|Cold fronts gring
gulls to Piney Woods Waters
By Jay V. Huner
Every fall, cold fronts bring gulls to the piney woods' rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Gulls are beautiful, graceful birds that hover like kites, rarely moving their slender, sharply pointed wings, in strong winds over open water. "Sea" gulls are amongst the most readily identifiable birds in the world. However, the term "sea" is a misnomer and frowned upon by birders and ornithologists. Our common inland gull is the Ring-billed Gull. As gulls go, Ring-billed Gulls are medium-sized being 17-20 inches long with wing spans of 45-50 inches long. Body size is similar to that of pigeons.
Gull identification can be a major headache for even the most experienced birder. Color pattern varies from summer to winter and it takes either three years or four years (cycles) for the different species to reach adult plumage. Ring-billed Gulls are three cycle gulls going through three annual plumage/color cycles before reaching adult plumage.
First cycle Ring-billed Gulls are motley brown and gray in color. They have pink bills and legs. Second cycle birds take on an appearance similar to mature gulls but have a black tail bar, not present on mature birds.
Adult (third cycle) birds have white heads and are white below with gray backs (called mantles) and slender, black-tipped wings spotted with white. The tail is white. There are subtle differences between the more sharply defined breeding adults and the wintering adults we see in the piney woods. But, yellow bills with a black ring near the tip and yellow legs are common to both phases. The black ring is the characteristic that gives the Ring-billed Gull its common name!
We associate gulls with big waters and deftly catching fish at the surface. Gulls will also congregate in large flocks in plowed fields eating grubs, earth worms, and other juicy prey exposed in freshly turned earth. But, the largest flocks are invariably associated with landfill/garbage dump operations. Thousands of gulls can be attracted to such dependable food supplies. Ring-billed Gulls are no exception and often spend most of the day awaiting tasty foods delivered by garbage trucks. They commute, sometimes many miles, from roosts on water bodies after dawn and before sunset streaming across the sky for upwards to an hour in the case of the largest flocks.
Ring-billed Gulls may sometimes found in good numbers around crawfish ponds during the winter. They catch crawfish that climb to the surface on emergent vegetation and the traps that extend above the surface. Gulls are especially fond of soft-shell crawfish. Crawfish climb to the surface on vegetation to shed (molt) their shells away from hard-shell crawfish that would otherwise eat them. But, they are then vulnerable to hovering gulls.
Ring-billed Gulls nest in the interior of the North American continent. Some may never see the sea. While some may be found year round along the Gulf coast, most arrive in mid-fall and most are gone by mid-spring.
Gulls fly long distances and over a dozen species are encountered in our region well away from the Gulf of Mexico. However, the Ring-billed Gull is by far the most common gull in the region. Bonaparte's Gull is an especially small gull and flocks are sometimes found mingling with Ring-billed Gulls and terns away from the Gulf.
Jay V. Huner, Louisiana Ecrevisse