Look to the skies over West Virginia and you may witness a diverse spectacle of gulls passing through the Mountain State. From small, delicate Bonaparte’s gulls to giant, domineering Great Black-backed gulls, West Virginia plays host to an impressive array of gull species during the year. Some gulls breed nearby and can be found year-round, while others migrate thousands of miles along the Atlantic flyway using West Virginia as a migratory waypoint and wintering ground. Grab a pair of binoculars and study the rivers, lakes, and landfills to spot white-headed gulls seemingly floating effortlessly on stiff wings. Their calls form a cacophony as they congregate in the hundreds. Each gull fills a unique niche and their identification provides a challenging puzzle for birders.
|Gull Type||Size||Key Identifying Features|
|Ring-Billed Gull||Medium-sized||Black ring on yellow bill, pale gray wings with white wingtips, yellow eyes|
|Herring Gull||Large||Pale gray wings with black wingtips, yellow eyes, large yellow bill with red spot|
|Laughing Gull||Medium-sized||Dark gray wings, red bill and legs, black head in summer|
|Bonaparte’s Gull||Small||Black hood, small size, quick flight, high-pitched calls|
|Great Black-backed Gull||Very large||Dark back and wings, heavy bill, large webbed feet|
|Caspian Tern||Very large||Thick red bill, black cap, pale gray wings and back, white underparts|
|Iceland Gull||Medium to large||Rounded head, smaller bill than Herring Gull, very pale overall|
|Black-legged Kittiwake||Small||Black legs, small size, sharp wings, angular head|
Table of Contents
1. Ring-Billed Gull
The ring-billed gull is one of the most common gulls found in West Virginia. It is a medium-sized gull with a wingspan of around 50 inches. Adult ring-billed gulls have white heads, light gray backs, white underparts, and yellow legs and feet. The bill is yellow with a thick black ring around it, giving the bird its name.
Ring-billed gulls breed in colonies near lakes and rivers across Canada and the northern United States. They migrate south for the winter and can be seen near large bodies of water and landfills. In West Virginia, ring-billed gulls are common along major rivers like the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers. They are opportunistic feeders and will eat fish, insects, earthworms, garbage, and more.
Some key identifying features of the ring-billed gull include the black ring on its yellow bill, pale gray wings with white wingtips, and yellow eyes. Juveniles are mottled brown and gray. Their call is a harsh “keee-yar” sound.
Ring-billed gulls are adaptable birds found in a variety of habitats. They thrive near humans and man-made structures. Though common, their populations declined in the 20th century due to persecution, habitat loss, and pollutants like DDT. Their numbers have rebounded thanks to conservation efforts.
2. Herring Gull
The herring gull is a large, common gull that can be found across much of West Virginia. It has a wingspan of around 55 inches. Adults are white with gray backs and black wingtips. The heads are white in the summer and speckled gray in winter. Legs are pink and the bill is yellow with a red spot.
Herring gulls breed in colonies in Canada and the northern US before migrating down the Atlantic coast for winter. In West Virginia, they congregate near rivers, lakes, harbors, and landfills. They are opportunistic, adaptable feeders and consume a wide variety of prey including fish, crabs, mollusks, eggs, small mammals, and refuse.
Some key identifying features include the large size, pale gray wings with black wingtips, yellow eyes, and large yellow bill with red spot. Their loud call is a laughing “gua-gua-gua.” Young birds are mottled brown and gray.
Though abundant, populations of herring gulls declined in the 20th century due to human disturbances and pollutants. They remain common across Eastern North America but face threats from climate change, habitat loss, and competition with other gull species.
3. Laughing Gull
The laughing gull is a medium-sized gull named for its unique laughing call. It is smaller and more slender than other common gulls. Adults have white heads, dark gray wings and backs, black heads and necks in summer, and bright red bills and legs.
Laughing gulls breed in coastal marshes from Maine to Texas. They migrate down the Atlantic Coast or to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico for winter. In West Virginia, they are mostly seen during spring and fall migrations. They occur near large rivers, lakes, and wetlands.
These gulls forage for fish, crabs, insects, eggs, and more in shallow waters. They will also scavenge in dumps and parking lots. Key identification features include the dark gray wings, red bill and legs, and black head in summer. Juveniles are gray-brown overall with some black markings.
Though still common, laughing gull populations are declining across their range due to habitat loss and disturbance of breeding colonies. Conservation of coastal wetlands is important to maintain their numbers. They face competition from other gull species as well.
4. Bonaparte’s Gull
Bonaparte’s gull is a small, delicate gull named after Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a 19th century American ornithologist. It measures just 13-14 inches with a 34 inch wingspan. Breeding adults have distinctive black hoods contrasting with white underparts. The bill is black and the legs are orange-red.
Bonaparte’s gulls nest in large colonies in boreal forest wetlands in Canada and Alaska. They migrate long distances in flocks across the interior of North America to overwinter along the Gulf Coast and Caribbean. Some reach the Pacific Coast as well.
In West Virginia, Bonaparte’s gulls pass through during spring and fall migrations, usually in April/May and October/November. They stop to rest and feed on rivers, lakes, fields, and wetlands while migrating. These agile fliers feed on insects like mayflies as well as fish, crustaceans, and other small prey.
Bonaparte’s gulls are identified by their small size, black hoods, quick flight, and high-pitched calls. They form large feeding flocks in migration and winter. Though still common, their breeding populations are declining in northern Canada possibly due to climate change and habitat loss.
5. Great Black-backed Gull
The great black-backed gull is the largest gull in the world. As its name suggests, adults have blackish-gray backs and wings contrasting with white underparts. They have a huge wingspan of around 65 inches. Their large bill is yellow with a red spot. Legs and feet are pinkish.
Great black-backed gulls breed in coastal habitats in northeastern North America and Iceland before migrating down the Atlantic coast for winter. They are rare but regular inland in West Virginia, usually seen during winter near large rivers, lakes, and landfills.
These massive gulls eat just about anything including fish, crabs, seabirds, eggs, small mammals, and carrion. They are powerful, aggressive predators that often displace other gulls from feeding sites. Their deep, laughing call is distinct once learned.
Key ID features include the very large size, dark back and wings, heavy bill, and large webbed feet. Immatures are mottled brown and gray. Though still common along the coast, populations have declined from hunting, disturbance, and contaminants.
6. Caspian Tern
The Caspian tern is the largest tern in the world. While not a true gull, its size and familiar look cause it to be confused with gulls at times. It has a thick red bill, black cap, pale gray wings and back, and white underparts. The wingspan reaches up to 55 inches.
Caspian terns breed in colonies on offshore islands and coasts in northern North America. They migrate long distances and winter along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts south to Central and South America. In West Virginia, they pass through in small numbers during spring and fall migrations.
These powerful fliers mainly eat small fish captured by diving from heights of up to 50 feet. They also take some crustaceans and insects. They often rob smaller terns and gulls of their prey. Caspian terns call loudly with a harsh “kree-ah” sound.
The large size, heavy red bill, black cap, and stiff wingbeats help identify this species in flight.Their specialized plunge-diving fishing technique separates them from gulls. Population trends seem stable though They face threats from habitat loss on breeding and wintering grounds.
7. Iceland Gull
The Iceland gull is a medium to large white-headed gull that breeds in the Arctic but migrates south for winter. It is named for the country of Iceland where it can be found year-round. Adults have pale gray wings and back, white wingtips, and yellow legs. The bill is yellow with a reddish spot.
Iceland gulls nest in remote Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland. During winter they migrate down both coasts of North America and across the Great Lakes region. In West Virginia they are rare visitors to large lakes, rivers, and landfills mainly during late fall to early spring.
These gulls have a more rounded head and smaller bill than the similar herring gull. They often appear very pale overall lacking darker wingtips. Their call is a thin, high-pitched “keow.” Though closely related, Iceland and herring gulls do not typically interbreed.
Once considered the same species, Iceland gulls are now recognized as distinct. They face threats from climate change reducing nesting habitats and exposure to pollutants and contaminants in migration and wintering areas.
8. Black-legged Kittiwake
The black-legged kittiwake is a small, dainty gull that breeds in Arctic and subarctic coastal regions. True to its name, adults have bright yellow bills and black legs to go along with pale gray wings and a white head and body. They measure around 16 inches with a 40 inch wingspan.
Kittiwakes nest in enormous noisy colonies on cliff ledges and structures along northern coasts. They migrate along coasts south to northern portions of the Lower 48 states for winter. In West Virginia they are very rare winter visitors to large rivers and lakes.
These agile fliers feed mainly on small fish, crustaceans and other marine invertebrates captured near the water’s surface. They often form large feeding flocks. Kittiwakes are highly aerial and spend more time in flight than perched. Their call is a harsh, repetitive “kittee-wa-aaake.”
Key ID features include the black legs, small size, sharp wings, and angular head shape. Global populations have declined significantly in recent decades due to changing ocean conditions and habitat disturbances. Conservation of breeding sites is a high priority.