To read more profiles on the Birds of Ocracoke, click here
By Peter Vankevich
First, are these birds gulls or seagulls?
“Seagull” is the colloquial name for birds in the family Laridae, but “gull” is preferred since these birds can be found far away from the sea or ocean. Birders call them gulls, which is how this story will refer to them.
Bird names can be imaginatively colorful. Our regional checklist has Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Plover, Black legged Kittiwake, Chuck-will’s-widow, Lapland longspur, and Painted Bunting.
Our feature’s curious name does not imply any form of inferiority. In fact, it has one of the more interesting tales to tell as to how it made it to the Outer Banks.
While there are five recognized subspecies of the Lesser Black-backed Gull, Larus fuscus graellsii is the one that appears in North America and discussed here.
The Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) is so named because of its similarity in appearance to the much larger and bulkier Great Black-backed Gull. To play off a popular novel and movie, if there are 50 shades of black, then the difference in the mantle (back) color of these two gulls is the Lesser might be about eight degrees lighter than black. It’s really a more dark gray than true black.
In addition to their smaller, sleeker size, in winter plumage, which is how they appear on Ocracoke, Lessers have a streaky head and neck whereas the Great Black-backs are pure white.
In the field where they are often seen together in resting flocks on the beach, the most easily seen distinction between these two gull species is leg color. Adult Lesser Black-backs have bright yellow legs and those of the Great black-backs are pinkish.
Juvenile Lessers’ overall plumage is mottled in dark browns with black primaries (the large outer wing feathers). The head is streaky with a smudgy dark spot around the eye and the legs are pinkish. Lessers take four years for them to reach maturity and begin breeding. During this time they undergo plumage changes to look more like an adult.
Great Black-backed juveniles begin with overall dark brown plumage and also undergo changes for three years. Their much larger size and thick bill are two good field diagnostics.
Both adult gulls have a yellow bill with a prominent red gonydeal spot, at the lower tip of the bill. Fledglings instinctively know to peck at it to get the parent to regurgitate food for them.
Highly social, Lessers breed in colonies on beaches and cliffs, making a crude lined nest and usually laying three eggs. Incubation is about 25 days with an additional 30 to 40 days to fledge. Both parents participate in feeding the young. These birds are long-lived. The oldest known individual was 26 years old.
Like other gulls, they are omnivorous. Their diet consists what they can find on the beach and includes fish, insects, mollusks, crustaceans, marine worms and carrion. They will also forage on birds, nestlings, eggs and small rodents. When animal food is scarce, they may eat berries, seeds and seaweed. In addition to coastal areas, they also can be seen scavenging inland at garbage dumps, on lakes and along rivers.
Their call is a “laughing” cry like that of the Herring Gull, but with a markedly deeper pitch.
Listen: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a variety of Lesser Black-backed Gull recordings. To listen, click here
When to see: Fall into spring. Rare in summer. In 2014, two days after Hurricane Arthur struck Ocracoke on July 4, an adult was seen on Big Foot Slough Island, the dredge spoil island.
Where: Along the beach. Scan resting flocks of gulls.
Click here for the Birds of the Outer Banks Checklist
How it moved from the back page of the Very Rare/Accidental Species list of the Outer Banks Checklist to being listed as seasonally common is one of the more interesting stories of North Carolina’s birds.
The Lesser Black-backed Gull is a common European species that breeds on the north and western Atlantic coasts of Europe.
Over the past century, it has undergone an expansive distribution both in breeding and wintering ranges. Many of them make a long migration south to West Africa while others increasingly are wintering in the British Isles and in new areas.
The first published sighting of this species in North America, outside of Greenland which is geographically considered part of the continent, was in coastal New Jersey in 1934. Four years later Alexander Sprunt, Jr observed one in Key West as reported in the ornithological journal “The Auk.” Sightings in North America slowly increased until the mid-1970s and then substantially thereafter. By 1994, it had been reported in 31 states and now has been found in all 50 states. The one Hawaiian record from 2010 was another subspecies, Larus fuscus heuglini, found in Siberia.
The first reported sighting in North Carolina was on the Outer Banks in 1968, and reports increased every year. In 2013, 573 individuals were reported on the Cape Hatteras Christmas Bird Count. A birding foray on Ocracoke in October 2019 found more than 40 individuals.
Although their presence on the Outer banks occurs primarily from early October into the winter, on July 6, 2014, two days after Hurricane Arthur hit the region, I observed an adult Lesser Black-backed on Big Foot Slough Island just off Ocracoke Island.
It is also seasonally increasing on North Carolina’s Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions, including Jordan Lake in Chatham County.
Prior to its arrival in North America, this gull was rapidly (by bird time frames) expanding its range. It first nested in Iceland in the 1920s and is now present there in the thousands.
Until 1984, only six Lessers were observed in Greenland and the numbers began to increase. By 1990, breeding colonies were established. In 2007 more than 700 pairs were breeding in several colonies and another field survey in 2016 estimated several thousand pairs.
Ireland in the latter part of the 20th century has had a sharp increase in breeding populations.
The common wisdom is that the North American migrants, including Ocracoke birds, are from Greenland and Iceland many of which have begun to migrate west in search of wintering grounds.
So far, there have not been any known breeding colonies on the North American continent. Back in 2007, one bred with a Herring Gull on Appledore Island, part of the Isle of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire.
But there is some speculation that there may be unknown breeding in colonies in the vast isolated areas of northeastern North America.
Why such a massive expansion of both nesting and wintering ranges of this bird? One might guess the huge increase may be due to climate change. However, according to a study by David Boertmann, senior researcher at Denmark’s prestigious Aarhus University, the colonization of Greenland’s Lessers took place during a period of regional cooling when sea temperatures were decreasing around Greenland. Boertmann attributes the colonization expansion due to increased populations in Iceland and northwest Europe and that could be attributed to climate change.
How the increase of Lesser Black-backed Gulls will play into gaining understanding of environmental changes is an open question and should be.
Gulls of the Outer Banks
Gulls are a common sight on the Outer Banks. As many as 17 species have been seen. In summer, the most common is Laughing Gull. Ringed-billed, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls are common from early fall into spring. Rarer in winter are Iceland and Glaucous gulls.
The following are 15 gull species that have been identified in North Carolina, with two other provisional sightings, meaning they did not include photos for documentation. Here is the list in taxonomic order:
Black-tailed Gull (provisional)
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Slaty-backed Gull (provisional)
Great Black-backed Gull
Peter Vankevich is the Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands Christmas Bird Count compiler and author of the Birds of Ocracoke profiles published by the Ocracoke Observer.