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Iceland Gull


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Iceland Gulls breed on narrow cliff ledges in the Arctic and forage gracefully over the water, often plucking fish from the surface without landing. Many winter in ice-choked Arctic waters, but some come south to the Northeast, Great Lakes, and West Coast. Their plumage is variable, especially the adults’ wingtips, which can range from pure white in the east to black in the west. The darker-winged “Thayer’s” gull of the west used to be considered a different species; the two were lumped in 2017.

Keys to identification Help

  • Size & Shape

    Iceland Gulls are medium-sized gulls with relatively slender, short bills. They have fairly long wings that extend well past the tail.

  • Color Pattern

    Adults have pale gray back and wings, yellow bill, and white head and neck that are smudged brownish in winter plumage. Wingtips are extremely variable, typically gray to white in the East and darker in the West. Juveniles are light to medium brown mottled with white; immatures have pale gray backs with mottled brownish wings and dark bills. The legs are pink in all ages.

  • Behavior

    Iceland Gulls are graceful fliers with fairly quick wingbeats. They often forage by flying low over the water and swooping down to pick up fish or other food without landing.

  • Habitat

    They breed on coastal cliffs in the high Arctic and forage in open water among pack ice. In winter they occur along coasts and forage close to shore, on beaches, and sometimes on lawns, agricultural fields, and garbage dumps.

Range Map Help

Iceland Gull Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

Iceland Gulls are very variable. Identifying them got easier in 2017 when the extremely similar Thayer’s Gull was reevaluated and is now considered a subspecies of Iceland Gull. Glaucous Gulls are considerably larger than Iceland Gulls, always show white wingtips, and have larger, stouter bills. Herring Gulls are slightly larger than Iceland Gulls, with darker upperparts and wingtips that are always black (though the Thayer’s form of Iceland Gull often has black in the wingtips). California and Ring-billed Gulls are smaller than Iceland Gulls and usually have yellowish legs. Adults have sharply defined black wingtips; immatures tend to be darker brown than immature Iceland Gulls, with dark wingtips and a dark band at the tip of the white tail.

    Regional Differences

    Iceland Gull consists of three subspecies that vary most noticeably by the color of the wingtips. The “Iceland” form breeds in Greenland and winters mainly in the North Atlantic (including Iceland). It has very pale to completely white wingtips. The “Kumlien’s” subspecies is the form most commonly seen in winter on the East Coast of North America. Its wingtips vary from nearly white to gray. The “Thayer’s” form (considered a separate species until 2017) winters on the West Coast of North America. It usually has slightly darker wings, dark gray to black wingtips, and heavy streaking or smudging on the head and neck in winter. There’s lots of overlap between each of these forms, and some individuals can’t be easily placed into a subspecies based on plumage.

    Find This Bird

    Gull watching takes patience, but it can be rewarding. Unless you plan to explore the Arctic, you’ll want to look for Iceland Gulls in winter along Atlantic or Pacific coasts or around the Great Lakes. Iceland Gulls are fairly regular but they’re not numerous, so look for large groups of resting gulls and look through them for a medium-sized gull with very pale upperparts. On the East Coast, your task is a bit easier: you can look for a gull with white or pale gray wingtips (the “Kumlien’s” form). On the West Coast, look for the Thayer’s form: a bit smaller than a Herring Gull, with a more slender bill, heavily smudged neck, and sometimes a dark eye.



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