Herring Gulls by Rob Scott
Another Spring migrant that will be moving into the Crane Lake area is the Seagull. Oops!, did I just say Seagull? Actually there is no such bird by that name – they are really just Gulls – and there are many different species of Gull.
Gulls, Jaegers, and Terns are in the family Laridae, and there are about 80 species throughout the world; nearly half of these occur in North America. In Minnesota, 29 species in this family have been recorded, with 15 species considered regular, 8 as casual, and 6 accidental.
In our part of the state the 2 Gull species; Herring and Ring-billed are the most common. Herring Gulls are the big Gulls that have the red spot on their bill. Ring-billed Gulls have a broad black ring on their bill – finally a bird that has been appropriately named!
1st summer Ring-billed Gull, photo by Dee Kuder
Gulls are one of the most challenging birds to identify. The adults are pretty easy to pick out, but juvenile birds can vary in their plumage. Herring Gulls don’t get their adult plumage until they are 4 years old and Ring-bills get their adult coloring by the 3rd summer. In the between years their feathering varies to a great degree depending on their age and the time of year.
In the Crane Lake area, we can also see two other Gulls, the Bonaparte’s and the Franklin’s. These two species of Gull are smaller than the Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. In their spring/summer breeding plumage the males will have a black hood. Their size is almost more like a Tern than a Gull. The Bonaparte’s Gull moves through the area in the spring to nest up north in Canada by Hudson Bay. They will build their stick nest in small evergreen trees and on stumps, often in places far from water.
The Franklin’s Gull breeds in the prairie sloughs and reedy lakes of the interior. There is a huge colony of Franklin’s Gulls that breed in western Minnesota at the Agassiz WMA. In late summer flocks of hundreds of birds can be seen soaring over Warroad and Lake of the Woods as they hawk for insects. Last summer I saw a flock hovering over Crane Lake catching insects on the fly as there had just been a big hatch of dragonflys.
Herring Gulls nest in colonies on remote, rocky islands. On Namakan Lake there is Gull Island which used to host a big colony of Herring Gulls. Their habit of whitewashing the rocks with their excrement is a landmark of a Gull colony.
The other species that are considered regulars in Minnesota are:
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Most times the above, less common Gulls, will be seen at the Duluth harbor in the fall and winter. Picking out one of the species among hundreds of Gulls is a challenge indeed! One of the popular spots to go Gull watching is at the Superior Landfill.
There are 4 species of Tern and 1 species of Jaeger which are regulars in Minnesota. An interesting way to distinguish between Gulls and Terns is the way they fly. Gulls when flying usually carry their bill pointed forward, while terns will carry it pointed downward. When feeding over water Gulls commonly alight on the surface and pick up floating objects, while terns dive from a height.
Gulls play an important part in nature, they are the scavengers and will clean up garbage, rotting fish, and almost anything that they deem edible. It’s for this reason, that some people I know, have affectionally called Gulls “skyrats”.