When is a Gull Not a Seagull?

Although many people think a gull is a gull. The Bonaparte's and Black-headed gulls are really striking birds that often visit Raritan Bay during winter

Last Sunday was another frostbite morning with air temperatures in the mid-teens at first light.

The day wore on, but the winds blew mightily from the north with gusts up to 35 mph. Even with brilliant sunshine, temperatures had a hard time reaching freezing. It was another winter's day around the Lower New York Bay urban-suburban environment.

Visiting the Morgan Mudflats in South Amboy has become a ritual this winter. With Gateway National Recreation Area's Sandy Hook closed due to ongoing repairs from Hurricane Sandy, all of sudden alternative wildlife sites around the bay have taken on new interest.

The mudflats along Raritan Bay in South Amboy, part of the Raritan Bay Waterfront Park, have not disappointed. It's a local birding site containing a batch of different  coastal habitats including a salt marsh, a nearby forest, and, of course, a mud flat.

In recent visits I have seen Northern Harriers, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted Mergansers, Sanderlings, loons, and even an occasional Great Cormorant perched on one of the far-away channel markers. Acre for acre it's a good place to see a variety of coastal winter wildlife.

Except maybe last Sunday. It was so cold and windy there was nothing to observe. It was all quiet on the bird front. No ducks, no cormorants and no shorebirds. It seemed odd that Raritan Bay appeared empty except for gulls, mostly Ring-billed with a couple of Greater Black-backs. Nothing special, right?

Then I remember the advice I received decades ago from a old baymen who used to love bird-watching while catching fish or crabs. He was one of the few baymen I found in Lower New York Bay who enjoyed bird watching, not sure why.

His name was Bill, and he always told me never to overlook the gulls that hangout in the bay. I should always keep an eye out for a black-headed Gull or a Bonaparte's Gull. Bill was a curious birder and took the time to really look and study the birds. He soon found out that our local gull population is pretty diverse.

Sure enough at the waterfront near at the mouth of Morgan Creek, I spotted the grand prize. I saw a few unusual gulls  that were bit smaller compared to the others. Some had pink legs with black bills, while others had red legs with reddish bills. Both birds had pale gray and white plumage with unusual dark black spots of feathers on their head. These were not our typical gulls or seagulls you see around the bay.

Looking up the strange birds in Peterson's field guide, it seemed I spotted some Bonapart's Gulls and the less common black-headed gulls. These were beautiful delicate birds with elegant wings and sparkling plumage. Unlike our ordinary gulls around the bay, the Bonapart and Black-headed gulls were shy, timid, and really held back when I tried to approach them for a picture or two. Time and again they would nervously fly off into the air when I came too close.

New Jersey Audubon has identified the Morgan mudflats as a "reliable location" in New Jersey to see Bonaparte's gulls, little gulls, and even black-headed gulls. Come winter the birds repeatedly arrive here to the tidewaters of Raritan Bay from their summer breeding territories in northern Canada. Bonaparte' Gulls nest in northern forests near lakes and bogs. Black-headed gulls nest along the coast of Newfoundland in protected bays and shallow estuaries.

Although many people  think that a gull is a gull, they're all the same, this isn't true. Each gull is different. Just like people, each gull has their own likes and dislikes, their own personality. Some are shy, some are brassy. Some are loud, some are serene. Some are edgy, others are relaxed. 

There is actually quite a variety of gull species in Lower New York Bay. In my 25 years spent around here, I have seen 10 different gulls including great black-backed gulls, lesser black-backed gulls, laughing gulls, herring gulls, Bonaparte's gulls, Glaucous gulls, ring-billed gulls, Iceland gulls, Franklin's gulls, and now black-headed gulls. 

When it comes to gulls, most folks will see a large group of birds in a parking lot or near a body of water and simply call them seagulls. There is not, however, one gull in the world with the name "seagull."

This is just an informal and not altogether accurate term used to call any grey or white water bird with webbed feet, usually with black markings somewhere on the wings or head, and with a typically coarse call. When someone calls a bird a "seagull" the term often reminds me of an old joke. What do you call a bird you see around a bay? A bagel (bay-gull), ha! 

While most people think of all gulls as eating garbage, this isn't really true either. It's not an accurate way to describe all gulls. Sure some gulls, such as ring-bills and black-backs have been known to steal food out of a trash can or even right out of your hand at the beach, but many other gulls are not so pushy and seldom scavenge from garbage cans or people.

Bonaparte's gulls feed mostly on insects, marine worms, small fish, including herring, and crustaceans especially on shrimp. Black-headed gulls feed on insects, marine worms, earthworms, small fish, mollusks, and crustaceans. Occasionally carrion. They are versatile in feeding, and perhaps this is why they do so well spending the winter near the busy and murky waters of New York City.

As gulls go, the Bonaparte's and black-headed gulls are really striking. Hours afterward I left the Morgan Mudflats, I went checking every flock of gulls I saw around the bay, but never saw another. The sight of those two birds in South Amboy made my day a bit warmer in the middle of winter. Hopefully they will always be a part of the urban wildlife of Raritan Bay.

For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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