On the Wing


Our Humble Gulls

Sunsets at Herron Island's South Beach never fail to deliver unforgettable light shows. A sky that won’t quit and colors that go from blinding gold to pale orange to pink and violet and finally to a soft purple as the sun dips behind Harstine Island and calls it a day. Magic.

The light show, however, wasn’t the only reason I found myself at South Beach one evening in early June. A couple of nights earlier, I sat on a log at around the same time, watching a pair of gulls perched on a long, arching cedar limb turned driftwood, wondering if that might be a regular spot for them. So I sat—and waited.

I wasn’t disappointed. I heard their familiar cry and what I assume was the same pair came in for a perfect landing on the barnacle-encrusted driftwood, flapping their wings to steady themselves. They would cast sidelong glances at each other from time to time, or move closer and then step away only to move closer again. Courtship time. Then, just before it got dark, they flew off to their roosting place for the night.

Gulls are smart, social, ubiquitous birds, accustomed to the presence of humans, so they are great birds to watch. There are at least 28 species in North America, two of which, the western gull and the glaucous-winged gull, nest and breed in the Pacific Northwest. The glaucous-winged can be found anywhere on the outer coast and Puget Sound, including coastal cities and towns where they often nest on flat roofs. Western gulls are typically seen on the coast and rocky islands offshore.

Both are large birds with white heads and underparts in breeding plumage. The mantles (backs) of glaucous-winged are gray and their wingtips are darker gray, while westerns have dark gray mantles and black wingtips. The eyes of the glaucous-winged are dark brown, while those of westerns are typically dark yellow. The bills of both are yellow with a spot of red on the lower mandible.

Large gulls like the glaucous-winged and the western take four years to reach maturity; smaller gulls can take as little as two years. One example is Bonaparte’s gull, which is fairly common in Western Washington from September to April.

Immature glaucous-winged are grayish-brown and streaked; immature western are streaked and dark brown. Both birds progressively molt out of that pattern and into their adult colors in the fall as they approach maturity.

Much of the joy of birding comes from taking the time to look and listen. Gulls may be tricky to identify, and they keep their nesting and roosting sites to themselves, but their lives invite observation. Whether perched in a row on a railing in a mixed flock of adults and immature birds, soaring or gliding in the updraft created by moving ships, swimming or floating on driftwood in open water, circling in large flocks over landfills, picnic areas or parking lots, or dropping shellfish on rocks to crack them open, their lives are an almost open book that’s worth a read.

I returned to South Beach last month to enjoy a spectacular winter sunset. As I sat still on my familiar log, a pair of gulls landed on the barnacle-encrusted cedar limb. They flapped their wings a bit, and then stood facing out toward the setting sun.

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist and avid birder. He lives on Herron Island.