When is a seagull not a seagull?
If it’s a bird at the beach, it’s a seagull. Right?
Or is it?
Pick up a bird book and you’ll find that there is no such thing as a “seagull”. But many grey and white, coastal birds are colloquially given this name, and this has the effect of lumping them all in the same basket with the one that took your last chip.
Almost all of these birds are from the family Laridae, a group which globally contains around 100 species of birds called gulls (round and bulky) and terns (sharp and slender). Most birds in this family live in coastal environments, but a number of them spend more time in wetlands and other inland environments, like the Whiskered Tern pictured below, spotted catching insects above a waste water treatment pond in Werribee.
In Port Phillip Bay, we have only three species of gull. We have many species of tern, though only a few are seen regularly and only one is common around the shoreline. With all this grey and white, many people don’t realise that they are looking at more than one type of bird. To make things much more confusing, some of the larger gulls sport a brown plumage until they are several years old, causing people to think that these “seagulls” aren’t seagulls at all.
So let’s have a squiz at the most common “seagulls” in Port Phillip Bay.
The number one most common gull around Melbourne, Geelong and the Bay, the Silver Gull sports bright red legs and bill, with a red ring around a startling white eye. This is the species you are most likely to encounter in built-up environments, flying around a rubbish dump or at the MCG. Incredibly resourceful birds, Silver Gulls have exploded in number as our cities have grown. Though you might find their harassment annoying, it is a mark of how bold, curious and resilient they are – key factors in their success in our human-modified environments. If you want to see Silver Gulls behaving more naturally, head down to The Nobbies on Phillip Island in December to see them raising their fluffy brown chicks amongst the penguins. These chicks will grow into speckly-brown immature birds with brown legs and bills, and black eyes. This colour scheme will gradually transition to the white, grey and red of the adults over a two-year period.
The largest gull in Victoria, and indeed the whole of Australia, is the Pacific Gull. With their thick bills and huge bulk, these gulls are often mistaken for albatrosses. Pacific Gulls are white underneath, with black on top of their wings and back, and a band of black on their white tails. That black band is important, because it helps distinguish them from the near-identical Kelp Gull. The Pacific Gull’s enormous yellow bill is tipped red, as if dipped in paint. Pacific Gulls feed on small animals and decaying matter along the water’s edge of sandy beaches.
The Kelp Gull is a recent coloniser of Australia, establishing itself here in the 1940s via immigrants from elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. It is very similar in appearance to the more numerous Pacific Gull, and, in fact, the Kelp Gull is our second largest true gull. The key differences to look out for are a wholly white tail (no black band) and a red dot on the lower jaw of their yellow bill, rather than the whole tip being red. The young birds of both Kelp and Pacific species are mottled brown and massive, again looking like completely different species from their dapper suited parents. In terms of common-ness, Silver Gulls are abundant and Pacific Gulls are common, whilst Kelp Gulls are rarer to observe around the Bay. So keep an eye out!
Greater Crested Tern
Now for a more elegant “seagull”, the Greater Crested Tern. The sharp bills, wings and silhouettes of terns contrast with the solid mass and rounded head of the gulls, yet all are in the same family. Whereas gulls typically comb beaches, terns hover elegantly above schools of small fish, squid or crustaceans, darting down to snatch them from the surface or plunging into the water if the prey are deeper. The Greater Crested Tern is Australia’s second largest tern and is a common sight on beaches and over the water around the Bay. It is grey above and white below, with a black cap and crest and a long, sharp, greenish-yellow bill. In the non-breeding season, the cap is less defined, more like black sprinkled on white. In the breeding season, the full black cap and crest is more pronounced and can be very expressive.
Bonus seagull! Australasian Gannet
The Australasian Gannet is a very large and impressive bird from the family Sulidae, another family entirely from the gulls and terns. With forward facing eyes that bestow impressive binocular vision, and the ability to dive at around 80 kilometres per hour, these seabirds are the ultimate high-diving predators. With their pointed, black-tipped wings, long, sharp bills and yellow-dusted heads, they can be easily distinguished from the bulkier and rounder gulls, and the much smaller and finer terns. Almost never seen sitting on beaches, you are most likely to see gannets cruising parallel to the shore or in groups, plunging like arrows to catch prey. Fisherpeople look for diving gannets and terns to locate schools of fish. Australasian Gannets are most often seen towards the southern end of the Bay, nearest to their nesting colony on Popes Eye in the Port Phillip Bay Heads Marine National Park.
In some parts of the world there are many local species of tern and gull, making identification pretty difficult. But in Port Phillip Bay, it’s easy to learn the most common “seagulls”. Take a bit of time, and you’ll realise that what you thought was a mass of identical seagulls is actually several different, beautiful and fascinating birds.
Banner image: Am I a seagull? A Silver Gull has an existential crisis. Courtesy of Cathy Cavallo.