Gulls of Minnesota (14 Species to Know)

Gulls are a type of bird that prove to be controversial in the birding community. Some people despise them for how difficult they can be to identify, while others love them for the same reason.

Minnesota is home to a wide variety of gull species. With Lake Superior to the Northeast as well as the Mississippi River serving as the states Eastern border, many gulls are drawn to the shores of the land of 10,000 lakes. Here are all of the expected gulls that can be found in Minnesota along with some that are rare visitors. This article also includes identification tips and information on where to find them.

Herring Gull

Herring Gull
Identification

Herring Gulls are large birds with a white body and head, gray wings, black wing tips, a thick yellow bill, and pink legs. Adult Herring Gulls have a yellow eye while juveniles have a dark colored eye as well as a dark colored bill. Sometimes, sub-adult Herring Gulls will have a mostly yellow bill with black near the tip, making them similar in coloration to a Ring-billed Gull. Juvenile Herring Gulls are darker in color ranging from dark tan, to brown, to gray depending on their cycle.

Range

Herring Gulls are extremely wide spread across the United States. They winter in the Southeastern United States, along the Mississippi River, the Gulf Coast, the East Coast, and the West Coast along the oceans. They can be found year round along the Great Lakes, the Northeastern U.S. and Southeastern Alaska. During spring they migrate through the Great Plains and Western States to get to their breeding grounds in Canada and Central Alaska.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Herring Gulls feed on many different types of food and have a reputation of eating almost anything including trash, carrion, eggs, and even smaller birds. The majority of their diet however consists of aquatic creatures including fish, mussels, and other invertebrates. Herring Gulls are extremely opportunistic and as a result have an extremely varied diet and are therefore able thrive in wide variety of habitats.

Where to Find this Bird

Herring Gulls are one of the most abundant gull species in the state, especially in winter. Traveling to the Lake Superior coastline in winter will all but guarantee a sighting of this particular species. In fact, a trip to Lake Superior at any time of year will most likely yield numerous encounters with Herring Gulls. For a more eclectic birding experience, searching out a landfill is also an easy way to find this species.

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull
Identification

Ring-billed Gulls can be identified by their white head and body, gray wings, black wing tips, yellow legs, and yellow bill with a black “ring” around it. Nonbreeding adults look mostly the same as breeding adults but with tan streaking on the head and neck.

Juvenile Ring-billed Gulls are white as a base color with brown and tan mottling. Their bills are pinkish as opposed to yellow and instead of a ring, they have a dark tip of the bill, making them bi-colored.

Range

Ring-billed Gulls are extremely widespread across the United States. They winter in the southern half of the country and migrate north to the Northern half of the country and into Canada, the Great Lakes states, and the Western States to breed. Some Ring-billed Gulls stick around the whole year near the Great Lakes.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Ring-billed Gulls are not picky about what they eat and will feed on fish, insects, worms, trash, and food given to them by people. Like other gulls they often forage near the water but this species also forages in open fields nowhere near water.

Where to Find this Bird

Ring-billed Gulls are extremely common and easy to find provided it is the right time of the year. In southern states, the winter will be the best time to see this species, and in northern states the summer will be the best. Around the Great Lakes, this species is typically found year round on the coasts. During summer, look for Ring-billed Gulls in parking lots and soaring overhead surveying for easy to forage food.

Bonaparte’s Gull

Nonbreeding plumage Bonaparte’s Gull (Alan Schmierer Photo)
Breeding plumage Bonaparte’s Gull (Rita Wiskowski Photo)
Identification

The Bonaparte’s Gull is a small gull species with a very thin, petit bill. They have a white body, gray wings, black wing tips, and reddish pink legs. In breeding plumage, Bonaparte’s Gulls have a black head with white eye crescents, while in nonbreeding plumage they have a white head with a black spot behind their eyes and light pink legs.

Range

Bonaparte’s Gulls winter in much of the southern United States in addition to the Bahamas, Cuba, and Northeastern Mexico. They also winter along the Northwestern coast of Mexico all the way up to the coast of Washington in the West and all the way up to Maine in the East. In spring, this species makes its way North over the United States and ends up in Canada and Alaska where they nest.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Bonaparte’s Gulls eat a variety of different food items with most of their diet being found in or around water. Some of the things they eat include small fish and medium sized insects in addition to surprisingly small creatures such as zooplankton and tiny invertebrates. These sleek gulls often forage in flocks and dip their bills in the water to catch prey on the fly. They will also forage in both dry and flooded fields and pick through the shallow water or sub-straight.

Where to Find this Bird

Bonaparte’s Gulls move through the state starting in the second to last week in March when they start showing up in the lower part of Minnesota. Bonaparte’s Gull numbers peak in mid April where they can be found in flooded fields and lake shores where they often congregate in large groups. In flight, Bonaparte’s gulls are sleek and acrobatic, looking tern-like as they maneuver through the air.

Glaucous Gull

Alan Schmierer Photo
Susan Young Photo
Identification

Glaucous Gulls are unique because they are one of the few gulls species that does not have black wing tips but rather white. They are the second largest gull species in the world and in some categories may outclass the larger Great Black-backed Gull such as weight. Adult breeding plumage Glaucous Gulls are very clean looking birds with a white head, white underside, gray wings, a yellow bill, and pink legs.

In nonbreeding plumage Glaucous Gulls look very similar to breeding plumage birds but have brownish streaking on their neck and head.

Juvenile Glaucous Gulls are even paler than the adults with a creamy white color covering their bodies with light brown patterning. Second winter Gloucaous Gulls can show as almost entirely white with very little brown mottling. Sub adult birds will have a pink colored bill with darker brown or black on the tip of it, making it bi-colored.

Range

Glaucous Gulls are very at home in the Arctic, with the most sightings of them taking place in Greenland, Iceland, Northern Europe, Northern Canada, and Alaska. In winter they travel south spending time in the Northeastern United States, the Northern Pacific Coast, and the Great Lakes. They can also be found inland from large bodies of water from time to time.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Glaucous Gulls are extremely opportunistic feeders. With their large size, they can eat a wide variety of food including fish, aquatic invertebrates, eggs, other birds, carrion, and trash. In the northern part of their range Glaucous Gulls have been known to feed on the remains of polar bear kills a are also recorded as eating the chicks (and also adults) of many different sea dwelling bird species.

Where to Find this Bird

Glaucous Gulls are at home near large bodies of water such as ocean coastlines and the Great Lakes. They can be found loafing on ice or beaches with other species in the winter months (which are the best times to see these large arctic gulls). The coasts aren’t the only places to see Glaucous Gulls however as they can also be seen in inland lakes and landfills.

Great Black-backed Gull (Uncommon)

Great Black-backed Gull
Identification

The Great Black-backed Gull is the largest gull species in the world and even when compared with other large species such as Glaucous and Herring Gulls look noticeably larger. They have a white head, tail, and underside with a namesake black back as well as black wings and black primary feathers. Great Black-backed Gulls have a robust yellow bill and light pink legs.

Young Great Black-backed Gulls look similar to adults but with dark streaking on the head and underside as well as more of a checkered black and white pattern on the wings as opposed to the solid dark gray or black of an adult. Additionally, Great Black-backed Gulls have dark colored bills as opposed to the bright yellow of adults, but they do still have pink legs.

Range

Great Black-backed gulls are birds of the Atlantic Coasts. They can be found in many northwestern European countries as well as Iceland, Greenland, Eastern Canada, and the Eastern United States. In the U.S. Great Black-backed Gulls are seen most often in winter and typically move out of the continental U.S. during summer although there are some places along the Atlantic Coast where they are found year round.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Simply speaking, Great Black-backed Gulls will eat anything they can fit in their most including trash, crabs, fish, eggs, carrion, and other birds. They have been known to steal food from other species and eat the chicks of other sea dwelling birds.

Where to Find this Bird

Great Black-backed Gulls are most common in winter when they can be seen loafing on docks, beaches, and ice on the Great Lakes. They can also be seen frequently at landfills. In all of these places they stand out due to their impressive size.

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Uncommon)

Lesser black-backed Gull (Ott Rebane Image)
Identification

Lesser Black-backed Gulls can be identified by their white head and body, dark gray to black wings, yellow bill, yellow legs, and dark primary feathers. They look similar in appearance to Great Black-backed Gulls but will be smaller overall and have yellow legs as opposed to the pink legs of the Great Black-backed Gull.

Juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gulls will be pale white or cream with black mottling on their body, head and neck. They have black bills when young and beginning of a dark back forming will typically be evident.

Range

The Range of the Lesser Black-backed Gull spans several continents including Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and South America. Most of the sightings of this species occur in Western Europe in addition to many sightings occurring in Northern Canada and the United States. In the U.S. Lesser Black-backed Gulls winter in the Eastern half of the country with the most individuals being found near the Atlantic Ocean, but many other sightings occurring inland as well as near the Great Lakes.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Lesser Black-backed Gulls eat almost anything ranging from fish, to crustaceans, to carrion, to plant matter. Like most other large North American Gull species, Lesser Black-backed Gulls take advantage of human habitation by eating scraps of food and garbage left by humans. They will forage in the water on the fly or walk along beaches, even flipping over rocks and sticks in hopes of finding a meal.

Where to Find this Bird

Lesser Black-backed Gulls are most commonly seen in winter, and are a fairly normal sight along the Atlantic Ocean all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to Maine. They can also be found near the Great Lakes in winter where they flock with other Northern Gull species such as Great Black-backed and Glaucous Gulls.

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull
Identification

Out of all The North American Gull species, Iceland Gulls are probably the most vexing when it comes to identification. This species consists of what was once two separate species; the Iceland Gull and the Thayer’s Gull. The “Iceland” type Iceland Gull is fairly easy to identify as they have gray wings and back, white head and underside, a yellow bill, and white wing tips. They are smaller and more dainty looking than Glaucous Gulls but clearly discernible from Herring Gulls due to the white primary feathers on the wings. The trouble comes mostly from the “Thayer’s” type Iceland Gulls which can be widely variable in appearance and be extremely close in appearance to Herring Gulls. Thayer’s Iceland Gulls are slightly smaller than Herring Gulls and have a thinner bill. The diagnostic white wing tips of other Iceland Gulls are not present in Thayer’s types but instead are replaced by dark wing tips with lighter undersides of the wing tips, a feature that can be very difficult to see. If unsure about the identification about a Thayer’s type Iceland Gulls, consulting an expert on the individual bird in question is the best choice.

Juvenile Iceland type Iceland Gulls have a white base color with dark mottling while juvenile Thayer’s type Iceland Gulls may be darker overall and will typically have dark wing tips.

Range

Iceland Gulls spend the summer in the Arctic Circle in Northern Canada, Iceland, and Greenland. In winter they move south into Northwestern Europe and the Northeastern United States. This species also shows up along the Great Lakes in winter.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Iceland Gulls eat mostly fish but will also eat other marine creatures such as crustaceans, carrion, zooplankton, and trash. Like other gull species, they are extremely opportunistic and will eat eggs and young of other birds as well as plant matter.

Where to Find this Bird

Iceland Gulls are most easy to find in winter in the United States where they live on ocean shores and large inland lakes. In the Midwest, look for these elegant looking gulls on the Great Lakes. Another less glamorous place to find them is landfills where they can be found in winter along with many other gull species.

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rare)

Black-legged Kittiwake (Nonbreeding) (Photo by Bill Grossmeyer)
Black-legged Kittiwake with Chicks (Robin Corcoran Photo)
Identification

Adult breeding plumage Black-legged Kittiwake’s have a white body and head with gray wings. They have black wing tips, a slightly curved yellow bill, and namesake black legs. Overall ,the Black-legged Kittiwake is a relatively small gull species.

In nonbreeding plumage adults look almost the same as those in breeding plumage but with black on the back of their head.

Immature Black-legged Kittiwake’s have the same white body and gray wings but have a few extra markings that adults don’t have. Juveniles will show a black spot on their head, a white stripe on their neck, and a black “M” marking on their wings that looks like a black stripe when their wings are folded. Juvenile Black-legged kittiwakes also differ from adults by having a black bill as opposed to yellow.

Range

Black-legged Kittiwakes are birds of ocean coastlines. They can be found along the ocean in Western Europe, Iceland, Greenland, the Eastern United States, Eastern Canada, the Pacific coast of the United States, Alaska, and the Eastern parts of Russia and Japan. Black-legged Kittiwakes are most commonly seen in the United States in winter but can be found in Alaska in summer, and also turn up as rarities in inland states.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Black-legged Kittiwake’s diet largely consists of small fish in addition to other small marine creatures like jellyfish, zooplankton, and squid. This species has been known to feed near whales and boats where they they can be seen looking for scraps left behind. It’s worth noting that Black-legged Kittiwakes are not known for visiting landfills like many other North American Gull species are.

Where to Find this Bird

Black-legged Kittiwakes are rare in most inland states in the U.S. They are easier to find along the oceans but juveniles will turn up from time to time in the Great Lakes and other bodies of water. Look for a bird that looks somewhat like a non-breeding Bonaparte’s Gull or Little Gull but with the extra black markings.

Laughing Gull (Rare)

Nonbreeding Laughing Gull (Alan Schmierer Photo)
Laughing Gull
Identification

Laughing Gulls are medium sized gulls with a whit underside, gray wings, dark wing tips and a relatively large, deep red, slightly curved bill. In adult breeding plumage this species has a black head with thin white eye crescents.

In nonbreeding plumage, Laughing Gulls look similar but have a darker bill, a white head, and only a small patch of black on their head.

This species can be difficult to distinguish from Franklin’s Gulls but can be done with a little knowledge about what ID features to look at. For more information on this, you can check out our post titled Franklin’s Gulls vs. Laughing Gull. You can also watch our video about the topic below.

Range

Laughing Gulls winter in Northern South America, Central America, Mexico, and some of the Southern states in the United States such as Florida. While many Laughing Gulls reside on the Southeastern Coasts of the United States year round in addition to Cuba and the Bahamas, others migrate north during breeding season ending up in the Northeastern United States and the Great Lakes.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Laughing Gulls diet’s consist of many different food items including invertebrates, fish, squid, small fruits, carrion, and scraps left by people. They can be seen congregating in places with many humans waiting for free handouts or discarded food.

Where to Find this Bird

Laughing Gulls are extremely common along the Atlantic Coast of the United States and can be seen in high numbers on public beaches, often associating with other species of gulls and terns. In the Midwest, this species shows up around the Great Lakes in late spring and while rare, can typically be picked out from groups of gulls.

Franklin’s Gull

Nonbreeding Franklin’s Gull (Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren Photo – CC by 2.0)
Breeding Franklin’s Gull
Identification

Breeding plumage Franklin’s Gulls have a white neck and underside, gray back and wings, a black hood, and deep red bill. Some of the extra identification features about them to note are the large white spots on their folded black primary feathers, their large white eye crescents, and sometimes a pink wash on their chest and underside (other gull species can show this pink wash as well).

Nonbreeding Franklin’s Gulls look ver similar to breeding plumage birds but instead of a completely dark hood they have a partial faded looking black hood that often still shows their white eye crescents.

Range

Franklin’s Gulls have an interesting range compared to most other North American Gull species. They spend the winter along the Western coast of South America and migrate north in spring. Franklin’s Gulls are not as common along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts as they are in states such as Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota, but they can still be found along the coasts in migration. This species spends the summer in Southcentral Canada, Montana, and North Dakota.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

While Franklin’s Gulls eat mostly invertebrates such as insects. They will also consume worms, mollusks, small fish, and other small aquatic creatures. Franklin’s Gulls have some interesting foraging habits including twirling in the water to stir up food items, as well as following farming equipment to catch insects.

Where to Find this Bird

Franklin’s Gulls are an uncommon but expected migratory bird in most states with the peak time to view them typically being the later weeks of May or first weeks of June. They turn up in mixed flocks of gulls and terns in farm fields and lake shores. In the Great Lakes States the best places to find them are usually along the coasts.

Little Gull (Rare)

Little Gull (Photo by Ekaterina Chernetsova – CC by 2.0)
Nonbreeding Little Gull (Andrew Cannizzarro Photo – CC by 2.0)
Identification

The Little Gull is aptly named as it has the distinction of being the smallest gull species in the world. In breeding plumage, This species has a white underside, light gray wings, dark underwings, red legs, a black hood, and a tiny black bill.

In nonbreeding plumage Little Gulls look the same but without a full black hood and instead just a dark spot on the side of the head and black smudging on the top of the head.

Range

Little Gulls are actually more of a Eurasian species than they are a North American Species. Most of the population resides in Europe year round, moving to Northern Europe to breed. In the United States, there is a small breeding population occurs in Canada and around the Great Lakes. This species is rare in most parts of the United States.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Unlike larger gulls, Little Gulls are more limited by the type of food they can eat simply due to their size. Their diet consists mostly of small fish, insects, and other invertebrates that can be found near water. Little Gulls behave more like terns when foraging, often hovering above the water and swooping in to catch flying insects or to scoop fish from the surface.

Where to Find this Bird

Little Gulls can only be found in a few regions of the United States. They can sometimes be found wintering on the Atlantic Coast, especially in New England. In the Midwest they can be found sparingly on the Great Lakes.

Sabines Gull (Rare)

Sabine’s Gull (Peter Pearsall Image)
Identification

Sabine’s gulls are a very interesting looking gull species with a white body, gray wings, and a black head. The head is not quite the same as other dark-headed gulls however as it has a darker edge to it looking like it has a ring of black separating the head and neck. The bill of the Sabine’s gull is also unique as it is black with a yellow tip. In flight, Sabine’s gulls show black primaries and white secondaries, making it look like they have two white triangles on their wings along with one large gray triangle.

Juvenile Sabine’s gulls do not have a black heads but rather smudges of grayish brown on their head, neck, and back. In flight, Juvenile Sabine’s gulls show a similar pattern to those of the adults but with the more muted brown tones instead of the gray back of the adults. Additionally, juvenile Sabine’s gulls will show a black stripe on their tail while in flight.

Range

Sabine’s Gulls spend most of their time In the arctic, breeding in Northern Canada and Alaska. During migration, this species moves along the Pacific Coast of the United States. It’s worth noting that Sabine’s gulls are also found in Western Europe. For most people in the continental U. S., the best time to see this species is during fall migration.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Sabine’s gulls eat insects, small fish, crustaceans, and other aquatic invertebrates. They feed in a variety of places including tide pools, around fishing boats, and in snow drifts. They also feed in a variety of different ways from catching prey mid air, to foraging along the shore and picking through debris to find insects.

Where to Find this Bird

Sabine’s Gulls are rare in the Midwest and can typically only be seen during fall migration. In Minnesota, the best place to see these birds is Lake Superior near Duluth in September during the event called “Jaeger Fest” when bad weather pushes them close enough to the shore to be viewable.

Slaty-backed Gull (Rare)

Slaty-backed Gull
Identification

Slaty-backed Gulls have a white underside and head, namesake slate colored back, pink legs, and a yellow bill. Nonbreeding adults have dark streaking on their neck and head. The key identification feature of this species is the white markings on the wing tips leading to what many call the “string of pearls” look on the wings in flight.

Range

Slaty-backed Gulls are most common in Japan, South Korea, Eastern Russia, and Alaska.. With the exception of Alaska, they are rare in the rest of the United States, but they do show up on the Pacific Coast, the East Coast, and the Great Lakes more often than in other parts of the country.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Slaty-backed Gulls are large bodied, oceanic predators that feed on many different food items including fish, crustaceans, carrion, trash, and really anything they can fit in their mouth. This species will eat eggs and nestlings of other bird species in addition to eating smaller seagoing bird species.

Where to Find this Bird

Slaty-backed Gulls are quite rare in the continental United States but do show up from time to time. Look for this species along the Great Lakes where they can sometimes be found in groups with other gulls and in landfills, Note that this is a species that seems to be more common around the Great Lakes than it used to be, but be aware that they can sometimes get confused with “Great Lakes Gulls” which are hybrids between Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls.

California Gull (Rare)

California Gull (Alan Schmierer Photo)
Identification

California Gulls look very similar to Herring Gulls with a white body and head, gray wings and back, black wing tips with white spots when folded, and a yellow bill. One big difference between Herrings Gulls and California Gulls is that California Gulls have yellow legs while Herring Gulls have pinkish legs.

Nonbreeding adults look virtually the same but with more streaking on the necked head.

Range

California Gulls winter along the Pacific coast from southern Mexico to Washington state. In summer, California Gulls breed in Southwestern Canada and some of the states in the northwestern U.S. including Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, and northern California. They live year round in states like Idaho and Washington. California Gulls are migratory and will occasionally show up in states in the Midwest and Northeast. However, they are considered rare in most places east of the North and South Dakota.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

California Gulls are omnivorous and eat pretty much anything ranging from fish, to insects, to fruit, to garbage. They forage on land, in the water, and in flight.

Where to Find this Bird

California Gulls can easily be found along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington where they are quite common. They can also be seen inland during the spring and summer. Look for California Gulls around lakes and rivers along with more urban environments. Another place California Gulls can be found is at garbage dumps.

California Gulls are rare in Minnesota but their range just barely gets into the most Western parts of the state. They often associate with other gull species and can be hard to identify, especially if their feet aren’t visible.

Summary

Gulls can be both frustrating and exciting species to find and identify. Minnesota has a fairly wide variety of gulls to find, and we hope that this article helped shed some light on how to find and ID them.

If you enjoyed this post please give it a like and a comment. Also be sure to check out the Badgerland Birding Youtube Channel.

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