Steve with Wandering Albatross

Identifying gulls is often a frustrating experience, where do you suggest young birders start in learning to better ID gulls? What are the steps you take to arrive at a positive identification?

The principles to identifying gulls are basically the same as with any other group of birds.

First, keep things manageable when you start out. Don’t waste time on distant birds you can’t see well. And, with gulls, start with adults (ignore immatures).


Watch them after you identify them to species, compare the bird to the book and see how it might differ. Start to appreciate individual variation. Makes notes on what you find most helpful for identifying a species, and how much variation you see. When do Ring-billed Gulls get their dusky head flecking? Do the bill and legs become duller and paler at this same time, or earlier, or later? How often do you see Herring Gulls with white mirrors only on the outermost primary rather than on the outer two primaries? How often do you see Herring Gulls with yellowish tones to their legs? Does this only happen at a certain time of year?


After you feel comfortable with adults, move on to first-year birds (and in big gulls learn how to tell them from second-year birds, which isn’t always easy) but be prepared to not identify every one you see. If you can’t put a name on a bird, don’t worry. Ignore it and move on to another bird. As your frame of reference grows, so will your ability to identify more birds. Don’t worry about second-year and third-year large gulls till you are happy with adults and first-year birds. As with any other birding, learn from others but also learn to question them. We all make mistakes. If you think you’re right and somebody else is wrong, then you both have a great opportunity to learn about how differences of opinion are formed, and to learn from your mistakes or from those of others.


The steps I take to arrive at a positive gull identification are the same as anyone else, but with gulls the more time you have spent watching them in the field the easier it will be to identify them. Experience is really useful with gulls, and it only comes with time in the field. There aren’t any magic short-cuts, but how you start out watching gulls (see above) can make a big difference to how well you learn them. Too many people jump in and try to identify everything right away, they get distracted (easy to do), and then get confused because they haven’t taken the time to learn the basics.


Build up you own knowledge base at your own pace. And accept “defeat” with some birds. I can go out almost any day in the winter and see gulls I can’t positively identify. Usually they’re hybrids of some kind, which is only a common problem in the West. It’s good and humbling to watch a bird at point-blank range, take as many photos as you like, and still not know what it is! Just relax, accept it, and let it go.