Thanks to migratory bird act, laughing gulls making a comeback – no joke

The laughing gull, once nearly extinct, is now the most abundant breeding seabird on the U.S. Atlantic Coast. ( Lee Karney / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

We had traveled to Cambridge, MD, to look for late winter waterfowl on the Choptank River, but instead I found myself looking at one of the true harbingers of spring.

No, it wasn’t a robin — many of which overwinter right here in Maryland. My gaze was fixed on a laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla), the raucous seagull that is an integral part of any summer beach scene on the East Coast, and a real springtime migrant.

Thanks to migratory bird act, laughing gulls making a comeback – no joke

A laughing gull chick hides under the shelter of beach plants. (Chelsi Burns/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

We were in the parking lot of the Waterfront Park, and the gulls outnumbered the cars on that blustery March day last year. They were mostly ring-billed gulls, but four laughing gulls were there to announce the imminent arrival of spring.

Laughing gulls start to arrive in Maryland in mid-March annually. The biggest influx occurs in mid-April.

They arrive in the Chesapeake watershed already wearing their distinctive all-black heads.

Laughing gulls mate in late spring, incubate their eggs for three weeks and tend to their young for another month until they fledge. 

By mid– to late-July, a new generation is on its way, and the parents begin to molt into their “winter” plumage, and the black hood gives way to a white head with smudged patches of gray. It takes the brown juveniles three years to reach their adult colors. 

Laughing gulls stretch to about 16 inches from bill tip to tail end. They have long wings — a 40-inch wingspan is common — and stout bills that appears to droop at the end. The wings and back are an even slate gray. Wing tips are jet black.

That black head stands in stark relief with the bright white neck, body and tail. An incomplete white ring encircles each eye, creating white crescents above and below the dark brown eyes. 

The bill is reddish black, with more red visible during mating season. The same coloration is true of the long legs as they, too, fade from reddish to black.

Laughing gulls have established a year-round presence from North Carolina down through the Caribbean and west across the Gulf Coast. On the Pacific, the birds live year-round along the Baja Peninsula and down the Mexican coast.

During the winter, though, migratory laughing gulls will travel far down both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, reaching Brazil on the east and Peru on the west.

Perhaps because the permanent range is already occupied, migratory gulls on the East Coast, like those in the parking lot, tend to leapfrog every year. They winter in Central and South America, then fly up past the Carolinas into the Chesapeake, mid-Atlantic and even New England. Interestingly, laughing gulls don’t migrate up into California each summer. These gulls are East Coasters in the United States.

Laughing gulls are coastal birds. Luckily for us, the “coast” includes the countless miles of the Chesapeake Bay’s shoreline. Although they are rarely far from the Bay or the ocean, they use any number of nearby habitats.

These habitat choices are a reflection of their eating habits. Along beaches, marshes and sandbars, gulls will eat crabs, fish, squid and any scraps they can get from fishing boats. You can also see them behind plows in farm fields, where they will be devouring unearthed grubs and worms, or near restaurant dumpsters, where they eat garbage. They also eat berries, snails, the occasional egg of another bird, and even food off the picnic tables of unsuspecting tourists.

During breeding season, laughing gulls become nocturnal as well as “diurnal,” or daytime, foragers as they seek enough calories to feed themselves and their rapidly growing chicks.

Laughing gulls nest in large colonies. Some of these communal nesting sites can be as big as 25,000 birds. The ones in Maryland are much smaller, maybe a few hundred birds, if that. Specific locations vary annually. In the Chesapeake, no state has more than a handful of such nesting colonies.

Both parents construct a nest of salt marsh vegetation. They produce one brood annually of two to four eggs. Both sexes incubate the eggs and feed the young.

After laughing gulls have completed their parenting duties, the gulls and their young tend to disperse widely in mid– to late-summer. They fly up as far as Maine and inland a bit, following major river systems. 

When cooler weather arrives, all of these wandering birds head south along the coasts until they reach their wintering grounds.

The laughing gull is the most abundant breeding seabird on the U.S. Atlantic Coast. The population exceeds half a million adult birds. That’s a remarkable comeback for a species that was pressed to near extinction by egg and plume hunters at the end of the 19th century — thanks go to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, now celebrating its centennial year.

The four birds in front of me were telling me two stories — one of approaching spring and the other of long-term resilience. 

At a time of national discontent, both of those stories were welcome news. Maybe winter really is almost over.

The views of columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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