For coastal wildlife watchers, gulls seem to be everywhere. Often gathered in large, raucous congregations, they are frequently dismissed as "just seagulls." Gulls are among the most challenging birds to identify in Southeast Alaska, but offer lots of opportunities to practice.
More than 15 gull species have been identified in the region, but only five are common. To start gull-watching, focus on adult birds (white bodies with gray wings ) and pass on the more challenging juveniles (brownish gulls). Once you are familiar with the five common species, the rarer species will stand out.
Three common gulls are large, raven-sized birds, about 24-inches long, with pink legs and yellow bills with a red dot. Glaucous-winged gulls have gray wing tips. Herring gulls and Thayer's gulls both have jet-black wing tips and are difficult to distinguish from one another. Look into their eyes, if you can. Usually, herring gulls have a pale iris and Thayer's a dark iris. A few gulls out there may be hybrids of two species.
Mew gulls are common crow-sized gulls, about 17-inches long. They have greenish-yellow legs, a yellow bill and black wing tips with white spots. They may be confused with black-legged kittiwakes, which are the same size but have black legs and black-tipped wings without white spots.
Bonaparte's gulls are relatively small, pigeon-sized birds, about 13-inches long, with white wingtips. They have a black hood from April to August; the rest of the year they have an obvious dark ear spot on their white head. Bonaparte's may be confused with the slightly larger Arctic terns, which also hover, but Arctic terns have a long forked tail and red bill.