Coney Island Gulls in June

“Seagulls” are ubiquitous in New York City throughout the year — we are, after all, an archipelago at the edge of the sea.

Coney Island, New York June 7, 2015

Four gull species are common during our summer months, varied and complex enough to reward detailed observation during the brief window when migratory bird activity ebbs. Early in the morning, before sunbathers descend, Brooklyn’s long, sandy Coney Island Beach offers good opportunities to study loafing resident gulls — and perhaps more: Four years ago, a stupendously rare Gray-hooded Gull drew crowds. Today, though, our four typical species were the stars, each with a stories to tell.

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla) is a summertime resident of New York. Adult Laughing Gulls in breeding plumage are colorful stunners whose piercing cries telegraph summer at the beach.

Laughing Gulls do nest along Long Island. In addition to breeding adults, immature birds that are too young to breed also migrate north to spend the summer along our coast. These youngsters, like the one at left, are identifiable by their dusky heads, black bills and legs, brown greater coverts on the upper wing and black in the tail feathers (both just barely visible in this picture). This bird looks like a first-cycle type — that is, a bird that is about one year old. It will start its second cycle this summer, molting into a more adult-like plumage before finally attaining adult aspect in its third year, should it be so lucky.

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) is present in New York year round, but this species does not breed along the coast. Adults move inland to breed; the immature birds, though, stay along the coast during the summer, feeding and maturing.

The bird above has finished its first cycle and started its second. It is about one year old. The bird below is the same age, though it shows a much more adult-like coloration of the bill, orbital ring, and legs. Small gray covert feathers have started growing on its wing. These will replace the heavily bleached, abraded coverts that form a whitish panel on the folded wing.

The molt these birds are undergoing is even more obvious when they fly. The molt of the primary feathers is easy to see on the bird below. You can see two new pale gray, white-tipped primary feathers coming in on each wing, inside the darker, heavily worn outer primaries. This prebasic molt will continue through the summer as the birds continue to mature.

Most of the Ring-billed Gulls hanging around Coney Island Beach today were of the age shown above. The bird pictured below, however, is a full year older. It has finished its second cycle and is beginning its third. It has already replaced a few of its inner primaries and covert feathers. Besides the contrast in length, note the brighter gray of the new feathers contrasting with the older, slightly browner feathers nearby. This bird already has a fully white tail, and by next spring, at three years old, it will be a full adult.

Herring Gull

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) breeds along our coast and lives here year round; it also takes about four years to attain full adult plumage, with an incredible range of variation along the way. All this means that on any given day, a dizzying range of Herring Gull plumages can be seen.

The presumed year-old bird shown above had caught a spider crab and was chowing down.

Here is a beautiful adult:

The sand-colored one- and two-year-olds are very common.

The bird below is well on its way to adulthood — I think it’s probably three years old, but rather remarkably, the variation in plumages during Herring Gull maturation is still not fully understood.

Here’s a similar bird in flight:

This younger bird is undergoing primary molt — almost everybody is.

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) is also a year-round New York resident and breeder that takes at least four years to reach full adulthood. It’s a huge and powerful bird, strikingly patterned at all ages. The bird on the right above is an adult; the bird on the left is a two-year-old.

Year-old birds have just completed their first cycle and are starting their second. They are white-headed and boldly patterned above.

The bird in flight below shows its prebasic molt in progress, with crisp, grayish new primaries growing in.

With blackish feathers scattered across its back and wing coverts and plain brownish-black primaries, this preening bird is two years old.

The following bird is well advanced but still shows signs of immaturity, including black in the tail, brown in the wing coverts, and limited white in the ninth primary.

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