Little Gulls

Adult Little Gull, Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011. This individual is moulting to winter (basic) plumage: the outer two primaries P9 and P10 are not yet fully grown.

Adult Little Gull, Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011. This individual is moulting to winter (basic) plumage: the outer two primaries P9 and P10 are not yet fully grown.

There where high winds along the coast of Holland today (force 6-8) so I decided to go to the coastal town of Katwijk aan Zee to see if it would produce any nice sightings of proper sea birds being blown ashore. Katwijk is also a good place to pick up the odd Caspian Gull and it’s also a good place to read a ring or two. All good reasons for going over there.

I was not to be disappointed. At my arrival, I first checked a resting place a little bit inland which gulls use to shelter from the fierce winds. A group of some 400 gulls were present consisting mainly of Herring Gulls, Black-headed Gulls, some Great Black-backed Gulls, a single adult Yellow-legged Gull as well as a single first-calendar Black-legged Kittiwake. Among them where 4 color-ringed adult Herring Gulls: 3 with a Dutch ring and one with a German ring. One of the Dutch individuals used to have two rings and can therefore not be positively identified, but we have a good idea of its identity. The gull in question was ringed in 1988, which makes it a 24th-calendar year gull. I’ve only seen 2 gulls of an older age (25 and 26 calendar year respectively).

I then proceeded to the beach where I was met by fierce winds. At the point where a drainage canal meets the North Sea, a group of Black-headed Gulls was feeding off the surface of the water. In between them a group of 3 and later 10 Little Gulls where feeding too. I very rarely get to see this species so was excited to be able to see them so up close (sometimes they came as close as 4 meters).

Their feeding method of a Little Gull consists of moving slowly forward against the wind while hovering above the water with the bill pointed downwards. It then dips to the surface to snatch up their prey, sometimes even sticking the head under water. After following a stretch of water for about 20 meters or so, it uses the strong wind to quickly return to the starting position and repeat the whole process again.

While studying the photos back home, I noticed that some of the adults where still in the process of growing their outer two primaries. It surprised me to see this because I would have expected small gulls to have fully finished their primary moult by this time of year. ‘Birds of the Western Palearctic’ and ‘Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America’ both state that the moulting process ends at the end of November. For these individuals though, I guess it will be more like the end of December though, which is quite interesting to be able to observe.

Adult Little Gull, Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011. This individual is moulting to winter (basic) plumage: the outer two primaries P9 and P10 are not yet fully grown.

Adult Little Gull, Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011. This individual is moulting to winter (basic) plumage: the outer two primaries P9 and P10 are not yet fully grown.

Adult Little Gull, 'walking' on the water. Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011

Adult Little Gull, ‘walking’ on the water. Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011

Adult Little Gull,  Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011.

Adult Little Gull, Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011.

First-calendar Little Gull, with adult Little Gull, Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011.

First-calendar Little Gull, with adult Little Gull, Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011.

First-calendar Little Gull,  Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011.

First-calendar Little Gull, Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 9 December 2011.

ID mix-up with Black-legged Kittiwakes

A first-calendar year Little Gull can be easily mistaken for a similar-aged Black-legged Kittiwake:

First-calendar year Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla). North Sea, near the Dutch coast, October 2009.

First-calendar year Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla). North Sea, near the Dutch coast, October 2009.

Note the similarities in plumage: both have a dark W-pattern across the wings, a black tail band and a black bill. Key identifiers though are:

Little Gull

  • Dark cap
  • Dark-centered secondaries, forming a trailing edge

Kittiwake

  • Dark neck band

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