From the shores of Lake Erie to inland rivers and lakes, a variety of gull species grace Ohio’s skies. Their graceful and acrobatic flight delights birdwatchers who eagerly await their seasonal migrations. Eight gull species commonly occur in Ohio, ranging from the small and elegant Bonaparte’s Gull to the mighty Caspian Tern with its 60-inch wingspan. They fill diverse ecological niches, from shallow diving terns to opportunistic ring-billed scavengers. Their distinctive plumages and behaviors offer challenges for identification. This guide explores Ohio’s most common gulls, highlighting identification tips, breeding and migration patterns, habitats, and threats they face. Discover the beauty and diversity of Ohio’s gull species.
|Gull Type||Size||Key Identifying Features|
|Ring-billed Gull||Medium, 50 inch wingspan||White head, light grey wings, yellow bill with black ring|
|Herring Gull||Large, 60 inch wingspan||White head and body, grey wings and back, yellow bill with red spot|
|Bonaparte’s Gull||Small, 32 inch wingspan||Black head, white underparts, pale grey upper wings, red legs and bill|
|Great Black-backed Gull||Very large, 65 inch wingspan||All white body, pale grey wings, black back and wings, heavy yellow bill|
|Caspian Tern||Very large, 60 inch wingspan||Heavy red bill, black cap, pale grey upperparts, white underparts|
|Forster’s Tern||Medium, 25 inch wingspan||Pale grey upperparts, white underparts, black cap, orange bill tip|
|Black Tern||Small, 25 inch wingspan||Dark grey overall with black head, bill, underparts, translucent grey wings|
|Iceland Gull||Medium, 50 inch wingspan||White head and underparts, pale grey wings, yellow legs and bill, black wingtips|
Table of Contents
1. Ring-billed Gull
The ring-billed gull is one of the most common gulls found in Ohio. With a wingspan of around 50 inches, it is a medium-sized gull with a white head, light grey wings, and a yellow bill with a thick black ring around it.
The ring-billed gull breeds in large colonies near lakes and rivers across Ohio. It makes a nest of grasses on the ground and lays 2-4 eggs. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for around 3 weeks until they hatch. The chicks are able to fly within 5 weeks.
Ring-billed gulls are omnivores and eat a variety of foods including fish, insects, earthworms, grains, berries, and even garbage. They are opportunistic and will readily scavenge for scraps left by people.
During winter, ring-billed gulls migrate south to the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic coast, and farther south into Central America and the Caribbean. However, some may overwinter in Ohio if waters remain open.
Ring-billed gulls are highly adaptable and their populations have increased across North America as they have taken advantage of human-provided food sources and habitat changes. However, they face threats from pollutants, habitat loss, and climate change.
2. Herring Gull
The herring gull is a large gull with a wingspan of around 60 inches. It has a white head and body, grey wings and back, yellow eyes, and a thick yellow bill with a red spot.
Herring gulls breed near lakes, rivers, and coastal areas across Ohio. They build a nest of grasses, seaweed, and debris on the ground and lay 2-4 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs for around 28 days until they hatch. The chicks are able to fly within 5-6 weeks.
Herring gulls are opportunistic feeders and eat a variety of foods including fish, crabs, mollusks, eggs, small mammals, insects, grains, and garbage. They often patrol shorelines looking for food.
Many herring gulls migrate south for the winter, though some may overwinter along the Ohio lakeshore. Their winter range extends along the Atlantic coast south to Florida and along the Gulf Coast.
Herring gull populations declined in the 20th century due to human persecution and habitat loss but have rebounded more recently. They remain a common sight along Ohio’s lakes and rivers.
3. Bonaparte’s Gull
Bonaparte’s gull is a small gull with a wingspan of around 32 inches. It has a black head, white underparts, pale grey upper wings, and red legs and bill.
In Ohio, Bonaparte’s gulls nest in large colonies in the marshes of Lake Erie. They build a nest of grasses and reeds on the ground or in low bushes near water. The female lays 2-4 eggs which are incubated by both parents for around 23 days until hatching. The chicks are able to fly within 4 weeks.
Bonaparte’s gulls feed by aerial dipping and surface seizing of insects, small fish, and invertebrates. They also forage in fields for earthworms and seeds.
Bonaparte’s gulls migrate through Ohio in large numbers in spring and fall as they travel between their northern breeding grounds and wintering areas along the Gulf Coast. Some may overwinter along the Ohio lakeshore if waters remain open.
The loss of wetland habitats has caused some decline in Bonaparte’s gull populations, though they remain common during migration. Their aerial flocking displays are a highlight during spring and fall in Ohio.
4. Great Black-backed Gull
As its name suggests, the great black-backed gull is the largest gull in the world with a wingspan reaching 65 inches. It is identified by its all white body, very pale grey wings, and black back and wings. Its large yellow bill is heavy for tearing flesh.
Great black-backed gulls are rare breeders in Ohio, nesting on islands in Lake Erie. They build a nest of seaweed, grasses, and debris on the ground and lay 1-3 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs for around 29 days until hatching.
These gulls are opportunistic carnivores and scavengers. They hunt large prey including small mammals, other birds, fish, and crabs. They also scavenge on carrion and garbage.
Most great black-backed gulls that pass through Ohio in spring and fall are migrating between breeding areas along the North Atlantic coast and wintering grounds from the Mid-Atlantic coast south to Florida. However, a few may overwinter along the Lake Erie shoreline.
This species faces threats from habitat disturbance, pollution, ocean trash ingestion, and climate change. They remain a rare but regular sight during migration near Lake Erie.
5. Caspian Tern
The Caspian tern is the largest tern in the world with a wingspan up to 60 inches. It has a heavy red bill, black cap, pale grey upperparts, and white underparts.
In Ohio, Caspian terns nest in small colonies on rocky islands in Lake Erie, especially in the western basin. Both parents help build a nest scrape in shells and debris and the female lays 1-3 eggs. The eggs are incubated for around 25 days until hatching. Chicks fledge within 5 weeks.
Caspian terns mainly eat small fish which they dive for from heights of up to 25 feet. They also feed on amphibians and insects. They often rob food from other waterbirds.
These terns migrate through Ohio in spring and fall between breeding grounds in the Great Lakes and Canadian north and wintering areas along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts south into Central America. Some may overwinter along the Lake Erie shoreline.
Habitat loss and botulism outbreaks have caused some declines in Caspian tern populations. However, restoration of island nesting habitats has helped populations recover in the Great Lakes.
6. Forster’s Tern
With its long, forked tail and orange bill tip, Forster’s tern is a graceful summertime presence near Ohio’s lakes. It has pale grey upperparts, white underparts, and a black cap.
Forster’s terns nest in scattered colonies in marshy areas of Lake Erie. The nest is a depression scrapes into the ground and lined with plant material. The female lays 2-4 eggs which are incubated by both parents for around 25 days until hatching. Chicks fledge after about 4 weeks.
These terns hunt for small fish, insects, and amphibians by hovering and diving to the water’s surface. They often forage in flocks. During migration they rest on buoys and floating debris.
Most Forster’s terns migrate through Ohio in spring and fall on their way between breeding grounds in the northern Great Plains and wintering areas along the Gulf Coast into Mexico. Some may overwinter along the Lake Erie shoreline.
Forster’s tern numbers declined in the early 20th century but increased again after the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protected them. However, they face continued threats from habitat loss and degradation.
7. Black Tern
The black tern is North America’s smallest tern, with a wingspan of about 25 inches. In breeding plumage it is dark grey overall with a black head, bill, and underparts. Its wings have a translucent appearance.
Black terns nest in colonies in marshy wetlands around Lake Erie. They build floating nests out of vegetation and lay 2-4 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs for around 21 days until hatching. Chicks fledge after about 4 weeks.
These terns forage mainly for insects and small fish by hovering and diving to the water’s surface. They migrate in large flocks through Ohio to and from breeding grounds in the northern prairies and Great Lakes to wintering areas in coastal South America.
Wetland drainage and degradation caused black tern populations to decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Conservation of marsh habitats around Lake Erie has helped populations recover more recently.
8. Iceland Gull
The Iceland gull is an Arctic-breeding gull that migrates south through Ohio in winter. It has a white head and underparts, pale grey wings, yellow legs and bill, and black wingtips.
Iceland gulls breed in the high Arctic islands and migrate south on wintering areas along the Great Lakes and northeast U.S. coast. They begin arriving along the Ohio lakeshore in December and remain until March.
On migration and wintering grounds, Iceland gulls feed mainly on fish, crabs, and mollusks scavenged from fishing harbors and open waters. They also eat grains in fields.
The Iceland gull population declined in the early 20th century due to persecution and disturbances at colonies. However, its numbers have rebounded more recently with protections.
Though populations remain relatively small, the Iceland gull is regular if scarce along the Lake Erie shoreline during Ohio winters, mixing with other gull species. Its graceful flight and gentle nature have attracted birdwatchers to observe these seasonally-visiting gulls.