As the bright yellow tops of goldenrod begin to fade in fields, and the foliage of the red maple increasingly begins its change to a bright reddish-orange, gulls engage in a nomadic phase of their life and can often be seen visiting a variety of settings in Northern New York.
Two species of “seagulls” are notable seasonal components of upstate fauna; however, the slightly smaller ring-billed gull is far more common and likely to be observed than the nearly identically colored herring gull.
As its name implies, the ring-billed gull is characterized by a black band near the tip of its yellowish bill. While adult birds have a white body and gray wings tipped with black, the immature birds support a more mottled pattern of white, brown and gray. Individuals that hatched this past spring typically have more brown over their body and a black band near the end of their tail.
Yearlings support plumage that is less mottled, but these immature birds still can be easily distinguished from the adults. A ring-billed gull takes three years to reach adulthood, which causes a flock of these birds to be composed of individuals with a variety of different colored plumage.
During the spring and the early summer, adult ring-bills concentrate much of their time around their nesting colony. Such breeding sites are located on remote islands in the St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain, and Lake Ontario, and typically are populated by thousands of pairs of adult bird.
As soon as the young develop the ability to fly during summer, these highly vocal birds begin to abandon the colony. While many remain in the general vicinity of the massive bodies of water that border Northern New York, some individuals venture well inland. Larger lakes are especially inviting to gulls, as such sizable bodies of water contain an abundance of the small fish on which these webbed-footed creatures strongly prefer to dine.
Large rocks that jut above the surface and are a fair distance from the shore, frequently serve the ring-billed gull as a resting site. There the birds can relax in relative safety while scanning the surface for any signs of disturbance that would indicate that a fish has strayed near the surface and is within striking range. Unlike the loon, merganser, and kingfisher, the ring-billed gull does not dive beneath the surface to capture small fish; rather it only scoops up individuals that have come directly to the surface.
Large often mowed fields, such as golf course fairways, school athletic complexes, and recreational areas within parks are additional settings that attract ring-billed gulls after they have dispersed from their breeding colony. In these grassy areas, gulls forage for the rich assortment of crickets, worms, grasshoppers, beetles and other similar soil invertebrates that occur in such lawn settings. The ring-bill also consumes the seeds of various grasses and weeds that are large enough to be of nutritional value to this skilled flier.
Gulls are also known to frequent places along lake shores where people regularly visit. Beaches and boat launches are both popular “hangouts” for gulls during the late summer and first half of autumn. These perceptive scavengers are quick to learn where scraps of food regularly fall to the ground. Like crows, the gulls are extremely effective in ridding public sites of the morsels of edible matter that were inadvertently dropped. Gulls also are skilled at raiding trash barrels that are filled to the brim, or overflowing with garbage. As a general rule, “where there is garbage, there are gulls”, is particularly true from mid summer through mid autumn, as these birds effectively scour the region for places in which it can collect discarded food items.
As beaches become deserted by people for longer periods of time following Labor Day, fewer food scraps become available, and eventually these locations are passed over by gulls as they fly across the area. In a similar manner, as the availability of soil invertebrates eventually diminishes when colder weather becomes the rule rather than the exception, gulls are forced to eventually abandon the region.
Migration south occurs when individual birds are no longer able to satisfy their appetite. A few resourceful individuals linger well into November, yet even these birds eventually lose the ability to acquire enough food to generate the warmth needed for survival. Some birds that occur along the shore of Lake Champlain or the St. Lawrence may continue to remain into December, yet the vast majority of gulls depart the region prior to Veteran’s Day for more favorable locations to our south.
The ring-billed gull is a common visitor as summer wanes and may regularly be seen on school athletic fields when you are watching a high school soccer or football game. Although labeled a “seagull,” many ring-bills never encounter salt water during the course of their life.
This species is far more at home around bodies of fresh water, which is why it is at home in many locations throughout Northern New York.