Large Gulls in the Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

First, let's get nomenclature correct. I grew up seeing "sea gulls" along the Gulf coast, and occasionally, around the lakes in Baton Rouge, my home town. However, when I began birding, I learned that there is no such thing as a "sea gull". The birds are properly called gulls. Think about it, gulls we see around inland locks and dams and lakes and reservoirs in winter month are many miles from the "sea".

Gulls generate all sorts of identification problems because they go through very distinct color changes from their first year to adulthood in two to three years. They are generally mottled brown and white in the first year and eventually acquire light-dark grey mantles and wings and white bodies. Size varies from small to medium to large.

A few first year gulls, however, are generally very light colored, often white. These tend to be members of the larger gull species found in coastal areas.

The common inland gull is the Ring-billed Gull discussed in a past issue of The Piney Woods Journal. This is a medium-sized gull. Adults have very distinct black rings near the tips of the bills.

Birders are always trying to find rare birds, the equivalent of trophy fish and game. That's why I got excited about reports last December about a first year Iceland Gull being reported at the Mandeville, Louisiana yacht harbor. I had only seen one Iceland Gull many years ago at Niagara Falls. Rare birds are sometimes one day wonders but this one remained for some weeks. I traveled through St. Tammany Parish's piney woods from I-12 to the shores of Lake Ponchartrain about a week later. A loaf of bread quickly attracted the Iceland Gull along with a flock of Ring-billed and Laughing gulls. It was pretty much white with light gray tipped feathers. It dwarfed the other gulls.

Fast forward to early March of this year (2014). I was birding far to the west between Church Point and Eunice in west central Louisiana, a bit south of the piney woods. I was birding in rice fields flooded for crawfish production. There were over 70 Ring-billed Gulls with a few Laughing Gulls in the field. I immediately noticed a very large, first year gull--mottled brown and white--that dwarfed the other gulls. It proved to be a Herring Gull, not a rare, first year Lesser Black-backed Gull!

Then, I saw a very large WHITE gull near the Herring Gull, although not as large as the Herring Gull. Needless to say, I tried my best to get photos of both gulls but had problems with the exposure.

Both of the large gulls flew to a levee between fields and, much to my surprise, I was able to get to within about 30 yards of the birds with the white gull in front of the Herring Gull. I got very good photographs.

So, what was the white gull? Based on field marks found on the photos and my observations, I reported a first year Iceland Gull to the Louisiana Bird Records Committee. Now, whether or not the committee will accept the report of an extremely rare gull is another question!

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Dr.
Boyce, LA 71409