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Iceland Gull

Larus glaucoides ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: LARIDAE

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.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
19.7–23.6 in
50–60 cm
Wingspan
45.3–53.9 in
115–137 cm
Weight
28.9–38.8 oz
820–1100 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Ring-billed Gull; smaller than a Herring Gull.
Other Names
  • Goéland arctique, Goéland de Kumlien (French)
  • Thayer's Gull
  • Kumlien's Gull
  • Gaviota del ártico (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Iceland Gulls nest in the remote Arctic, on forbidding cliffs overlooking fjords. The sight impressed one early twentieth-century naturalist, who wrote that a colony of Iceland Gulls “afforded a memorable sight as in a restless cloud they wheeled hysterically in dextrous evolutions against the bleak facade of the great promontory.”
  • The Iceland Gull has been a headache for taxonomists. It is divided into three subspecies, one of which (Thayer’s Gull) was considered a separate species until 2017. To give a sense of how confusing these gulls can be, Thayer’s was at one time thought to belong to a completely different species, the Herring Gull.
  • The main difference between the Iceland, Kumlien’s, and Thayer’s subspecies lies in how dark the wingtips are in adults. Some western birds (Thayer’s) have fully dark wingtips; others in eastern Canada and Greenland (Iceland or "glaucoides" subspecies) can have fully white wingtips, and there’s lots of variation in between.
  • The oldest recorded Iceland Gull was at least 4 years, 8 months old, when it was seen alive in the wild in eastern Canada and identified by its band.

Habitat


Shoreline

Iceland Gulls breed in large colonies on rocky cliffs and fjords in the remote Arctic, sometimes up to a few miles inland. They winter mainly along seacoasts where they forage close to shore, on beaches, and sometimes on lawns, agricultural fields, and garbage dumps (although they are less attracted to dumps than other gull species).

Food


Omnivore

Iceland Gulls eat mainly fish that they pick from the sea surface. They also eat mussels, snails, large zooplankton, carrion, offal in harbors, fishing discards, and occasionally garbage. They sometimes raid the nests of other birds such as Thick-billed Murres, eating both eggs and young. They may also eat terrestrial plants, algae, and berries in late summer.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–4 eggs
Incubation Period
24–26 days
Egg Description
Pale grayish brown, spotted and blotched with dark brown.
Condition at Hatching
Alert and mobile. Covered in mottled down.
Nest Description

They build a shallow bowl of moss, grass, and feathers, the vegetation often collected from snowmelt areas near the top of the nesting cliff. They sometimes reuse old nests.

Nest Placement

Cliff

Iceland Gulls breed in colonies of 50 to 100 nests, typically placed on narrow cliff ledges that can be more than 1,000 feet high. They sometimes nest among the rubble at the bases of cliffs or on rock islands.

Behavior


Aerial Dive

Picks food off surface of water, often without landing, and swallows prey while flying. Their graceful, low flight over the water as they search for food is different from the more lumbering flight of Glaucous and Herring Gulls.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Because Iceland Gulls breed in the far north, there is little information on population trends. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population is about 220,000 birds. They rate the species a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means the species is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List. Some colonies were extensively and repeatedly hunted by native Greenlanders in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but many colonies were spared because of their inaccessibility. Iceland Gulls appear to be particularly sensitive to oil spills, possibly because their habit of taking food in flight from the sea surface makes it easier for them to pick up oil-covered food items.

Credits

Range Map Help

Iceland Gull Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Partial migrant. Many Iceland Gulls remain in the Arctic year-round; others move south, typically over ocean or along seacoasts, to winter in Iceland, the U.K., and the northeastern and west coasts of the U.S. and Canada.

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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