Iceland Gulls breed exclusively along the rocky coastlines of north-east Canada to Greenland. Winter migration south occurs, with temporary visitors arriving along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States, and to coastal areas across north-western Europe.
Sometimes known as white-winged gulls, Iceland gulls are pale in plumage but have a few key features that help with identification.
In breeding plumage, male and female Iceland gulls have a rounded white head, white neck, and body, with pale gray wings that have a visible white bar which can be seen both in flight and when folded. A reddish-purple ring is visible around the eyes, and the bill is greenish-yellow, with a vivid red spot towards the tip. Legs can be greyish, pink, or a dull brown-salmon color.
Once breeding is complete, Iceland gulls molt into their winter plumage, featuring streaky brown markings across their crown, face, and throat, and the upper breast is also often faintly lined with brown.
By February, most of the mottling has faded and the solid white head markings are visible. During winter, an Iceland gull’s feet, eyes, and bill are less vibrant than in summer months.
First-winter juveniles are mottled white and pale brown, with wavy arrowhead markings. Their bill is pale pink, with a dark tip, eyes are dark and legs are pink. By the second winter, plumage may have lightened to a more overall white appearance, although birds with some degree of brown mottling are not unusual.
Iceland Gull standing near to the ocean
Iceland Gull swimming on calm water
At sea, Iceland gulls are relatively silent; when breeding they have no song, and their most commonly heard vocalizations are squealing one-note cries, similar to those of herring gulls.
Juvenile Iceland Gull getting ready to take-off
Iceland gulls are omnivores, surviving mainly on a diet of fish, molluscs, offal, eggs, and other scraps. They are also known as scavengers, foraging at garbage dumps, sewage farms, and harborside's where fish are cleaned when brought in by trawlers. In late summer, berries, algae, and terrestrial plants may also be eaten.
Food is commonly taken in flight, with gulls dipping down to pluck fish directly from the ocean’s surface.
Until they are able to forage for themselves, Iceland gull chicks are dependent on their parents for food. Parents regurgitate softened foods they have scavenged for directly into the bills of their young, for at least two months after hatching.
Iceland Gull feeding on fish
During the nesting season, Iceland gulls live communally, alongside 50 to 100 breeding pairs in remote colonies. Clifftops, fjords, and uninhabited rocky islets offer an ideal nesting landscape, undisturbed by humans or land mammals.
Sometimes breeding sites may be chosen a short distance inland, although coastal colonies are by far the most common.
Iceland gulls spend winter months in coastal regions where they forage close to shore, feeding on beaches, agricultural fields, sewage farms, and garbage dumps.
Despite their name, Iceland gulls do not actually breed in Iceland but can be seen around the country’s coast as a winter visitor. Breeding takes place across Canada’s Arctic islands and around the coast of Greenland.
To avoid subzero winter temperatures, migration south begins in the fall, with occasional reports of Iceland gulls arriving at wintering grounds along the Atlantic coast of the US, sometimes as far south as North Carolina.
Some populations also head west, and can be spotted along the Pacific coast of British Columbia, and as casual visitors along the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California, and occasionally as far as Baja California.
The most common winter migrations of Iceland gulls take place eastwards, with wintering populations of Iceland gulls spending up to six months on the coasts of Iceland and the British Isles and as far east as Germany, Denmark, southern Norway, and southern Sweden.
Iceland Gull with winter plumage
Population estimates for Iceland gulls in their different breeding and wintering locations are almost impossible to determine.
The Greenland breeding population is believed to be the most important, in terms of size, and is estimated at between 50,000 and 100,000 pairs. Winter data is equally scarce, but Christmas bird counts in the US estimate around 20,000 individuals, mainly located along the Pacific coast of North America.
Little data exists to confirm global population figures for Iceland gulls. Observation visits by researchers to remote Arctic colonies are not regularly undertaken and it’s almost impossible to estimate an accurate figure.
Sightings are not uncommon during winter months in northern Europe and North America but are considered regular and unpredictable rather than numerous or widespread.
Iceland Gull standing on the ice
Breeding territories of Iceland gulls are particularly bleak and remote, so a better chance of a sighting comes during migration passage or in winter months.
Passage sightings are most common along the east coast of Canada, from Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.
Each autumn, more than 350 Iceland gulls arrive in coastal regions of the British Isles, with concentrations particularly strong in the west. Scotland’s Shetland Isles offers regular sightings each winter.
Iceland Gull standing in a flooded field
The oldest recorded Iceland gull reached 33 years in the wild, while average lifespan estimates range from 5 years to 23 years. Breeding occurs for the first time at 4 years of age.
Due to their preference for nesting in colonies on inaccessible cliffs, Iceland gulls are not frequently victims of land predators, with Arctic foxes only raiding low-level nests they can reach. Gyrfalcons and common ravens are among the leading predators of Iceland gulls’ eggs and young.
Iceland gulls, their eggs, and their young are protected in the US under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Similar legislation in the UK, the Wildlife and Countryside Act, of 1981, offers Iceland gulls protection against being killed, injured, or taken into captivity.
Although considered a species of least concern globally, Iceland gull populations in Greenland are affected by extensive hunting. However little information exists on the overall global population and it’s hard to assess the wider overall population status.
In the UK, Iceland gulls have Amber status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list.
Iceland Gull perching on the rocks
Iceland gulls prefer nest sites on rocky coastal cliffs, frequently forming colonies with other Iceland gulls, glaucous gulls, and common ravens. Where possible, narrow cliff ledges are favoured, where there is minimal chance of being disturbed by humans or predators.
Nests are bulky structures, made from grasses, and moss, and either on the ground at the base of cliffs or on rocky ledges or clifftops, up to around 100 m above sea level. In busier areas, higher sites are chosen, rarely more than 300 m above the ground.
Iceland gulls arrive on breeding grounds from late April to early May, with the earliest eggs being laid in mid-May. Only one clutch is laid each year, with the latest laying dates reported in June.
A typical clutch laid by an Iceland gull consists of two or three buff, gray or olive-brown eggs, heavily marked with brown blotches. Eggs measure 69 mm by 48 mm ( in by in) and are incubated for 24 to 26 days, with both parents, in turn, sharing incubation.
Little research exists into pair bonds of Iceland gulls, but it is believed that, like many other gulls, they are monogamous. It’s unclear whether pairings continue through winter migrations or whether a new mate is found each year.
Iceland Gull standing by the waters edge
Few studies exist on the behavior of Iceland gulls. Research indicates that they are relatively placid and do not actively pursue confrontations or get involved in physically aggressive displays with other birds. Colonially nesting means that pairs raise their young in close proximity to one another, frequently alongside common ravens and herring gulls.
Iceland Gull taking off from the water
Iceland gulls are fully migratory breeding across Arctic Canada and coastal Greenland, before migrating southwards into northern Europe, along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America.
Iceland gulls breed throughout Canada’s Arctic Circle islands. Although many individuals migrate to northern Europe after breeding, a number do remain in North America all year round, spending winters further south along the west and east coasts of the US and in the Caribbean Sea.
Around 355 sightings of Iceland gulls are recorded annually in the UK each winter, but no individuals remain in the British Isles to breed.
Iceland Gull in-flight
There are some key differences between Iceland gulls and herring gulls that make it relatively simple to accurately distinguish between the two species.
Herring gulls are larger than Iceland gulls and have darker upperparts and black wingtips. Iceland gulls have a red ring around their eye during breeding, and a shorter, finer bill.
Family:Gulls and terns
52cm to 60cm
130cm to 158cm
Named in honour of the French naturalist and ornithologist, Jean Victor Audouin (1797 – 1841) the Audouin’s gull is one of the world’s rarest and is limited in the main to regions within and surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
Until fairly recently yellow-legged gulls were considered a subspecies of the caspian gull or the herring gull. In 2007, the British Ornithologists’ Union first listed it as a distinct species with key differences in appearance and distribution range from similar-looking gulls.
Sandwich terns are migratory seabirds that breed at large nesting colonies along the warm-water coasts of Europe, parts of the south-eastern United States, the Caribbean and as far south as Patagonia in South America. Their distinctive yellow-tipped bill and shaggy black crest make them relatively unmistakable alongside similar seabird species.
Roseate terns have a wide distribution range, and are found on six continents around the world. However, numbers have declined dramatically in some regions, leading to conservation concerns over the long-term survival of the species.
Despite its name, the Mediterranean gull is not limited to coastal waters of southern Europe, and is widespread on the Atlantic and Black Sea coasts, as well as in coastal regions and inland reservoirs of England and Wales.
A tiny, but feisty, seabird, the little tern undertakes epic annual migrations of up to 10,000 km (6,000 miles) between breeding grounds along the UK coast to winter territories in West Africa. Further east, little tern populations complete similar journeys from China and Japan to Australia each year.
Little gulls are small, tern-sized seabirds that breed mainly in Central Asia, but are occasionally reported as vagrant breeders in North America and may be seen in passage around coastal areas of the UK, and rarely reach the United States and Canada.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull
The Lesser Black-backed Gull is one of many attractive ‘white-headed-gulls’ from the Larus genus. Common in the UK throughout the year, these migratory seabirds also visit the eastern half of the United States each winter.
The Kittiwake is an attractive, short-legged gull that breeds on rocky cliffs along the UK’s coastline. These birds disperse each winter to forage out over the open ocean.
A familiar bird of the coast, the bold and long-lived Herring Gull is a fascinating seabird in decline.
Great Black-Backed Gull
The Great Black-backed Gull is the world’s largest gull and one formidable seabird. This impressive species lives and breeds along Northern Hemisphere shores on both sides of the Atlantic.
A large, pale gull species, the Glaucous gull breeds across the Arctic, where it hunts for fish, birds and small mammals and scavenges for carrion. Known for their intolerance of sharing a food source with other birds, Glaucous gulls can be physically aggressive as well as highly vocal when approached.
Terns are water birds from the family Sternidae and are expert fish catchers. There are generally considered to be forty five separate species of terns worldwide. Generally smaller than gulls but with long tails, thin bodies and short legs, they are long distance migrants.
There are four sub-species of the common gull with the European variant being the nominate. The other three are the Russian, Kamchatka and American, which are all predominantly confined to the geographical region attributed by their name. There are subtle differences in plumage and overall size of bird between sub-species.
The title of Black-headed Gull is rather a misnomer for this bird as its head is not black but a dark brown colour and only in adult birds during the breeding season. It is not present during the winter months or in other plumages. Unlike many gulls it is not restricted to coastal regions and is widespread inland in both rural and urban areas.
The Black Tern is a small, graceful seabird that nests far from the ocean. These birds switch between radically different habitats in the breeding and non-breeding seasons, but habitat loss inland has caused their numbers to plummet since the mid-1900s.
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