A guest blog by Ric Else.

We all know what a 'seagull' is, but you’ll often find that birders recoil in horror at that particular term. This is partly because, to many people, ‘seagull’ carries negative connotations of noisy seaside chip thieves. But the main reason is because ‘seagull’ is not a very helpful term, dismissively lumping the whole of this diverse and fascinating group of creatures under one fairly inaccurate umbrella term – inaccurate because many of them occur very commonly well away from the sea. The preferred term is simply ‘gulls’, a scientific grouping comprising many different but related species.

Here in Northern Ireland we have a lovely range of gulls, and in this blog I’ll introduce the seven different species that nest here. I am lucky enough to live and work for the RSPB on Rathlin Island, which has nesting populations of six of these gull species and provides as good a place as any to get to know these often overlooked but undeniably characterful creatures. I’ll go in size order, starting with the biggest of our breeding gulls.

Great black-backed gull

Easily the biggest and beefiest of our gulls, great black-backs are an impressive beast, easily identified by its bulk in any plumage. They breed in Northern Ireland only in fairly small numbers, including a few pairs here on Rathlin, but many more visit the region during the winter.

As well as their size, great black-backed gulls are told by their pink legs and very dark (almost black) backs. Like many gulls they are opportunistic feeders – this one pictured above is making off with a beakful of blubber from a dead seal.

Pictured above, an adult with three almost fully grown chicks. Although it will take them several years to get plumage like that of their parents, the youngsters can already be identified by their size.

Herring gull

Herring gulls are very much the archetypal ‘seagull’, and is the gull most likely to be eyeing up your fish and chips on the promenade. What many people don’t realise is that this familiar species has declined catastrophically, including in Northern Ireland where the breeding population fell by a disastrous 96% between the 1980s and the turn of the century. Here on Rathlin, the handful of nesting pairs we have today are only a vestige of the 4,000 or so pairs that were here 35 years ago.

Adult herring gulls have light grey backs and pink legs. Like other large gulls, they have a red spot on their bill which stimulates their nestlings to beg for food.

Lesser black-backed gull

For me, this is perhaps the most beautiful of our nesting gulls. With their slim, elegant shape, slatey upperparts and bright yellow legs and bill, adult lesser black-backs in breeding plumage are strikingly handsome creatures.

Although the species can be seen in Northern Ireland year-round, many lesser black-backed gulls migrate south to Southern Europe and North Africa in winter. This may well include some of those that nest on Rathlin, and in any case we don’t see them at all on the island from November to mid-February.

This is the gull most inclined to nest on rooftops, and increasing numbers now nest on buildings in Belfast, along with a few herring gulls.

The bright yellow legs and bill of an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull really stand out against the white, black and grey plumage.

Despite their name, lesser black-backed gulls have dark grey backs, which are a much lighter shade than those of great black-backed gulls. The wingtips are black, with only small white spots compared to the much bigger spots of the great black-backed gulls.

Common gull

Not generally the most common of our gulls, common gulls are nonetheless a frequent sight at both coastal and inland sites. They nest at scattered colonies, mostly around the coast, including on Rathlin. Their high, piercing calls are quite different to our other gull species and are reflected in the alternative name of mew gull, by which it is known in North America (although the ones across the pond are actually a very subtly different subspecies).

Pictured above, a pair of common gulls, with a pair of the much bigger, pink-legged herring gulls behind them. Common gulls look a bit like miniature herring gulls, but their legs are yellowish and they have no red bill spot.

Mediterranean gull

This is the only one of Northern Ireland’s breeding gulls that doesn’t nest on Rathlin. At least not yet anyway. Mediterranean gulls have been spreading north and west in recent decades and first bred in our region in 1995, with small numbers nesting each year since then. In recent years, a few pairs have bred Belfast’s Window on Wildlife, where you can get close views of these striking gulls alongside the next species.

Above, two Mediterranean gulls (the two on the right) have blacker heads and brighter bills than the black-headed gulls (three on the left). Mediterranean gulls have white and very pale grey plumage, with almost entirely white wingtips. Combined with their jet black heads and bright red legs and bill this is a striking combination.

Black-headed gull

This small gull is a familiar sight both on the coast and inland, where they often occur in towns. Black-headed gulls are relatively dainty creatures, with dark brown hoods and dark red beaks. The wing tips have white front edges and black rear edges. Look out for them gathering on sports fields, often with common gulls, where they feed on invertebrates in the grass. Black-headed gulls are a well-known misnomer as, given close views, their dark summer hood is unmistakeably chocolate brown (unlike the previous species which actually does have a black head).


If any of our gulls is truly a ‘seagull’, it’s this one. kittiwakes are tied to the ocean far more than the other species, nesting only on sea cliffs and spending their non-breeding season out at sea. Because of its pelagic habits, most people encounter this species far less frequently than other gulls, yet thanks mostly to Rathlin’s colony of several thousand pairs it is actually the most numerous breeding gull in the region. In fact, it’s also the most numerous gull species in the world, but it has been in precipitous decline in recent decades and is of high conservation concern.

Kittiwakes are small, dainty, oceanic gulls with yellow bills and short black legs.Look for the dipped-in-ink black wingtips without white spots.

Above, an adult kittiwake (right) perched on its precarious cliff nest with its almost fully grown chick. As with other gulls, the young birds’ plumage looks very different to that of the adults.
While all these species are quite distinct in their adult breeding plumage, all gulls also go through several very different and complex immature plumages, and therein lies the thrill (or horror!) of gull identification. Add that, in addition to our breeding septet, there are numerous more species that visit in winter, pass through on migration or arrive as occasional wind-blown vagrants, and gull-watching really does provide endless fascination.

It can be an acquired taste, but once you’re hooked there’s no going back, and you’ll probably never use the word ‘seagull’ again.
Image credits: All photographs pictured are credited to Ric Else, RSPB NI.