Ocracoke nature, flora & fauna

Spotted on Ocracoke: Gulls in the ‘ Hood – or  Not

September 2011
Text and Photos by Peter Vankevich

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Laughing gull in breeding plumage

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Laughing Gull in basic plumage, from late August till early spring

 The Laughing Gull, Larus atricilla, is the most common black-hooded gull that can easily be seen along the coasts of  the Carolinas, especially flying along the ferries to Hatteras and back.  They prefer to breed on islands without predators.  During the late 18th and 19th century they were in danger of extinction due to the harvesting of feathers and eggs.  Once they received protective status, their numbers rebounded.  Today, one of their threats is the increasing population of the larger Herring Gulls and that will feed on their eggs and chicks. There are approximately 12,000 nesting pairs in North Carolina. They are named because their call in flight sounds like a loud laugh.

I chose this bird for September because at this time of year, they molt and lose their black hoods leaving the plumage around the head to have a smudgy look.  Many years ago when I started birding, I visited the island of Chincoteague, Virginia in August and again in September.  I thought that the Laughing Gulls that were so common a few weeks earlier must have migrated.  After some study of the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds and, more importantly, some field observation, I realized that the gulls without the black hoods were one and the same. When this molt occurs, you can tell them apart from the similar sized Ring-billed Gulls by their darker slate-colored mantles (backs) and black bills. Occasionally you may see them flying circles over the village feeding on insects; and in late fall they sometimes will land on the cedar trees to feed on their berries.

For a gull, they do not like cold weather. I compile both Ocracoke and the Portsmouth Island Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) that take place usually just before New Year’s Day.’   If the preceding weeks are cold, we find very few of them present.  Last year, a group of fifteen or more observers managed to find only two birds on Ocracoke and three on Portsmouth Island.

As you may imagine, the Laughing Gull is named after its call which sounds na bit like ha-ha-ha ha-haaaaaa. Since I don’t have any cultural references  for these guys, I’ll play off its name and tell one of the two funny bird jokes I know. (Yes, the other involves a parrot and you won’t read it  here.)  A guy was caught roasting four Bald Eagles. He begs for mercy from the court. “Your honor, I got lost in the woods for two days and stumbled  across this eagle’s nest. It was them or me; I was starving.” The judge frowned, “I’m not sure I buy this, but I’m fining you only $250. Case dismissed.”  A few moments later, the judge calls him back and says quietly, “I’m a hunter, just between you and me, how did they taste.”  The defendant’s eyes light up and he says, “The best I can describe it, the taste is a cross between a Whooping Crane and a Spotted Owl.”