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It’s In Your Nature: A bit about adult bird plumage

After recently making a presentation to the Palmerton Camera Club, I was asked about the plumage of snow geese. While answering that question I referred to the changing plumage of our gulls.

Believe it or not, gulls, unlike most songbirds of which we are most familiar, do not get their adult plumage until they are 2, 3, or 4 years old. They are often described as a 2-, 3-, or 4-year gull.

A bluebird, robin, scarlet tanager, or rose-breasted grosbeak will generally molt its feathers at least twice a year. A male scarlet tanager will begin losing its brilliant red plumage in late summer to become a rather plain green bird with black wings.

But by the next March, as it prepares for its trip north again, it transforms into the beauty we know.

Back to gulls. March is the time you might see more gulls visiting our region. “Ring bills” correctly called ring-billed gulls, are three-year gulls. They don’t acquire their adult plumage until the third year of their lives. They indeed have a characteristic black ring on the beak/bill. They fly over a reservoir looking for dead or dying fish and sometimes, in spring when a beach area is closed, small flocks will rest there. These are also the gulls that frequent the Lehigh Valley area’s mall parking lots. This past January, while waiting in the parking lot on a mall off MacArthur Road, I watched at least three dozen gulls circle, land and drink from some puddles formed there from the melting snow.

I guess they’ve learned that “humans” are not so neat and discarded French fries or remains of a fast-food meal are easy pickings on these blacktop beaches.

Less frequently seen here and less common along the East Coast are herring gulls. They are the largest gull you would most likely encounter here. Herring gulls are 8 inches larger than the ring-billed gulls at 25 inches in size. Depending on their age, the tip of the bill may be black and adults have a distinctive orange spot on the bill.

If you travel anywhere near huge landfills, herring gulls are usually the gulls (sometimes hundreds of them) that are circling over and feeding there. Herring gulls are four-year gulls.

My favorite gulls to watch, but less often seen, are Bonaparte’s gulls. These 12-inch gulls are regular but uncommon visitors to Beltzville Lake beginning about this time of the year. They like to rest on the water, then take off in a small flock looking for food which they neatly pick off the surface without landing. Adults have an all-black head and black bill. They are two-year gulls, reaching adult plumage in their second year.

Anyone who has vacationed at the Jersey or Maryland Shore has seen and heard the “boardwalk gulls” or correctly known as laughing gulls. Their cackling calls are quite loud. They are probably the most numerous gulls along the East Coast.

I have never seen one in the Times News region probably because they never stray far from the coastline. Keep your eyes peeled in the next few weeks for some of our area’s gulls. Get out there.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: True/False: No gulls nest in Carbon County.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Besides wood ducks, hooded mergansers also nest high up in tree cavities.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

An adult herring gull lacks the black band found on the upper and lower bills of the ring-billed gull. This is the largest gull regularly seen in our region. BARRY REED PHOTOS
Many large gull species have a bright orange spot on the lower bill. This is the “target” for nestling gulls. They peck at that bill spot of the adult returning with food, causing the parent bird to “regurgitate” food directly into the hungry mouths of the young.
I photographed this Bonaparte's gull on the beach at Beltzville two years ago in April. It is nearly an adult with the conspicuous black spot on its head. In a month or two the head will be all black feathers.
A few years ago heavy rains closed the boat launch area of Beltzville Lake and many gulls and shorebirds “showed up.” Here two adult ring-billed gulls flank a caspian tern in a soggy parking lot. Note the characteristic bands on both bills leading to their name.
Laughing gulls dominate the beaches and boardwalk area of our popular shore points. Unlike herring, ring-billed, or Bonaparte's gulls, they seldom stray far from the ocean, bays, or shore towns.