 10,000 seagulls, collections of seagulls swimming in ponds on Hawks Prairie building roofs, and random collections of chicken bones and related waste in nearby parking lots.

It’s certainly progress, but as a bird watcher I miss the glory (and horror) days when we had nationally high winter numbers for some gull species. We now have a small number of gulls wintering here. Nevertheless, seagulls are still one of the most common and well-known species of our bird species.

They are certainly regular visitors to the city of Olympia. We’re likely to see and hear them flying overhead, and we see them gathering in parks and near outdoor restaurants ready to pick up the odd food scrap.

Of course, we live near the sea, so we often think of all seagulls as “seagulls”. However, there are many species of seagulls with different characteristics and life habits. Learning the differences between many species is a worthwhile endeavor.

All species of seagulls are quite successful animals. Different species of seagulls are found on every continent. You can expect to be surrounded by seagulls wherever you travel.

The secret to the success of the Seagulls

This success is primarily the result of one characteristic: they are not picky eaters. Most (but not all) species of seagull are scavengers, and so are sometimes seen feeding on unusual things and in unusual places. They take advantage of all kinds of feeding opportunities, from dead bodies washed up along the shore, to catching small fish and other prey along the surface and edges of the water, to gathering open worms in newly plowed fields.

Most gull species present numerous identification challenges to the casual bird watcher. First, they mature in 2-4 years and their immature hair patterns are very different from adults. Second, although species vary widely in size, it can be difficult to determine the size of a single bird without close comparison.

To begin our seagull lessons, let’s focus on two medium-sized seagulls, ranging from 15 to 18 (about the length of a crow). They have similar behaviors and diets. They don’t breed here, but rather inland and along lakes and rivers in the north. Adults are seen here in good numbers in winter, after breeding. Juveniles can be seen in any season.

Adults of both species have white heads and necks, gray backs, and black wingtips. In winter, adults have dark stripes on their heads and necks. The color of their backs differs in shade; this, combined with relative size and other color differences, allows them to be distinguished in most cases. Both take two years to mature and have distinct immature color patterns.

Ring-billed gulls

The ring-billed gull is the larger of the two and the easiest to identify. Adults have a black mark on their yellow upper and lower bills, forming an open ring. And they have bold, piercing yellow eyes. Juveniles are light brown and white. By the time they reach maturity in two years, they can appear in a variety of patterned color patterns.

This species is known to be an aggressive scavenger. I remember identifying my first Ringed Gulls many years ago while fighting over a dropped French Fries at a fast food stand.

Short-billed gulls

The second species is the Little Gull (formerly Mew’s Gull). Adults are noticeably smaller and their yellow bills are smaller and thinner. They have black eyes and no bill spots. Immatures of this species also appear mottled brown and white and, like the adults, appear smaller overall.

Although short-billed gulls are mostly found near the coast, they can also be found inland. In the Nisqually area, we sometimes see 50 or more Short-eared Gulls exploring plowed or newly plowed farm fields.

Next week

In next week’s column, we’ll focus on some other gull species. because we all need to get to know these interesting and abundant bird neighbors.

George Walter is the environmental program manager for the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has over 40 years of interest in bird watching. You can apply to him george@theJOLTnews.com

Photos for this column were provided by 15-year-old Olympic birder and amateur photographer Liam Hutcheson.

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