"Typical" Gulls

Identification Keys and Tips

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NOTE:  Simply put, one web page cannot adequately portray the variety in plumages that occur between these species.  Most take 3 or 4 seasons to reach adult plumage, with juvenile plumage changing each year.  Some species are very similar, to the point that there are numerous debates as to which are individual species, which species should be lumped, etc.   To make matters even more confusing, several species of gulls hybridize, producing intermediate offspring with potentially baffling characteristics. 

With that said...the primary distinguishing features of adult birds are shown below, with some remarks on juvenile birds where appropriate.  10 species are listed here, but only a handful are regularly found in the state.  The Missouri River, it's large reservoirs, and particularly the open water below Missouri River dams in the winter can attract significant numbers of gulls, including the rarities shown on this page.  The list of gull species recorded in the state has even expanded in recent years, with a Glaucous-winged Gull recently added to the state list, and even more exciting, an Ivory Gull that spent a few weeks near Oahe Dam near Pierre.  Scanning the large flocks of gulls that are often found along the Missouri River may be tedious, but a patient birder may well be rewarded with a very rare species for the interior of the continent.
Ring-billed Gull   California Gull
Larus delawarensis   Larus californicus

Ring-billed Gull - Larus delawarensis

 

California Gull - Larus californicus

Length: 17-18 inches   Length: 20-22 inches
Wingspan: 48 inches Wingspan: 54 inches
Bill: Yellow with black ring.  First year birds have pinkish bill with black tip.  Bill: Yellow, with black and red spots on lower bill.  Juvenile birds bills' are similar to juvenile Ring-billed Gulls, red gape (breeding)
Legs and Feet: Yellow  Legs and Feet: Greenish-Yellow.   
Mantle: Quite pale  Mantle: Darker gray than Ring-billed or Herring Gull. 
Wings:  Prominent black wing tips, with white spot near end. Wings: Large amount of black on outer primaries, with white wing tips.   
Head/Eye: Pale iris, thin red orbital ring in breeding plumage  Head/Eye: Dark iris, thin red orbital ring (breeding), streaking on non-breeding adult mostly on nape. 
South Dakota Status: Overall, generally the most common of the species listed on this page.  Found in any season near water, but in winter (as with other gulls in the state), is typically found below the Missouri River dams where open water exists. South Dakota Status: Breeds in small numbers in the northeast and northwest part of the state.  Rare migrant and summer visitor elsewhere in the state.
Ring-billed Gull - Range Map  California Gull - Range Map 
   
Herring Gull Thayer's Gull
Larus argentatus Larus thayeri

Herring Gull - Larus argentatus

Thayer's Gull - Larus thayeri

Length: 24-26 inches Length: 22-24 inches
Wingspan: 56-60 inches Wingspan: 54-56 inches
Bill: Yellow with red spot on lower bill, juveniles have similar bill to California and Ring-billed Gulls, yellow gape (breeding) Bill: Yellow wing red spot on lower bill, juveniles similar to other Larus juveniles. 
Legs and Feet: Pink  Legs and Feet: Dark pink legs, lighter on juveniles 
Mantle: Relatively pale gray, comparable to Ring-billed Gull, lighter than California Gull.  Mantle: Mantle similar to Herring Gull
Wings:  Dark wingtips, but not as prominent as California, not as contrasting and strong as Ring-billed. Wings: Mostly white on underside of wingtips, upperside black is primarily only on outer webs of the primaries 
Head/Eye:  Pale iris, orangish orbital ring (breeding) Head/Eye: Most have a dark iris 
South Dakota Status:  Locally common migrant.  Uncommon winter resident along the Missouri River, most often below dams where open water exists. South Dakota Status: Rare migrant and winter visitor, mostly along Missouri River below dams. Note bird above is likely 2nd-winter Thayer's, but it's a possible Glaucous hybrid.
Herring Gull - Range Map  Thayer's Gull - Range Map 
   
Mew Gull Black-legged Kittiwake
Larus canus Rissa tridactyla

Mew Gull - Larus canus

Black-legged Kittiwake - Rissa tridactyla

Length: 16-17 inches Length: 16 inches 
Wingspan: 42-44 inches Wingspan: 36 inches 
Bill: Adults have distinctive yellow bill without spots, relatively thin compared to other Larus.  Bill: Yellow bill without markings, although first-year birds have black bill
Legs and Feet: Yellow (pink in first-year birds).  Legs and Feet: Distinctive black legs and feet 
Mantle: Slightly darker mantle than Ring-billed Gull Mantle: Similar in shade to Ring-billed. 
Wings:  Limited black in wingtips compared to Ring-billed or California, with large white spots.  Wings: Pale primaries contrast with rest of wing, small black wingtip without white spots. 
Head/Eye: Dark iris, red-orbital ring in breeding (see above photo). Head/Eye: Dark iris, red-orbital ring (breeding), "ear spot" on non-breeding adults (and juveniles)
South Dakota Status: Rare visitor to South Dakota, most often along Missouri River below dams. South Dakota Status: Rare visitor to South Dakota 
Mew Gull - Range Map  Black-legged Kittiwake - Range Map 
   
Iceland Gull Glaucous Gull
Larus glaucoides Larus hyperboreus

Iceland Gull - Larus glaucoides

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

Length: 22 inches  Length:  26-28 inches (noticeably larger than most Larus)
Wingspan: 54 inches  Wingspan: 60 inches
Bill: Yellow bill with red spot on lower bill, juveniles have similar bill to other Larus juveniles Bill: Yellow bill with red spot on lower bill.  Longer and more powerful looking bill than other Larus here. 
Legs and Feet: Pink  Legs and Feet: Pink 
Mantle: Pale, noticeably so against similar Thayer's Gull  Mantle: Very pale mantle 
Wings: Very pale, with very little, if any, black or dark markings on primaries.  Wings: Very pale at all ages, no markings in white wingtips
Head/Eye: Pale yellow iris, purplish-red orbital ring (breeding).  Limited streaking in non-breeding adults compared to many Larus gulls.  Head/Eye: Clear yellow iris, bright yellow orbital ring (breeding).  Head appears flatter, less rounded than Iceland (see photos above). 
South Dakota Status: Very rare visitor to the state South Dakota Status: Uncommon migrant and winter visitor, primarily along Missouri River and its reservoirs. 
Iceland Gull - Range Map  Glaucous Gull - Range Map 
   
Glaucous-winged Gull Lesser Black-backed Gull
 Larus glaucescens Larus fuscus

Glaucous-winged Gull - Larus glaucescens

Lesser Black-backed Gull - Larus fuscus

Length: 26 inches  Length: 20-22 inches 
Wingspan: 58 inches  Wingspan: 54 inches 
Bill: Typically large bill, red spot on lower mandible, pinkish gape  Bill: Relatively small yellow bill, red mark on lower bill (adult) 
Legs and Feet: Pink Legs and Feet: Yellow 
Mantle: Relatively pale gray mantle Mantle: Dark Gray, very noticeable compared to all other gulls on this page (other than Great Black-backed Gull) 
Wings: Gray wingtips, similar in color to mantle, with white subterminal spots Wings: Dark gray upperwing with extensive black on primaries, small white spot towards wingtip.
Head/Eye: Usually a dark iris, but some individuals have a dirty-yellow iris Head/Eye: Clear yellow iris, thin red orbital ring (breeding), head looks proportionately small compared to other Larus 
South Dakota Status: Rare migrant, primarily in late fall and early winter South Dakota Status: Rare migrant, primarily in late fall and early winter
Glaucous-winged Gull - Range Map  Lesser Black-backed Gull - Range Map 
   
Great Black-backed Gull   
Larus marinus  

Great Black-backed Gull - Larus marinus

 
Length: 30 inches   
Wingspan: 65 inches   
Bill: Very large and heavy yellow bill with red spot on lower bill.   
Legs and Feet: Pale pink   
Mantle: Very dark mantle, darker than all other Larus on this page   
Wings: Dark upperwings, black on primaries with white spots on wing tips.   
Head/Eye: Very large head and powerful bill, variable eye, but usually dirty yellow iris, red orbital ring (breeding).   
South Dakota Status: Extremely rare visitor to the state. 
 
Greater Black-backed Gull - Range Map   

 

Ring-billed Gull

 

California Gull

Additional Photos Additional Photos
Ring-billed Gull - Larus delawarensis Ring-billed Gull - Larus delawarensis Ring-billed Gull - Larus delawarensis   California Gull - Larus californicus California Gull - Larus californicus   
Ring-billed Gull - Larus delawarensis Ring-billed Gull - Larus delawarensis Ring-billed Gull - Larus delawarensis        

Herring Gull

 

Thayer's Gull

Additional Photos Additional Photos
Herring Gull - Larus argentatus Herring Gull - Larus argentatus Herring Gull - Larus argentatus Thayer's Gull - Larus thayeri Thayer's Gull - Larus thayeri Thayer's Gull - Larus thayeri
Mew Gull   Black-legged Kittiwake
Additional Photos   Additional Photos
Mew Gull - Larus canus Mew Gull - Larus canus Mew Gull - Larus canus   Black-legged Kittiwake - Rissa tridactyla Black-legged Kittiwake - Rissa tridactyla Black-legged Kittiwake - Rissa tridactyla
Mew Gull - Larus canus Black-legged Kittiwake - Rissa tridactyla Black-legged Kittiwake - Rissa tridactyla Black-legged Kittiwake - Rissa tridactyla
Glaucous-winged Gull Great Black-backed Gull
Additional Photos    
Glaucous-winged Gull - Larus glaucescens Glaucous-winged Gull - Larus glaucescens Glaucous-winged Gull - Larus glaucescens   Great Black-backed Gull - Larus marinus  Great Black-backed Gull - Larus marinus  Great Black-backed Gull - Larus marinus 
Glaucous-winged Gull - Larus glaucescens Glaucous-winged Gull - Larus glaucescens Glaucous-winged Gull - Larus glaucescens   Great Black-backed Gull - Larus marinus     
             

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