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.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull
Juvenile Lesser Black-Backed Gull
Lesser Black-Backed Gull in-flight over the sea
Lesser Black-Backed Gull portrait
Family:Gulls and terns
52cm to 64cm
124cm to 158cm
550g to 1.2kg
The Lesser Black-backed Gull is a medium-sized Larus gull with a relatively slender and graceful appearance. There are five subspecies, each with slight physical differences, although most of the birds seen in the United Kingdom and North America are L. f. graellsii.
Ironically, the back and wings of this subspecies are dark slaty-grey rather than black. Their yellow bill has a red gonydeal spot toward the tip, and their legs are yellow. The head, neck, breast, and belly are usually pure white, although the head is lightly streaked in the autumn/fall and winter, creating a somewhat dirty look.
Females and males look alike, but juveniles are brownish with black bills and pinkish legs. Their back and upper wings are checkered in black and white. Young birds develop adult plumage after four years.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are most likely to be confused with the Herring Gull (L. argentatus), which has silvery wings and pinkish legs, and the Great Black-backed Gull (L. marinus), which is much larger and has pinkish legs.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull resting on the rocks
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are large gulls, similar in size to the Herring Gull.
Adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls measure 52 to 64 centimetres or 20½ to 25 inches in length.
They weigh 550 to 1200 grams or 19 to 42 ounces.
Adults have a wingspan of 124 to 158 centimetres or 49 to 62 inches.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull in-flight
Lesser Black-backed Gulls make typical gull-like calls, including a ‘long call’, high-pitched whines, a laughter-like ‘gagaga’ and a ‘kyow’ or ‘khow’ note.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull calling out
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are opportunistic hunters and scavengers. They are primarily carnivorous, although they will take berries at times. Typical food sources include small fish, marine invertebrates, food scraps, rodents, and bird eggs.
Lesser Black-backed Gull chicks are usually fed small fish like herring and sand eels, and both parents bring food back to their young. Interestingly, the red spot (known as the gonydeal spot) on the lower mandible of these and many other adult Larus gull species is thought to encourage chicks to peck at their parent's bill to beg for food.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull feeding on fish
Lesser Black-backed Gulls forage offshore, along rocky and sandy seashores, in estuaries and harbours, and inland at lakes and reservoirs. They are increasingly common in towns and cities, and many now nest on rooftops and visit rubbish dumps to scavenge for scraps.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls have a wide distribution in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa. They occur across Europe and Asia, from Iceland to South Korea. Overwintering birds regularly disperse as far as South Africa and the Gulf Coast of the United States.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are opportunistic birds that live in both natural and human-altered environments. These adaptable seabirds are comfortable on land, in flight, and on the water.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are common in the United Kingdom throughout the year, although they are most numerous in the warmer months when an estimated 110,000 pairs nest in colonies along the coast and on rooftops. They are increasingly common in North America since they began nesting in Iceland about a century ago.
Birdwatchers can spot Lesser Black-backed Gulls around the United Kingdom’s coastline throughout the year. They also occur further inland in low-lying areas of England and southern Scotland, especially in the winter. Look out for them around rubbish dumps during the day or at roost sites around reservoirs in the mornings and evenings.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are fairly common winter visitors to beaches along the East Coast of the United States and inland on the Great Lakes. Smaller numbers occur further inland and south to the Gulf Coast.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull standing on the rocks in coastal habitat
Many seabird species have surprising longevity, and the Lesser Black-backed Gull is no exception. These long-lived birds have a typical lifespan of about 15 years, with the record set at over 34 years.
Healthy adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls have few natural enemies. They are most vulnerable to ground predators like foxes, badgers, and mink when nesting.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act in the United Kingdom and by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the USA.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are a secure species in the Least Concern category of the IUCN Red List. They have an extensive distribution, and their numbers are generally increasing.
Pair of Lesser Black-Backed Gulls in coastal habitat
Lesser Black-backed Gulls nest in colonies, often with other seabirds like Herring Gulls. Colonies nest on coastal islands, sea cliffs, dunes, and rooftops where there is less risk of predation from foxes and other ground predators. Nests are built on the ground from plant material and feathers.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls first breed when they are four years old. Most females lay their eggs in May and June, which take 24 to 28 days to hatch. Their chicks may leave the nest just days after hatching but remain nearby and fledge after about 30 to 40 days.
Lesser Black-backed Gull eggs are olive-brown to blue-green with dark brown markings. Females usually lay a single clutch of two or three eggs, each measuring approximately 67 millimetres long and 47 millimetres wide.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls may form lasting pair bonds, although studies indicate that at least some birds will select a new partner each year.
Nest of a Lesser Black-Backed Gull with three eggs
Lesser Black-backed Gulls will use aggression to steal food from their own kind or other birds, although they are also bullied by larger species. They usually avoid humans, but adults and juveniles may be aggressive toward people who approach their nesting area.
Lesser Black-Backed Gulls on a sandy beach
Lesser Black-backed Gulls are medium to long-distance migrants across most of their range, and some northern breeders migrate impressive distances of over 7000 kilometres (4350 mi) to overwintering grounds in Africa.
However, they have become increasingly sedentary in the United Kingdom, where more than 120,000 individuals now spend the winter. These gulls don’t usually breed in North America, but more and more are visiting from Greenland and Western Europe each winter.
Flock of Lesser Black-Backed Gulls in-flight
Lesser Black-backed Gulls vary in appearance as they mature from juvenile to adult plumage and then again each year as they switch between breeding and non-breeding plumage. These birds also vary in different parts of the world, with minor plumage differences visible between the five known subspecies.
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.
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.
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.
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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