A Gull of Distinction

PROMO Intro Heermanns 512x219

Identifying gulls can be a headache. Many species acquire adult plumage only after several years, with individuals in each progressive year looking slightly different from the last. Thus you have two-year gulls, three-year gulls, four-year gulls—all identifiable by age, provided you have the requisite patience, skill, and fondness for minutiae.

In fall and winter, the task becomes almost insuperable. Juveniles of varying ages and adults in basic plumage commingle with hybrids and every other intergrade imaginable, and the flummoxed birder writes “approx. 50 Gull sp.” in his or her notebook and moves on.

Thankfully, here on the Pacific coast we have Heermann’s Gulls to simplify matters, at least from June to mid-November. A slate-gray back and sooty belly characterize the adult in basic plumage, along with its black-tipped incarnadine bill. A four-year species, Heermann’s Gulls breed on islands off either side of Baja Mexico and “winter” on our coast. They make their way north at summer’s outset, often alongside squadrons of California Brown Pelicans. Most gulls are kleptoparasitic to some degree—that is, they steal food from other animals—and Heermann’s preferentially direct their piracy toward pelicans.

Throughout the summer and fall, look for flocks of these smallish gulls resting on beaches and rocks up and down our coast. When they’re not harrying pelicans and other seabirds for food, Heermann’s Gulls will forage for fish in the surf, alighting in the backwash of a wave to nab some glistering morsel from the beach. Soon they’ll head south, eventually back to Baja, whence the cycle begins anew.