8 Types of Gulls in Texas

Gulls are a common sight along the Texas coastline and inland waterways, filling the skies with their raucous cries. But did you know that over a dozen different species of gulls can be found in the Lone Star State? Some are year-round residents while others pass through on epic migrations between continents. This guide profiles the 8 most common gulls identified in Texas, from the diminutive Bonaparte’s cruising over fields in spring, to the hulking Great Black-backed prowling the winter beaches. Each species has adapted in amazing ways to take advantage of diverse habitats and food sources across the state. Grab your binoculars and get ready to solve the puzzle of identifying these intelligent birds along our shores and waterways!

Gull Type Description Image
Laughing Gull Black head, white body, gray wings and red bill. Common along the Texas coast. Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull White with gray wings and back. Yellow bill with black ring. Winters along the Texas coast. Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull Pale gray back, yellow eyes and yellow bill with red spot. Common winter visitor along Texas coast. Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull Largest gull. Dark mantle, pink bill. Winters along Texas coast. Great Black-backed Gull
Bonaparte’s Gull Small gull with black hood and white body. Migrates through Texas in large flocks. Bonaparte's Gull
Franklin’s Gull Black hood, bold white eye crescent. Migrates in flocks through inland Texas. Franklin's Gull
Sabine’s Gull Striking black, gray and white pattern. Rare migrant along Texas coast. Sabine's Gull
California Gull Gray wings, yellow bill with black spot. Uncommon winter visitor to inland Texas. California Gull

1. Laughing Gull

The Laughing Gull is one of the most common gulls seen along the Texas coast. With its black head, white body, gray wings and red bill, it is easy to identify. Laughing Gulls get their name from their loud, laughing calls. These gulls breed in large colonies on barrier islands and feed in shallow waters, marshes and beaches.

The Laughing Gull has a white head with a black hood that extends behind the eye. The wings are gray above and black on the tips. The bill is long, thick and red. The legs are black. In winter, the head is mostly white with a dark ear spot. Immature birds are mottled brown and gray.

Laughing Gulls arrive along the Texas coast from their wintering grounds in Central America and the Caribbean in February and March. They quickly establish breeding colonies on islands and form large flocks for feeding. Nests are built on the ground and consist of grasses, seaweed and debris. The female usually lays 2-3 eggs that hatch after about 3 weeks. Chicks are precocial and leave the nest shortly after hatching. Both parents feed the chicks.

Laughing Gulls feed on small fish, marine invertebrates, insects and even leftovers found in dumps and parking lots. They forage by surface plunging or dipping while swimming and walking along beaches. Laughing Gulls are very opportunistic and will readily scavenge scraps from people and raid dumpsters.

By late summer, Laughing Gulls gather in large flocks along the coast before migrating back to their wintering grounds. Though common, Laughing Gull numbers have declined significantly in Texas, mostly due to loss of nesting habitat. Maintaining natural barrier islands is crucial for preserving breeding populations.

2. Ring-billed Gull

The Ring-billed Gull is a common large gull that can be found along most of the Texas coast during winter months. Distinguished by its yellow bill with black ring, this gull breeds farther north and migrates down for the winter.

Ring-billed Gulls are white with gray wings and back. The head is white with yellow eyes. The bill is yellow with a thick black ring near the tip, giving this bird its name. The legs are greenish-yellow. In winter, the head has variable dark streaking. Young birds are mottled brown and take several years to reach adult plumage.

These large gulls arrive in Texas starting in August, with numbers peaking from November to March. They gather in large flocks at landfills, agricultural fields, lakes, rivers and coastal habitats. Ring-billed Gulls roost on evaporation ponds, estuaries and offshore oil platforms.

Ring-billed Gulls are omnivores and will eat just about anything. Fish, insects, rodents, eggs, grains, earthworms and garbage are common foods. They forage in flight, picking insects off the water surface and will scavenge in trash dumps.

While common during winter, nesting Ring-billed Gulls are rare in Texas. However, a few breeding colonies have been observed on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Nests are shallow scrapes lined with vegetation on platform structures. Two to three eggs are laid.

In April, Ring-billed Gulls depart Texas to return to nesting grounds in Canada and the northern U.S. Conservation measures include protecting breeding and migratory stopover habitats. Limiting garbage availability may also reduce gull concentrations.

3. Herring Gull

The Herring Gull is a common winter visitor along the entire Texas Gulf Coast. This large, omnivorous gull breeds in northern areas and migrates south for winter. It is distinguished by its pale gray back, yellow eyes and yellow bill with red spot.

Herring Gulls have white heads, undersides and tails. The back and wings are pale gray. The eyes are yellow with red orbital rings. The long bill is yellow with an obvious red spot on the lower mandible. Legs and feet are pink. First-year birds are brown mottled and take 4 years to reach adult plumage.

In Texas, Herring Gulls arrive on the coast starting in August and remain until April. They frequent beaches, marshes, lakes, rivers, fields and urban areas, often mixing with other gull species. Large night-time roosts form on islands and shorelines.

Herring Gulls are opportunistic feeders. They prey on fish, invertebrates, eggs, nestlings, small mammals and carrion. At landfills and urban areas, they readily scavenge human garbage and leftovers. They steal food from other birds and rarely go a day without eating.

Nesting Herring Gulls occur mainly on coastal islands in Canada and Alaska. They build nest scrapes on the ground lined with vegetation and debris. Usually 2-3 eggs are laid. Chicks hatch after about 4 weeks and fledge in 6-7 weeks. They migrate south starting in late summer.

Declining population trends have been observed in Herring Gulls. Limiting food availability at landfills, protecting nesting islands and reducing entanglement in ocean trash could benefit this species. Maintaining healthy coastal habitats in migration and winter is also important.

4. Great Black-backed Gull

The Great Black-backed Gull is the largest gull in the world and a regular winter visitor to the Texas Gulf Coast. This giant gull breeds in northeastern North America and migrates down for winter. It is identified by its huge size, dark mantle and heavy pink bill.

Great Black-backed Gulls have a white head, breast and undersides. The back and wings are dark slate-gray. The eyes are pale yellow. The heavy bill is pink with yellow tip. Legs are pinkish. First-year birds have mottled brown plumage taking 4 years to mature. In flight, they have broad, rounded wings.

In Texas, Great Black-backed Gulls arrive in late fall and remain until mid-spring, frequenting beaches, harbors, piers, jetties and open water. They often associate with other gull species around fishing boats and in roosts.

These giant gulls are powerful opportunistic predators. They feed mainly on fish, sea urchins, mussels, crustaceans, various invertebrates and carrion. They steal food from other birds, raid seabird colonies and scavenge at fishing ports. They also frequent landfills and urban areas for garbage.

Great Black-backed Gulls nest in coastal areas from Maine to Alaska, building grass-lined scrapes on beaches, islands and cliffs. The female lays 2-4 eggs that hatch in about 4 weeks. Chicks fledge in 6-7 weeks. Winter migration begins in late summer/fall down the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.

With populations currently stable, major threats include disturbance of nesting colonies, entanglement in fishing gear and plastics, and climate change affecting food sources. Maintaining protected breeding sites and reducing ocean pollution are important for conservation.

5. Bonaparte’s Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull is a small graceful gull that migrates through Texas in large numbers during spring and fall migrations. Named for Charles Lucien Bonaparte, this gull breeds in northern Canada and Alaska and winters along the Gulf Coast and Mexico.

In breeding plumage, Bonaparte’s Gull has a black hood and white body. The wings are pale gray above and black-tipped. The legs are orange-red. The bill is black. In winter, the head is mostly white with a dark ear spot. Sexes look alike. Juveniles have a brown hood, tail and wings.

During migration, Bonaparte’s Gulls stop to rest and feed on lakes, rivers and coastal waters across the state. They form large flocks numbering in the thousands, sometimes mixed with other gull species. They migrate through in April/May and September/October.

These delicate gulls feed primarily on insects and other invertebrates. They capture flying insects in the air and also pick from the water’s surface. They occasionally eat fish, fish eggs and plant material. They are nimble fliers and have a buoyant, tern-like flight.

Bonaparte’s Gulls nest in large colonies in spruce forests across northern Canada and Alaska. Both sexes build a nest scrape on the ground lined with twigs, grass and moss. The female lays 2-4 eggs that hatch in about 3 weeks. The young fledge in another 3 weeks and migrate south shortly after.

Population trends are increasing for this species. Maintaining breeding habitat and protecting migratory stopover wetlands is crucial. Limiting disturbance and monitoring water quality and food availability at stopover sites helps ensure migrating Bonaparte’s Gulls have ample resources.

6. Franklin’s Gull

Franklin’s Gull is a medium-sized gull that migrates through Texas in large numbers, especially through inland areas. Named after British explorer John Franklin, this species nests on the Canadian prairies and winters along the Pacific and Gulf Coasts.

In breeding plumage, Franklin’s Gull has a black hood and bold white crescent below the eye. The wings are pale gray with black tips and the rump is white. The bill is orange-red with black tip and legs are also reddish. In winter, the head is white with a faint gray partial hood.

Franklin’s Gulls pass through Texas from March to May and again in September and October. Flocks rest on lakes, rivers, marshes and agricultural fields, where they feed on insects and worms stirred up by farm machinery. Groups can number in the thousands, sometimes alongside other migrating gulls.

This species feeds mainly on insects, crustaceans, fish, frogs, worms and spiders. They pick prey items from surface waters or catch insects in flight. They frequently follow plowing tractors to feast on disturbed invertebrates. They also hawk flying ants and mayflies during mating swarms.

On the Canadian prairies, Franklin’s Gulls nest in large marsh colonies, building floating platform nests from vegetation. The female lays 3 greenish-brown eggs that hatch in around 21 days. Chicks fledge in another 3 weeks before migrating south in late summer.

Populations of Franklin’s Gulls are stable with about 300,000 individuals. Conservation efforts focus on protecting prairie breeding habitat and migration stopover wetlands throughout their range. Maintaining good water quality is also beneficial at migratory stop sites.

7. Sabine’s Gull

Sabine’s Gull is a strikingly beautiful small gull that passes through Texas during spring and fall coastal migrations. It has a distinctive black, gray and white pattern with a yellow-tipped black bill. Named after Irish naturalist Joseph Sabine, this species breeds in Arctic regions and winters at sea in the Southern Hemisphere.

The adult Sabine’s Gull has a black hood, white crescent by the eye and gray back. The wings have a bold black and white pattern. The legs are black and the bill is black with yellow tip. In winter, the head whitens with black smudges around the eye and nape. Juveniles have black “W” wing patterns.

During migration, Sabine’s Gulls follow the Texas coastline in small flocks, occasionally pausing to feed. They are most often reported in late April/May and throughout September. Rare inland sightings occur at lakes or after storms. Numbers are usually low, rarely exceeding the dozens.

Sabine’s Gulls feed primarily on small fish, larval insects and some crustaceans and mollusks. They dip and surface plunge for prey, sometimes hovering briefly first. Strong fliers, they migrate long distances between wintering and breeding grounds.

Nesting occurs on open tundra near marshy areas, where pairs scrape depressions lined with mosses and grasses. Two olive-brown eggs with dark splotches are laid. After the female incubates around 3 weeks, precocial chicks hatch and fledge in another 3 weeks. Soon after, they migrate south for winter.

Due to small global populations, habitat protections are important for this Arctic breeder. Maintaining clean migration stopover sites along coastlines provides vital resting and feeding opportunities. Monitoring pollution levels and limiting disturbances are conservation priorities both on the breeding and wintering grounds.

8. California Gull

The California Gull is an uncommon winter visitor to Texas, mainly occurring in the central and eastern part of the state. Despite its name, this species actually breeds inland across mid-latitude western North America and winters southwards along the coast.

Adult California Gulls have gray wings and back, white head and underparts, yellow legs and a yellow bill with reddish-black spot. They have greenish-yellow eyes. In winter, the head has dusky streaking. Juveniles start out mottled brown before molting to adult plumage by year 3-4.

Most California Gulls arrive in Texas from September to November and return north by April. They frequent lakes, rivers, reservoirs, fields and parking lots, often mixing with other gull species. Typical winter flocks are small, ranging from a few to a couple hundred individuals.

This species is highly opportunistic, feeding on fish, insects, garbage, carrion, eggs, grains and more. They scavenge in landfills and urban areas and will also forage in wet fields for earthworms and other prey. On lakes and rivers they pick fish and insects off the surface while swimming and flying.

California Gulls nest in colonies across interior western North America near freshwater lakes. Nests are shallow scrapes lined with vegetation on islands and shorelines. The female lays 2-3 eggs that hatch in around 4 weeks, with chicks fledging another 4-5 weeks later. Soon after, they migrate south for the winter.

Populations are declining in this species. Protection of breeding colonies from disturbance and maintaining suitable stopover wetlands during migration are conservation priorities for California Gulls. Reducing garbage availability may limit gulls frequenting landfills. Monitoring water quality at key sites is also important.


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