With over 500 miles of coastline and numerous inland lakes and rivers, Nebraska provides important habitat for migrating and resident gulls. Eight species stand out as the most frequently observed gulls in the Cornhusker state. From the abundant ring-billed gull to the rare glaucous gull of the Arctic, these birds add drama and excitement for any birder. Their varied shapes, sizes and markings make identification an enjoyable challenge. This guide profiles Nebraska’s fantastic gulls, detailing their distinguishing features, migration timing, preferred habitats and other interesting facts so you can better appreciate these remarkable birds gracing Nebraska’s skies. Let’s explore the diverse lives of the state’s most notable gulls.
|Gull Type||Size||Distinguishing Features|
|Ring-billed Gull||Medium||Yellow bill with black ring, common and widespread|
|Franklin’s Gull||Small||Black head, red bill and legs, travels in large flocks|
|Bonaparte’s Gull||Small||Black hood, red bill and legs, delicate and tern-like|
|Herring Gull||Large||Pale gray back, pink legs, black wingtips|
|Mew Gull||Small-Medium||Dainty with yellow bill, rare in Nebraska|
|California Gull||Medium-Large||Gray back with narrow white trailing edge on wings|
|Glaucous Gull||Large||Pale whitish-gray overall, yellow eyes, rare|
|Thayer’s Gull||Medium-Large||Variable black wingtips, yellow eyes, thin bill|
Table of Contents
1. Ring-billed Gull
The ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) is a medium-sized gull that breeds in North America. It is the most numerous and widespread gull species in Nebraska. Adult ring-billed gulls have gray upperparts, white underparts, yellow legs and a yellow bill with a black ring around it. They measure around 18 inches in length and have a wingspan of around 50 inches.
Ring-billed gulls breed in colonies near lakes, rivers, marshes and other wetlands across Nebraska. They build nests on the ground out of vegetation and lay 2-4 eggs. The eggs are brownish or greenish with dark splotches. Both parents share incubation duties. Chicks hatch after around 3 weeks and fledge after 4-6 weeks. Ring-billed gulls have a varied omnivorous diet, feeding on fish, aquatic invertebrates, insects, earthworms, grain and garbage.
These gulls are migratory, spending winters along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico and inland reservoirs and landfills. During migration and winter, they form large flocks, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands of birds. Their harsh laughing call is a familiar sound around lakes and coasts.
Ring-billed gulls adapt readily to human habitats and are abundant around reservoirs, parks, harbors and landfills. However, they face threats from ingesting lead, pesticides and plastics. Their populations remain stable across most of their range. In Nebraska, ring-billed gulls are common summer residents, arriving in April and departing in September-October. They can be seen across most of the state.
2. Franklin’s Gull
The Franklin’s gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan) is a small, graceful gull that passes through Nebraska in large numbers during migration. It breeds in the northern prairie regions of North America and winters along the Pacific and Gulf Coasts of Mexico and Central America. The species is named after British explorer Sir John Franklin.
Adult Franklin’s gulls are distinctive with their black heads, white eyerings and red bills and legs. Their upperparts are pale gray and the underparts are white. They measure around 14 inches in length and have a wingspan of 34 inches. Breeding adults have darker gray hoods and white tail feathers with black subterminal bands. Juveniles are mottled brown and take 2-3 years to reach adult plumage.
These gulls nest in large colonies in shallow marshes, preferring islands with emergent vegetation. The female builds a nest of aquatic plants and lays 3 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the chicks small invertebrates when they hatch after around 21 days.
Franklin’s gulls are aerial foragers and adept flyers. They mainly eat insects caught in flight, such as dragonflies, grasshoppers and beetles. They also consume snails, leeches, spiders, worms, minnows and eggs. The gulls follow swarming insects and frequent plowed fields during migration and on their breeding grounds.
From March to May, hundreds of thousands of Franklin’s gulls pass through Nebraska, part of one of the world’s great avian migrations. They roost on lakes and rivers at night in massive flocks before resuming their journey north. In autumn, the migration is less spectacular. Franklin’s gulls are quite tame around humans when migrating. Their high-pitched laughing call is very distinctive.
3. Bonaparte’s Gull
The Bonaparte’s gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) is a small, tern-like gull that migrates through Nebraska in spring and fall. It breeds in Canada and Alaska and winters along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts south to Mexico and the Caribbean. The species is named after Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a French ornithologist and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Adult Bonaparte’s gulls are graceful birds with slender wings and bodies. They have a black hood, white undersides, pale gray upperparts and red legs and bill. Their size is around 13 inches in length and wingspan of 37 inches. Sexes are similar but females are slightly smaller. Juvenile gulls have a brown hood, tail band and wings, taking 2 years to reach adult plumage.
During breeding season, Bonaparte’s gulls nest in small colonies on the ground near ponds and lakes in the boreal forest. The nest consists of a shallow scrape lined with vegetation. The female lays 2-4 eggs which hatch after 21-24 days. Chicks fledge at around 4 weeks old.
These gulls forage by dipping and surface plunging for small fish, aquatic invertebrates and insects. They also feed on berries when available. Bonaparte’s gulls have a buoyant, tern-like flight and hover frequently when hunting. Their voice is a harsh, squealing call.
In Nebraska, Bonaparte’s gulls pass through during spring and fall migrations, usually in April/May and September/October. They do not breed in the state but can be observed near wetlands and rivers in mixed flocks with Franklin’s gulls and terns during migration. Their elegant flight and dainty appearance make them a delightful sight.
4. Herring Gull
The herring gull (Larus argentatus) is a large, common gull that is an uncommon winter visitor and spring/fall migrant through Nebraska. It breeds across northern North America, Iceland, Europe and Russia and migrates south for winter. The name “herring gull” references their habit of feeding on herring and following fishing boats.
Adult herring gulls are big birds with gray upperparts, white head and underparts, yellow eyes and yellow bill with red spot. They have black wingtips with white spots known as “mirrors”. Their wingspan is around 55 inches. Sexes are alike but males are marginally larger. Juveniles start brown and take 4 years to reach adult plumage.
Herring gulls nest in colonies on coastal cliffs, dunes, rooftops, breakwaters and islands. The nest is a mound of vegetation in a territory defended by the parents. Usually 2-3 eggs are laid. Both adults incubate the eggs and feed the chicks after hatching. Young gulls fledge in 4-6 weeks.
These opportunistic gulls have a varied diet including fish, intertidal invertebrates, seabird eggs, insects, rodents, grains, berries and garbage. They often steal food from other birds and mammals. Herring gulls make a raucous “laughing” call and warning screams.
In Nebraska, herring gulls are uncommon but regular migrants and winter visitors, mainly along major rivers and reservoirs. They arrive in late fall and depart by early spring. Usually just hundreds pass through the state annually, peaking from February to April as they migrate north to breeding grounds.
5. Mew Gull
The mew gull (Larus canus) is a small-medium sized gull that occurs as a rare migrant and winter visitor in Nebraska. It breeds in northern North America, Greenland and across northern Eurasia. Mew gulls winter further south along coasts down to Baja California, the Carolinas and Japan. The name may derive from its soft call sounding like “mew”.
Adult mew gulls are smaller than herring gulls with gray upperparts, white head and underparts, yellow bill with red spot and yellow legs. They have white wingtips with little black. Wingspan is around 40 inches. Sexes are similar but females average slightly smaller. Juveniles start brown and take 2-3 years to reach adult plumage.
These gulls nest in small colonies on coastal cliffs, tundra, lakes and islands. Both parents share incubation duties and chick rearing. The female lays 2-4 eggs in a nest scrape lined with vegetation. Chicks hatch after around 4 weeks and fledge at 5-6 weeks old.
Mew gulls are omnivores and scavengers. They feed on fish, crustaceans, mollusks, insects, rodents, eggs, berries, seeds and garbage. Their calls include a high “mewing” sound and harsh alarm cries when disturbed.
In Nebraska, mew gulls occur in very small numbers during winter and migration from November to April, associated with reservoirs or large rivers. They mingle with other gull flocks, especially along the Platte River. Positive identification can be challenging due to their similarity to ring-billed gulls.
6. California Gull
The California gull (Larus californicus) is a medium-large gull that occurs as an uncommon migrant and summer visitor in western Nebraska. It breeds in the interior West and winters along the Pacific Coast south to Mexico. The species was first described from specimens collected in California.
Adult California gulls are gray above with narrow white trailing edges on the wings. The head is white with a red spot near the yellow bill tip. Eyes are brown, legs greenish-yellow. Wingspan is around 55 inches. Breeding adults have a reddish orbital ring. Juveniles start brown and take 3 years to reach adult plumage.
These gulls nest in colonies at lakes and marshes in the western interior, especially the Great Salt Lake. Nesting starts in April. Parents fiercely defend nests and chicks. Males offer females tidbits of food during courtship. The diet consists of brine shrimp, aquatic invertebrates, rodents, seeds and garbage.
In Nebraska, small numbers of California gulls migrate through the western part of the state in spring and fall. Some birds remain to summer, especially around Lake McConaughy. They associate with ring-billed, herring and Franklin’s gulls on wetlands, rivers and reservoirs while migrating or summering. Their keow calling in flight helps identification.
7. Glaucous Gull
The glaucous gull (Larus hyperboreus) is a large, pale gull from the Arctic that occurs rarely in Nebraska during winter or migration. It breeds in Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Eurasia and normally winters along northern coasts and the Great Lakes. This gull is named for its pale glaucous coloration.
Adult glaucous gulls are pale whitish-gray overall with wingtips that lack black. The eyes are pale yellow, bill pink with gray tip and legs pale pink. They are heavy birds weighing over 3 pounds with a wingspan around 60 inches. Sexes are similar but males average larger. Juveniles start brownish and take 4 years to reach adult plumage.
This species nests solitarily or in small groups on Arctic cliffs and islands. A nest of vegetation is built on the ground by the female and 2-3 eggs are laid. Parents share chick rearing duties. Glaucous gulls feed on fish, marine invertebrates, eggs, young seabirds and carrion. They are bold scavengers and predators.
In Nebraska, glaucous gulls occur in very small numbers, usually along larger rivers, reservoirs and landfills during the colder months. They mingle with other gulls and can be picked out by their paler coloration. Records peak between December and March when northbound migration starts.
8. Thayer’s Gull
Thayer’s gull (Larus thayeri) is a rare but regular winter visitor and migrant through Nebraska. It breeds in the high Arctic regions of northern Canada and winters along the North American Pacific and Atlantic coasts. The species is named after ornithologist John E. Thayer who first distinguished it.
Adult Thayer’s gulls are medium-large gulls with gray upperparts, clean white underparts and wingtips with variable amounts of black. The eyes are yellow, bill pinkish and legs pink. Wingspan is around 50 inches. Breeding adults have dark gray upperwing coverts. Juveniles start brownish and take 3 years to reach adult plumage.
These gulls nest colonially on tundra near water across the high Arctic. Females lay 1-3 eggs in a nest scrape lined with vegetation. Both parents share incubation and chick feeding duties. The diet is diverse including lemmings, fish, invertebrates, eggs and berries.
Thayer’s gulls migrate south in winter across the interior of North America in small numbers. In Nebraska, they occur uncommonly along major rivers, reservoirs and landfills from November to April, mingling with flocks of herring, ring-billed and other gulls. Identification can be challenging but helpful clues include their long, thin bill and dark eyes.