What kinds of gulls can you find in Alaska?
If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised to find out that there is no specific bird called a “seagull!” Instead, gulls are a diverse family of birds with different habitats, ranges, and color patterns.
I’ve also included terns in the list below, a closely related subgroup of gulls. In general, gulls have hooked beaks while terns’ beaks are straight, and terns have webbed feet while gulls don’t.
Please be aware that today I’m ONLY listing and focusing on the plumage of ADULT gulls. Baby and young gulls’ can look so different that it would be confusing to describe all the variations here. But if you want to dive even deeper into gull identification, check out this field guide, which has photo examples of gulls with different plumage based on their age:
6 COMMON Gulls and Terns In Alaska!
#1. Herring Gull
- Larus argentatus
- Adults range from 22.1 to 26.0 inches in length and have a 53.9 to 57.5-inch wingspan.
- Breeding adults have light gray backs, white heads, white undersides, and black wingtips and may have dusky marks on their heads during the winter.
- They have yellow eyes, dull pink legs, hefty bills, and barrel chests.
Herring Gulls are the familiar, quintessential “sea-gull” in Alaska. They occupy farmland, coasts, bays, beaches, lakes, piers, and landfills. They’re most abundant on the coast and surrounding large lakes and river systems.
If you spend time at the beach, you’ve probably noticed Herring Gulls waiting for you to drop your snack! In addition to popcorn and chips from humans, they consume fish, crustaceans, mollusks, sea urchins, marine worms, smaller birds, eggs, carrion, and insects.
Herring Gulls will stop at nothing to get a meal! They’ve been observed preying on fish driven to the surface by feeding whales. They also will take hard-shelled items such as crabs and mollusks high into the air and drop them onto rocks to break them open.
Individuals have even been observed “fishing.” One individual was recorded dropping pieces of bread into a pond and catching the goldfish that came up to feed. It didn’t eat any bread itself, suggesting the gull was using the bread as a lure!
The population of Herring Gulls declined steeply during the 19th century because of over-hunting. While their range and population recovered during the 20th century, overfishing, oil spills, and pesticide contamination have reduced some populations.
#2. Glaucous-winged Gull
- Larus glaucescens
- Adults range from 19.7 to 23.2 inches in length and have a 47.2 to 56.3-inch wingspan.
- Breeding adults are pearly gray above, including the wingtips, and white below.
- They have a yellow bill and pinkish legs.
Glaucous-winged Gulls live on estuaries, bays, rivers, coves, beaches, and rocky shorelines. They may also visit ponds and landfills near the coast. These Gulls primarily nest on low, flat offshore islands, and rooftops.
Like other gulls in Alaska, they have a varied diet, including shellfish, human refuse, and carrion.
The chicks hatch covered in down and may leave the nest in as little as two days but remain in the immediate vicinity. Both parents work to feed the young. They mature and breed at about four years old. The oldest Glaucous-winged Gull recorded in the wild was over 23 years old.
#3. Bonaparte’s Gull
- Chroicocephalus philadelphia
- Adults measure 11 to 11.8 inches in length and have a wingspan of 35.4 to 39.4 inches.
- Breeding adults have black heads, gray wings, white undersides, and large white triangles on their wingtips.
- They have red legs, small bodies, and slender bills.
This is the smallest species of gull in Alaska!
Look for Bonaparte’s Gulls on ocean bays, lakes, and swamps. They breed and nest where coniferous trees meet the edges of lakes and bogs.
They visit many aquatic habitats during migration and winter, including lakes, rivers, coastal estuaries and lagoons, and the open sea. In addition, they often congregate around sewage treatment ponds, probably due to the increased insect availability in these areas.
Bonaparte’s Gulls are also known for their “conveyer belt” foraging, which they use in some areas. Large numbers of Bonaparte’s will fly upwind above the water’s surface, dipping down to seize prey such as small fish. Then, when they reach the end of the food patch, they fly upward, and the wind carries them back to the beginning.
#4. Short-billed Gull
- Larus brachyrhynchus
- Adults measure between 16.1 and 18.1 inches in length and have a 42.1 to 44.9-inch wingspan.
- Breeding adults are medium gray above and white below.
- They have a white head, black wingtips with white spots, yellow legs, dark eyes, and a yellow bill.
Short-billed Gulls occupy various habitats and spend time along the shorelines of lakes, rivers, and the ocean. However, they’re primarily found feeding near the Pacific coast in marine waters, lagoons, mudflats, bays, and harbors during the winter.
They will also travel inland to abundant prey areas such as wet fields, sewage treatment plants, pastures, and landfills. They nest in habitats associated with the far north, including taiga, tundra, marshes, meadows, coastal cliffs, and islands on rivers and lakes.
Like most gulls in Alaska, these birds are opportunistic omnivores and have several foraging strategies. They can catch prey in the air, skim along the water’s surface, or plunge in after prey. They’re sometimes observed attacking other seabirds and stealing their prey.
Short-billed Gulls used to be classified as a sub-species of the common gull. They weren’t recognized as a separate species until 2021! Partners in Flight rate them as a species of low conservation concern. However, oil spills greatly affect local populations, which damage their plumage and habitats and kill their prey.
#5. Northern Fulmar
- Fulmarus glacialis
- Adults range from 15.3 to 19.7 inches in length and have a 39.4 to 44.1-inch wingspan.
- Most fulmars are “light morph” and gray above and white below; some “dark morphs” are pale to dark gray.
- They have a thick bill and bluish legs.
Unlike most other terns in Alaska, Northern Fulmars spend the majority of their lives on the open ocean and are rarely seen from land. They breed and nest in colonies on sea cliffs, generally over cold water, in hard to reach areas.
Northern Fulmars will feed during the day or night, catching much of their prey by seizing items on or just below the surface while swimming. However, they may also dive into the water from the air going as deep as 12 feet!
They often follow whaling vessels and scoop up garbage, offal, and bycatch. Northern Fulmars eat squid, crustaceans, jellyfish, octopuses, bristle worms, carcasses of dead marine animals, and fish.
Both chicks and adults can defend against predators by spraying foul-smelling oil from their mouths for several yards. Their stomach produces the oil, which mats the feathers of avian predators, limiting their flight.
#6. Black-legged Kittiwake
- Rissa tridactyla
- Adults range from 15 to 16.1 inches in length and have a wingspan of about 37 inches.
- Breeding adults are pale gray above and white below with neat black wingtips.
- They have yellow bills and jet-black legs.
Black-legged Kittiwakes spend most of their time at sea. They forage primarily in cold water and nest in large colonies on seaside cliffs to avoid predators. Occasionally, they nest on buildings and shipwrecks.
They do most of their foraging in flight. They dip down and skim the surface or plunge into the water after prey, diving up to three feet. These birds also steal prey from other kittiwakes! Black-legged Kittiwakes primarily feed on small fish, squid, marine worms, zooplankton, and jellyfish.
During the spring bonding period, pairs will greet each other with nodding, head-bobbing, and crossed necks. It often looks like humans saying hello after an extended time apart!
Males defend their nest sites vigorously. They use a protective posture that includes extending their neck and rising off the ground, then facing their opponent with an open bill. They may also fight, grabbing another kittiwake’s bill and twisting their opponent’s head.
Black-legged Kittiwakes are a species of low conservation concern in North America. However, some countries have seen rapid declines, which are believed to be related to warming sea temperatures that have reduced plankton populations.
Which of these gulls and terns in Alaska have you seen before?
Tell us below in the COMMENTS section!