Herring Gull vs. Western Gull
Text by Greg Gillson
Photographs by Phil Pickering.
Copyright © 2000, all rights reserved.

Herring and Western gulls really aren't very similar. Nevertheless, because the northern race of Western Gull is not depicted in many field guides, mistakes are made. Many new gull watchers and visitors from out of state, familiar with the darker southern race of Western Gull or the Lesser Black-backed Gull, identify our pale Western Gulls as Herring Gulls. This is especially a problem on Christmas Bird Counts where beginners are asked to identify every bird they see. [All photos taken at D River, Lincoln Co., Oregon]

Herring Gull, adult winter   Western Gull, adult winter
Herring Gull, adult winter
larger view

January 2000

On the right is a typical adult Western Gull. You can see that the mantle is much darker gray than that of the Herring Gull on the left. Notice how white and unmarked the head and breast of the Western Gull is. Pure Western Gull adults always show unmarked heads; apparent Western Gulls with winter head streaks are likely hybrids with Glaucous-winged Gulls. Pure Western Gulls are rare inland, away from the immediate coastline. The winter Herring Gull on the left is perhaps less heavily mottled on the head and breast than is typical for early winter, but more typical for March.

Both of these large gulls have flat foreheads. The bill of Herring Gull is stout, but rather uniform in thickness throughout its length. The bill of Western Gull is massive, with a pronounced hook. The gonys (on the lower mandible where the red spot is) is swollen, and angles up sharply to the bill tip. The bill of Western is colored orangish ("school bus yellow") while the Herring Gull's bill is straw-colored. (The Herring Gull on the left shows a pinkish tinge to the bill, perhaps indicating this is a fourth-winter bird. Gulls live 25 years or longer.)

Western Gull, adult winter
larger view

February 2000
    Western Gull, adult in flight
 

The Western Gull in flight is quite unique. Not only are the undersides of the black primary tips dark, but the entire undersides of the flight feathers on the primaries and secondaries are dark gray. This creates a dark trailing edge on the wing which is visible at a great distance, such as birds out over the sea. In contrast, the underwing of Herring Gull is quite white with black under primary tips which mirror the black on the upper wing.


Western Gull, adult winter
larger view

March 2000
Herring Gull, first-winter   Western Gull, first-winter
Herring Gull, first-winter
larger view

November 1999

First-winter Western Gulls are big and dark. They are the darkest gull on the beach in winter. The primaries and secondaries (usually not visible on the folded wing, but this bird is holding its wing so that they are exposed) are blackish, as is the tail. The wing coverts have dark brown centers and brown edges. The head, breast, and belly are evenly brown. The bill is large, heavy, and black.

In contrast, the first-winter Herring Gull is much paler, especially about the head. The wing coverts are brown, but have whitish edges and internal bars. By late winter the base of the bill usually becomes pale pinkish.


Western Gull, first-winter
larger view

February 2000
Herring Gull, second-winter   Western Gull, second winter
Herring Gull, second-winter
larger view

November 1999

By the second winter the eye of Herring Gull has turned pale. The longish bill is pink with a black tip. The massive bill of the Western Gull is still mostly black. The backs of both birds have turned adult gray; the gray back of Herring is much paler than the dark gray back on the Western Gull.


Western Gull, second-winter
larger view

February 2000
Herring Gull, Third-winter   Western Gull, Third-winter
Herring Gull, third-winter
larger view

February 2000

Third-winter gulls look quite similar to adults with the following exceptions. The bill usually is not yellow with a red gonys spot. Rather, it is pinkish with black tip. The body plumage is more mottled on the head and breast. The tail is mostly white with a few remnant of a smudged tail band. The wings lack the large white mirrors and apical spots or, if present, they are much smaller than in adult winter plumage.


Western Gull, third-winter
larger view

February 2000


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