NATURE’S VIEW : About Those “Sea” Gulls

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Birds have always been an important part of my life. At just ten years of age, I could identify birds not only by sight, but also by their songs, calls and even by habitat. There were not many days when I did not have my second edition of the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds within arm’s reach.

So imagine my confusion as a kid, at the beach with my family, hearing adults talking about a flock of sea gulls doing this or a sea gull doing that. Sea gull? I checked my trusty Peterson Field Guide, because I couldn’t remember anything about a species named sea gull.

I quickly learned that there is, in fact, no bird officially named sea gull. Yet, that term persists to this day. If there are sea gulls, then shouldn’t there also be river gulls, lake gulls, parking lot gulls and landfill gulls? There are not.

Sea gulls? No these are adult laughing gulls in breeding plumage, photographed at Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia.                                                                                     © Jim Clark

Sea gulls? No these are adult laughing gulls in breeding plumage, photographed at Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia. © Jim Clark

Even the New York Times published an article (June 18, 1992) that stated, “There is no such bird as a sea gull. True, gulls are often called sea gulls, but many live inland far from any ocean.” I’ve sadly concluded it’s just a convenient shortcut for the less informed to use. We true nature photographers are better than that.

I’m impressed when someone can identify a bird as a sea gull, but when they do, I present them with my manifesto about the many species of gulls that exist. Even during my nature photography workshops, my students are pressed to be more specific about the species of gull they may be photographing. When they say it’s a sea gull, I politely tell them they “see” a gull, but it is not a sea gull. Then the lesson begins, whether they want it or not. Tough love works wonders.

Worldwide, there are 44 species of gulls and 22 of them occur right here in North America. While we associate them with the ocean, gulls rarely venture far from the coastal regions, preferring instead to stay along the beaches and more inland water bodies such as lakes and rivers. During the winter months in northern Virginia (where I live), flocks of wintering ring-billed gulls will even congregate on the parking lots of the big-box stores.

No, not sea gulls, but a flock of ring-billed gulls in winter at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland. © Jim Clark

No, not sea gulls, but a flock of ring-billed gulls in winter at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland. © Jim Clark

I lead nature photography workshops along the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia, and we encounter herring, laughing, great black-backed and ring-billed gulls. Elsewhere around the country, you’ll find Franklin’s, California, mew, glaucous and a host of other species, including some that are not even named gulls, but are labelled as kittiwakes.

Most adult gull species have a plumage with a combination of white, gray and black. Immatures go through a baffling blend of brown and gray, and they are not as patterned as their adult counterparts. This confusing plumage sequence takes anywhere from two to four years before immatures attain their adult plumage.

So the next time the photographers beside you say they are photographing a sea gull, tell them that you, too, see a gull, but it’s a (fill in the blank) species of gull.

And now about those buzzards you’ve been photographing. They aren’t really buzzards, but vultures, turkey or black. We’ll save that for another time. The more you know. . .

Herring gull at sunset at Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia.   © Jim Clark

Herring gull at sunset at Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia.   © Jim Clark


A past NANPA president and former contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim Clark is a nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.