8 Types of Gulls in Vermont

Gaze skyward on a spring day in Vermont, and you may catch sight of one of nature’s most aerial of birds – the gull. With their buoyant flight and raucous cries, gulls are a common sight along Vermont’s coastlines, rivers, and lakes. From the small, delicate Bonaparte’s Gull to the mighty Great Black-backed Gull, these intelligent birds thrive among humans while retaining their wild spirit. This article explores 8 of the gull species most frequently seen in the Green Mountain State. Learn how to identify them by plumage, behavior, and voice. And delight in the aerobatic skills of these aerial masters who link Vermont’s waterways with the expansive ocean and Arctic sky.

Gull Type Size Distinguishing Characteristics
Ring-billed Gull Medium White head, gray wings, black ring around yellow bill
Herring Gull Large Gray back, yellow bill with red spot
Great Black-backed Gull Very large Black back and wings, huge size
Laughing Gull Medium Black head, red bill, laughing call
Bonaparte’s Gull Small Black head, red legs, small and delicate
Iceland Gull Medium Pale gray wings, yellow legs and bill
Lesser Black-backed Gull Medium-large Dark gray back and wings
Black-legged Kittiwake Small Black legs, “kittee-wa-aaake” call

1. Ring-billed Gull

The Ring-billed Gull is one of the most common gulls found in Vermont. With a wingspan of around 50 inches, it is medium-sized for a gull. Adults have white heads, underparts, and tails, with gray wings and backs. As the name suggests, they have a distinctive black ring around their yellow bills.

Ring-billed Gulls breed in the interior of North America, including around the Great Lakes. They migrate south for the winter, and many spend the season along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. In Vermont, they are most numerous as spring and fall migrants. These gulls forage in a variety of habitats, including lakes, rivers, fields, and parking lots. They are omnivorous and have diverse diets, feeding on fish, insects, earthworms, grain, and more.

Ring-billed Gulls nest in colonies near water. They lay around three eggs in nests made of vegetation built on the ground. Both parents incubate the eggs and care for the young after they hatch. These gulls are very social and nest in dense colonies that may contain thousands of pairs.

Their loud, laughing calls are a familiar sound around Vermont wetlands in spring and summer. Ring-billed Gulls are bold and may try to steal food from people or snatch it out of the air. They are adaptable birds that have thrived living near humans.

2. Herring Gull

With its large size, gray back, white head and underparts, and yellow bill with red spot, the Herring Gull is one of the most familiar gulls in Vermont. They have a wingspan reaching up to 60 inches. Herring Gulls breed across northern North America and winter along both coasts.

In Vermont, Herring Gulls can be seen near large lakes, rivers, and wetlands, as well as in parking lots, fields, and landfills. They are omnivorous scavengers and hunters, feeding on fish, invertebrates, eggs, small mammals, and more. Herring Gulls will also readily eat human food and garbage.

Herring Gulls build bulky nests on the ground in colonies, often on islands. They lay 2-3 eggs that are incubate for around 28 days. Both parents feed the chicks after they hatch. Young Herring Gulls go through several plumages before reaching adult appearance at around four years old.

With their loud, laughing calls, Herring Gulls are a noisy and conspicuous presence along Vermont’s coastlines during summer. They are bold birds that will aggressively defend their nests and young. Herring Gulls are migratory, generally wintering along the Atlantic coast from New England southward.

3. Great Black-backed Gull

As its name suggests, the Great Black-backed Gull has a distinctive black back and wings contrasting with its white head and underparts. It is North America’s largest gull, with a wingspan reaching 65-79 inches. Great Black-backed Gulls breed in coastal northern regions and migrate down the Atlantic coast in winter.

In Vermont, Great Black-backed Gulls nest in small numbers on islands in Lake Champlain. They also occur along the New England coastline during winter. These huge gulls feed on a variety of prey, including fish, mollusks, crustaceans, smaller birds, eggs, small mammals, and carrion. They will also scavenge in dumpsters and parking lots near the coast.

Great Black-backed Gulls nest in colonies, building nests of vegetation on the ground or cliffs. Parents incubate the 2-4 eggs for around 28 days, and both feed the chicks after hatching. Young birds go through several years of plumage changes before reaching adult appearance.

With deep, laughing calls, these gulls are an imposing presence along Vermont’s shores. They are fierce predators and may harass other birds to steal their catch. Great Black-backed Gulls are also known to sometimes prey on ducklings and goslings they find near their colonies.

4. Laughing Gull

The medium-sized Laughing Gull has a black head, white eyering, gray wings and back, and black legs and bill. True to its name, it makes a distinct laughing call. Laughing Gulls breed along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and are rare spring and fall migrants in Vermont.

These gulls forage in shallow waters and wetlands as well as plowed fields, lawns, and parking lots. They feed on fish, crabs, marine worms, insects, and more. Laughing Gulls will also scavenge for scraps from people when given the chance.

Laughing Gulls build nests in colonies containing up to 25,000 pairs! Nests are shallow scrapes lined with vegetation on sandy beaches and marshes. Parents take turns incubating the 2-5 eggs for around 3 weeks. Chicks hatch covered in down and fed by both parents until fledging.

The Laughing Gull’s laughing call is commonly heard in its coastal breeding areas in summer. Its scientific name, Leucophaeus atricilla, references this vocalization. While Laughing Gulls are numerous in coastal areas, they are ephemeral spring and fall migrants in Vermont.

5. Bonaparte’s Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull is a small, delicate gull named after Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a 19th century American ornithologist. It has a black head, white undersides, and gray back and wings. Its bill is black and legs are orange-red. In breeding plumage, Bonaparte’s Gulls have a distinctive black patch behind the eye.

This species nests in large colonies across the boreal forest regions of Canada. It migrates through Vermont in spring and fall, stopping over on lakes, rivers, and flooded fields to forage. Bonaparte’s Gulls feed on insects and other small prey snatched from the water’s surface as they fly over.

Despite its small size, around 13 inches in length, the Bonaparte’s Gull undertakes an extraordinarily long migration. It winters along the Pacific, Gulf, and Atlantic Coasts, traveling up to 14,000 miles annually! The birds arrive back on their breeding grounds ready to build nests and raise chicks.

With their high-pitched calls, Bonaparte’s Gulls flock and swirl over Vermont’s lakes and rivers during migration. These agile, delicate gulls are always a joy to observe on their brief stopovers.

6. Iceland Gull

As its name conveys, the Iceland Gull breeds in Iceland and winters across northeastern coastal areas, including Vermont. Medium-sized with pale gray wings and back, white head and body, and yellow legs and bill, Iceland Gulls often perch on ice floes, giving them their characteristic name.

Iceland Gulls nest on cliffs along the northern Atlantic Coast. They are migratory and disperse more widely across northeastern North America in winter. In Vermont, they occur as occasional migrants and winter residents along the shores of Lake Champlain and larger lakes and rivers.

These gulls feed opportunistically on fish, marine invertebrates, eggs, small mammals, and carrion. They will readily scavenge in parking lots and dumps near the coast. Iceland Gulls have a distinctive habit of dropping hard-shelled prey from heights to break them open.

Iceland Gulls are medium-sized gulls around 25 inches in length. They take several years to reach adult plumage, going through various stages of gray and white patterning. Their piercing calls are often associated with the stark Iceland winter landscape.

7. Lesser Black-backed Gull

The Lesser Black-backed Gull is a close relative of the Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull that occasionally occurs in Vermont as a migrant and winter visitor. As its name denotes, its back and wings are dark gray rather than fully black. Its legs are yellow rather than the pink of a Herring Gull.

Lesser Black-backed Gulls breed across northern Europe and western Asia. A small but growing number also nest in Iceland and eastern Canada. After breeding, they disperse more widely across the North Atlantic region. Some reach the mid-Atlantic and New England Coasts in winter.

These gulls frequent coastal habitats like beaches, harbors, wetlands, and offshore waters. They opportunistically eat fish, marine invertebrates, grain, eggs, small vertebrates, and carrion. Bold and aggressive, Lesser Black-backed Gulls will readily scavenge human food scraps.

Lesser Black-backed Gulls are long-distance migrants, with some individuals wintering as far south as West Africa! Their loud, laughing calls ring out from Vermont’s coastal habitats on occasions when these handsome but scrappy gulls visit in winter.

8. Black-legged Kittiwake

The Black-legged Kittiwake is a small, dainty gull species named for its distinctive call, which sounds like “kittee-wa-aaake.” It has gray wings and back, a white head and body, and black legs. In breeding plumage, Black-legged Kittiwakes have a yellow bill and hindneck.

This pelagic gull species nests on sea cliffs in the Arctic regions across the northern continents. It migrates over the open ocean south to winter along northern coastlines. In Vermont, Black-legged Kittiwakes are rare migrants mostly seen during severe storms that blow them inland.

Black-legged Kittiwakes feed over marine habitats, swooping to grab small fish, crustaceans and other prey at the water’s surface. They almost always remain over coastal waters and rarely come to land except when nesting.

Nests are built on tiny ledges on near-vertical cliff faces, often just inches from neighboring kittiwakes! Parents share incubation duties and later feed the chicks by regurgitating fish and other prey.

With their dazzling aerial maneuvers over the ocean and cacophony of calls, Black-legged Kittiwakes are a beautiful sight during Vermont’s rare chance sightings of these highly pelagic birds. Any storm-blown individual seen inland is a rare treat for birders.


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