With over 2,700 miles of shoreline and thousands of lakes, Washington state is a haven for gulls. These ubiquitous seabirds are a familiar sight across coastal beaches, urban waterfronts, and inland waterbodies. From the bulky Western Gull patrolling the outer coasts to delicate Bonaparte’s Gulls gracing interior wetlands, over a dozen species of gulls can be observed in Washington throughout the year. Some gulls are resident, while others migrate through seasonally on their way to breeding or wintering grounds. With a diversity of shapes, sizes, and behaviors, gulls are a highlight of the region’s rich avifauna. Let’s explore some of Washington’s most common gulls and tips for identification.
|Gull Type||Description||Identification Tips|
|Ring-billed Gull||Medium-sized gull with white head, gray back, yellow bill with black ring, yellow legs||– Yellow bill with black ring
– Medium size
– Yellow legs
|Glaucous-winged Gull||Large pale gray gull with bright white underparts, gray wings with white “mirrors”, yellow eyes||– Pale gray wings with white “mirrors”
– Pink legs
– Yellow eyes
|Mew Gull||Small delicate gull, pale gray above and white below, yellow bill and legs||– Small and delicate
– Rounded head
– Thin yellow bill
|California Gull||Medium-sized gull with white head, pale gray back, black wingtips, yellow-green legs, and dark red bill||– Dark red bill with black band
– Yellow-green legs
– Red orbital eye ring
|Western Gull||Very large gray and white gull with thick neck, pink legs, heavy yellow bill||– Bulky frame
– Pink legs
– Big yellow bill
|Herring Gull||Large pale gray and white gull with black wingtips, yellow bill with red spot, pink legs||– Large size
– Yellow eyes
– Yellow bill with red spot
|Bonaparte’s Gull||Very small gull with black hood, pale gray wings, orange legs||– Tiny size
– Black hood
– Orange legs
|Heermann’s Gull||Medium-sized gull with chocolate brown head and body, pale gray wings, red bill and legs||– Chocolate brown head
– Gray wings
– Red bill and legs
Table of Contents
1. Ring-Billed Gull
The Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) is one of the most common gulls found in Washington. With an estimated population of over 2 million, it is abundant across the state and can be seen in a variety of habitats from large inland lakes to coastal beaches.
The Ring-billed Gull is a medium-sized gull, smaller than the larger Herring Gull but bigger than the petite Bonaparte’s Gull. Adults have white heads, underparts, and tails, with gray backs and wings. As their name suggests, their yellow bills have a distinct black ring around them. Their legs are yellow-green in color. In winter, their heads gain speckled gray streaks.
First-year Ring-billed Gulls are mottled brown and take about two years to reach full adult plumage. These gulls make a wide range of vocalizations but are best known for their laughing gull-like kek calls. They breed in huge colonies near open freshwater and spend winters farther south along coastlines.
In Washington, look for Ring-billed Gulls at places like Lake Washington, Puget Sound, and larger lakes across the interior. They forage in parking lots or fields and roost on docks or shorelines. Careful observers can tell them apart from other white-headed gulls by their medium size, yellow bill with black ring, and yellow legs.
2. Glaucous-Winged Gull
The Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) is one of the most numerous and familiar gulls along the Washington coast. It breeds abundantly on islands and coastal cliffs and is a year-round resident.
This large gull has pale gray wings and back, with bright white underparts and head. The wings have distinct white “mirrors” at the wingtips. The eyes are surrounded by a yellow orbital ring, and the legs are pink. First-year birds are mottled brown overall.
Glaucous-winged Gulls are very vocal with a variety of braying and barking calls. They are opportunistic feeders, often found scavenging at fisheries, dumps, and parks. Along the coast, they feast on marine organisms like crabs, mussels, and fish.
These gulls breed in dense colonies on offshore islands and remote cliffs. Breeding adults have distinctive wing plumage. Once the young fledge, parents lead them back to the mainland to forage.
Next time you’re on the Washington coast, look for these common gulls on docks, beaches, and near seabird colonies. Listen for their loud calls carrying on the sea breeze.
3. Mew Gull
The Mew Gull (Larus canus) is a small-sized gull that breeds in the northern interior of Washington. It winters along the coast, often mixing with other white-headed gulls.
Adult Mew Gulls are gentle gray above and white below, with a yellow bill and legs. In winter, the head is lightly streaked gray. Juveniles have checkered brown plumage that molts to adult-like by their second year.
This gull’s name comes from its delicate, high-pitched calls which sound like “mews.” It breeds in loose colonies on inland lakes, nesting on the ground. Though small, it is territorial and will aggressively chase intruders away.
Mew Gulls feed on insects, fish, and other small prey in fields, lakes, and intertidal areas. They frequently stick their heads underwater to grab food.
In Washington, Mew Gulls nest in the interior and migrate west to the coast for winter. Look for them mixed in with flocks of Ring-billed and California Gulls. They are best identified by their delicate bill, rounded head, and dainty overall appearance.
4. California Gull
Among the most common and widespread gulls in Washington is the California Gull (Larus californicus). It resides in the state year-round and can be readily observed inland or along the coast.
This medium-sized gull has a white head, pale gray wings and back, black wingtips, and yellow-green legs. The bill is dark red with a black band near the tip. Juveniles have mottled brown and gray plumage.
California Gulls nest in colonies at lakes and islands, where they aggressively defend their turf. They are generalist feeders, scavenging in parking lots and fields for anything edible.
These resourceful gulls utilize a wide range of habitats across Washington. Look for them loafing on lakes, floating down rivers, and patrolling shorelines. Listen for their squealing cat-like calls overhead.
California Gulls mingle with other white-headed gulls but can be identified by their distinctive two-toned bill and blood-red orbital ring around the eye. Take a closer look next time you see gulls gathered en masse.
5. Western Gull
Distinguished by its large size and menacing appearance, the Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) is a common fixture along Washington’s outer coastline.
This big, bulky gull has broad wings and a thick neck. Plumage is dark gray above and white below, with pink legs and feet. The heavy yellow bill has a reddish spot near the tip. Juveniles have mottled brown and white patterns.
Western Gulls are year-round residents, breeding in colonies along coastal cliffs and rocks. They are consummate scavengers, omnivorously feeding on anything from mollusks to fries and chips from boardwalk restaurants.
These aggressive gulls will readily take food from people and other birds. Their fierce nature earns them the nickname “seagull bully.” They make deep choking sounds when agitated.
Check rocky outcroppings and jetties along Washington’s coast to catch sight of the Western Gull’s imposing silhouette. Look for their bulky frame, pink legs, and big yellow bill to identify this coastal brute. Give them a wide berth if they start to swoop and dive bomb!
6. Herring Gull
One of the larger and more familiar gulls along Washington’s interior lakes and waterways is the Herring Gull (Larus argentatus). This ubiquitous bird is found across the Northern Hemisphere.
Adult Herring Gulls have pale gray upperparts, white underparts, black wingtips with white spots, and pink legs. The yellow bill is tipped with a red spot. They take 4 years to reach full adult plumage, going through various mottled stages as juveniles.
These large, noisy gulls nest in loose colonies near water. They are opportunistic predators and scavengers, eating fish, crabs, mollusks, eggs, small mammals, and any human food waste they can get into.
In Washington, look for Herring Gulls soaring overhead calling loudly or loafing on lakes, rivers, harbors, and bays. Their large size, menacing yellow eyes, and raucous behavior make them easy to identify. Watch for them trying to steal picnickers’ food!
7. Bonaparte’s Gull
Among Washington’s smallest and most delicate gulls is the Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia). It breeds in Alaska and Canada and migrates through Washington in spring and fall.
In adult plumage, Bonaparte’s Gulls are pale gray above with a black hood and white undersides. The bill is small and mostly black. The legs are bright red-orange. In winter, the head turns all white with dark ear spots.
These petite gulls feed delicately on small fish, insects, and invertebrates, hovering and dipping across water surfaces. Their voice is a high, whistling call, faster and more musical than other gull species.
Bonaparte’s Gulls pass through Washington near wetlands, lakes, and coastlines during migration. Look for their tiny stature, black hood, and orange legs. In flight, they appear dainty with quick, stiff wingbeats. These little beauties lighten up any shoreline as they pass through in spring and fall.
8. Heermann’s Gull
An irregular summer visitor to Washington is the strikingly patterned Heermann’s Gull (Larus heermanni). This Mexican species occasionally wanders north to breed.
Heermann’s Gulls sport elegant plumage of gray, brown, and red. Adults have chocolate-brown heads, necks, and bodies contrasting with pale gray wings. The bill and legs are red. In winter, the head turns mostly white.
This rare visitor feeds on fish, marine invertebrates, and some plant material. Its loud rattling krek call is very distinct from other gulls. Nests consist of shallow scrapes on beaches and islands.
In Washington, Heermann’s Gulls are infrequently seen around coastal areas during late spring and summer. Look for their remarkable pattern of colors if you spot a chocolate-brown headed gull. Keep an eye out for these special seasonal visitors.