For many casual bird enthusiasts in NW Indiana, countless hours can be spent learning the both rare and interesting bird species to be had in the dune woods, wetlands, prairies, and immediate lakeshore. Gaining appreciation for the simple “seagull” won’t often occur right away. For some birders, it may take years before a genuine interest in the diverse ID challenges, plumage variations, hybridization, and seasonal occurrences are seen as a draw to studying gulls, and not a prohibition.
Often overlooked, and almost always under counted, the gull is the House Sparrow of the shoreline. They are resourceful, inquisitive and intelligent birds.They demonstrate complex methods of communication and one can observe a highly developed social structure. With lifespans approaching 30 years, they’ve seen their fare share of pre-teens trying to devise a way to capture them with the enticement of a potato chip or French fry. They likely have seen their fair share of swimsuit fashion changes too.
The budding gull birder, or larophile, as some obsessive gull freaks call themselves, need only to learn two main species intimately during the summer months. The abundant Ring-billed Gull and larger and less common (in the summer) Herring Gull. The former breeds in large super colonies at the local steel mills to the west of the state park. Over 20,000 nesting pairs can be seen making the daily pilgrimage along the lakeshore in May to feed hungry young. First heading out from the mills, then heading back in steady streams at dusk.
The first rule for any birder wishing to truly learn the gulls is to appreciate the complex variations in the Ring-billed Gull. These variations occur with age, with plumage molts, and with time of year. There are too many combinations to count! But you must know these if you’re to start separating out the rarer gulls. Separate the larger, pink-legged, and yellow eyed Herring Gulls and you’ve got most of the summer gulls ID’d.
Winter months bring an assortment of northern gull species that makes the gull ID more challenging, fun, and interesting. All of this is stifled, of course, by the bone chilling cold that winter gulling brings with it. A couple great sites near the dunes to see some of these wintering gulls include Michigan City Harbor, Port of Indiana, and the Whiting BP Refinery Beach.
There are many worth pouring through field guides to get to know. Listed below are only the most common and easiest to ID winter visitors. This is certainly not the end-all for gull ID in the dunes, but a glimpse of a few that don’t take too much research to get to know. The Great Black-backed Gull is a bully of a large gull that can be easy to ID. It’s large size makes it the largest gull species in the world. It’s dark black back, pink legs, and clean white head and neck (nape) separate it from the smaller Lesser Black-backed Gull. Adult Lesser’s are more known for their slightly lighter colored back, yellow legs, and more heavily streaked head and neck in the winter months.
Glaucous Gulls are large, white gulls of the high arctic. They winter in the dunes area and stand out from the other large gulls simply by their abundance of white. Their backs are very pale gray and wing tips show virtually no black. At their size, only albino gulls really pose identification problems.
While there are certainly other gull species worth learning, these simple five are enough to spark an interest in what are to many simply “seagulls.” Brave the winter winds, set up a scope or binoculars on a flock of gulls (a few loaves of bread helps too!) and add a new gull species to your list this winter in the dunes.