Monday, September 8, 2014

Adirondack Seagulls: The Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-billed_gull_groupAs the bright yellow tops of goldenrod begin to fade in fields, and the foliage of the red maple increasingly begins its change to a bright reddish-orange, gulls engage in a nomadic phase of their life and can often be seen visiting a variety of settings within the Adirondacks.

Within the boundaries of the Park, two species of “seagulls” are seasonal components of our fauna; however, the slightly smaller ring-billed gull is far more common and likely to be observed than the nearly identically colored herring gull.

1024px-Larus-delawarensis-016As its name implies, the ring-billed gull is characterized by a black band near the tip of its yellowish bill. While adult birds have a white body and gray wings tipped with black, the immature birds support a more mottled pattern of white, brown and gray. Individuals that hatched this past spring typically have more brown over their body and a black band near the end of their tail. Yearlings support plumage that is less mottled, but these immature birds still can be easily distinguished from the adults. A ring-billed gull takes three years to reach adulthood, which causes a flock of these birds to be composed of individuals with a variety of different colored plumage.

During the spring and the early summer, adult ring-bills concentrate much of their time around their nesting colony. Such breeding sites are located on remote islands in the St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain, and Lake Ontario, and typically are populated by thousands of pairs of adult bird.

As soon as the young develop the ability to fly during summer, these highly vocal birds begin to abandon the colony. While many remain in the general vicinity of the massive bodies of water that border northern New York, some individuals venture well inland in order to explore the Adirondacks. Larger lakes are especially inviting to gulls, as such sizable bodies of water contain an abundance of the small fish on which these webbed-footed creatures strongly prefer to dine.

Large rocks that jut above the surface and are a fair distance from the shore, frequently serve the ring-billed gull as a resting site. There the birds can relax in relative safety while scanning the surface for any signs of disturbance that would indicate that a fish has strayed near the surface and is within striking range. Unlike the loon, merganser, and kingfisher, the ring-billed gull does not dive beneath the surface to capture small fish; rather it only scoops up individuals that have come directly to the surface.

800px-Larus-delawarensis-021Large often mowed fields, such as golf course fairways, school athletic complexes, and recreational areas within parks are additional settings that attract ring-billed gulls after they have dispersed from their breeding colony. In these grassy areas, gulls forage for the rich assortment of crickets, worms, grasshoppers, beetles and other similar soil invertebrates that occur in such lawn settings. The ring-bill also consumes the seeds of various grasses and weeds that are large enough to be of nutritional value to this skilled flier.

Gulls are also known to frequent places along lake shores where people regularly visit. Beaches and boat launches are both popular “hangouts” for gulls during the late summer and first half of autumn. These perceptive scavengers are quick to learn where scraps of food regularly fall to the ground. Like crows, the gulls are extremely effective in ridding public sites of the morsels of edible matter that were inadvertently dropped. Gulls also are skilled at raiding trash barrels that are filled to the brim, or overflowing with garbage. As a general rule, “where there is garbage, there are gulls”, is particularly true from mid summer through mid autumn, as these birds effectively scour the region for places in which it can collect discarded food items.

As beaches become deserted by people for longer periods of time following Labor Day, fewer food scraps become available, and eventually these locations are passed over by gulls as they fly across the area. In a similar manner, as the availability of soil invertebrates eventually diminishes when colder weather becomes the rule rather than the exception, gulls are forced to eventually abandon the region.

Ringbilledgull-flightMigration south occurs when individual birds are no longer able to satisfy their appetite. A few resourceful individuals linger in the Central Adirondacks well into November, yet even these birds eventually lose the ability to acquire enough food to generate the warmth needed for survival. Some birds that occur along the shore of Lake Champlain or the St. Lawrence may continue to remain into December, yet the vast majority of gulls depart the region prior to Veteran’s Day for more favorable locations to our south.

The ring-billed gull is a common visitor to the Adirondacks as summer wanes and may regularly be seen on school athletic fields when you are watching a high school soccer or football game. Although labeled a “seagull”, many ring-bills never encounter salt water during the course of their life. This species is far more at home around bodies of fresh water, which is why it is at home in many locations throughout the Adirondacks.

Photos of ring-billed gulls from Wikimedia users: Coo coo pigeon (above and below); and Mdf (middle).

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

3 Responses

  1. Jim S. says:

    They will re tern in the spring.

  2. Charlie S says:

    At about 620 on the morning of July 22 recently passed I was northbound on Rt 28 near Indian Lake. A thick fog was in the air I could not see twenty feet ahead of me. The speed limit was 55 I was doing 45 because I’m a smart man. Behind me was some fool up my rear end I wasn’t going fast enough for he or she evidently. As I’m contemplating this idiot up my rear end a seagull suddenly appears poised in the center of the road.

    I immediately pull over to the side,allow speed racer to pass me,then go back to the gull which was very much alive with alert eyes just waiting for a car to come along to finish it off. I step out of my car and approach this bird and as I drew near out from it comes a loud two-syllable shriek my massy form terrified it, it was afraid of me. I sweet-talked this bird, told it ‘Do not fear Charlie’s here’ and sure enough it did not shriek anymore,it became trusting of me. It was the same species as the one in the photo above,a ring-billed gull. There was blood on its beak. I waste no time in retrieving this bird before a car barrels out of the fog and plows us down,hapless bird and I. I place it in my car on the passenger side floorboard. I reach down to rub its soft feathery head to reassure it.

    My first thoughts were to find a rehabilitator. The trooper barracks were seconds up the road so I drove there and Trooper John Sohnzahray greeted me as I entered. He spent nearly a quarter of the hour at his computer coming up with a list of wildlife rehabilitators. Meanwhile my bird friend on the passenger side floorboard of my car had begun to list heavily to one side, its eyes not as perky and alert as they were they began to get sleepy. Besides the small amount of blood near its beak this bird seemed otherwise fine. A car must have glanced it…..and kept going. Twenty minutes after I first held this bird it was dead. Ere long we’ll all be dead!

    My sadness was relieved by the fact that I did not leave this bird in the road to die.I thank Trooper Sohnzahray for being so overly kind.He even offered to bury the bird for me in the woods behind the barracks. I took it with me instead and placed it on a dead log in the woods behind where I was staying so that maybe a scavenger might come along to feed upon it so that nothing goes to waste. Sure enough the next morning the gull was gone.

    We probably kill tens of millions of animals a year on the roads alone in this country. This ring-billed gull is just another one of those statistics. This particular bird is no more,never again to fly freely over those mystic Adirondack woods. I wondered if it had left chicks or a mate behind.I’ll never know and maybe it’s best that way.

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