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Bonaparte’s Gulls in a feeding frenzy

Posted on Nov 19, 2013

Last week I ventured out to Lake Erie to survey a couple of sites in New York that are included in our Natural History Atlas: Dunkirk Harbor and Barcelona Harbor in Westfield (keep an eye on our Natural History Atlas page for many more to come!). I found a lot of great waterfowl, especially ducks and grebes, but the highlight was at least 850 Bonaparte’s Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) that put on a tremendous show for me as they fed in Barcelona Harbor. Among them was one Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), a rare but annual visitor to the east coast and Great Lakes from Eurasia that typically fits in with the Bonaparte’s.

BOGU feeding Barcelona Harbor Lake Erie 2

Bonaparte’s Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

In the video you can see first a couple of Bonaparte’s interested in the small fish that the Double-crested Cormorants were diving and chowing down on. It did not take long for hundreds to pour in and start diving themselves, and it seems they were going after the same prey. They look so much more like terns than gulls, don’t they?

This individual stood out to me when I was reviewing my photos. It looks to be a Bonaparte’s Gull in basically every regard except for its obviously smaller size. I was quite close to these birds and as you can see they are quite near one another in the pictures, and I do not feel like it is an angle or depth issue.

Little Bonaparte's Gull

When comparing it to other Bonaparte’s I note that the head is smaller and a bit rounder, the bill is shorter and it appears more slender overall, from wings to body. It simply looks…different. All of the friends and experts I spoke to thought it was basically a little Bonaparte’s Gull (ha ha) with it being a “dwarf” bird on the very small end of the spectrum for the species. Whenever you have a sizable number of a given species present you should always look for anything strange within them and compare traits. On this day alone I saw that leg color is not a very good marker for Bonaparte’s Gulls as some were dull orange, some bright orange, some pink and some yellow, some red and some almost a bland combination of all those colors.

I admit that I may not be the biggest gull fan in the world but I am going to have to become one living here near Lake Erie! There will be thousands and thousands more to come this winter with plenty of oddities and rarities mixed in for us to examine.


Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator

Photo and video © Scott Kruitbosch