The Laughing Gull Confession
I have a confession to make. One that will likely blackball me from the entire birding community and ruin whatever spotty reputation I’ve earned as a bird “expert”. Once you’ve been described by someone else as such you have to keep up appearances, but I’m about to blow the whole thing wide open.
I don’t always get gulls. First year ones especially, but there are a few plumages of weird individuals that trip me up.
And that in and of itself is not especially ground-breaking, but here’s the kicker. I don’t have any particular impulse, no real motivation, to fix that. Sure, I manage with my regulars down at the lake every winter, but Ring-bills and the odd Herring are hardly brain-teasers. I spent some time a few years back trying to pick a subadult Lesser Black-backed Gull from the multitudes but that never went anywhere, and once I got my county tick (a gorgeous adult, if you’re wondering), I probably won’t be scrutinizing them with the same sort of fervor.
You see, I do my studying when I have to, and generally not before. If a bizarre gull were to show up at my local lake this winter and I were of a mind to notice, then I’d hit the books, hopefully with a fine photograph to compare it too, but my attempts to cram using Steve Howell’s otherwise amazing Gulls of the Americas, have left me cross eyed and drowsy. I can’t do it, I just can’t. So I suppose that makes me something of a lousy birder, which may come as a surprise but at least is a huge load off my chest.
That’s why I like Laughing Gulls. Besides their panache, their piercing cry, their bank-robber’s costume, they’re just so easy. There are very few birds you’re going to confuse a Laughing Gull for, even the other black-headed gulls are a piece of cake. And when you get a good look at those harlequin markings, how can you not fall instantly head over heels?
Laughing Gulls have historically been summer gulls in these parts, but they’re increasingly found in the winter too, when they hood disappears but the slate mantle and the black tips remain, not to mention that elegant profile, to make them instantly recognizable on the sandbars.
Not unlike their parking lot brethren, the Boat-tailed Grackles, Laughing Gulls hang around the docks angling for fish scraps and bait. But unlike the grackles, tourists are just as apt to through them bread or popcorn just so they swarm around like giant moths to a porch light. They are not picky, in that way that gulls never are, and they allow exceptionally close approach if that approach is interspersed with even a half-hearted flailing arm display In fact, I once had a seasoned old birder bring in a whole flock of gulls by employing the old bread scrap fakeout on a CBC. It’s the universal signal for “dinner time”, and gulls know it better than most.
And that call, that incessant braying. The soundtrack to beachgoing anywhere along the east and gulf coasts of the continent. They yell at food, at each other, at cars, at pelicans and terns, even louder than the impressively loud Oystercatchers, though their numbers may have something to do with that. The moniker “Laughing” is well-earned, as any beachgoer, birder or otherwise, is likely to admit.
In short, they can barely be confused for anything else. And for that, they are the perfect gull. Streamlined in form and identification, a true “seagull’.
And that’s why they’re my favorite.