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Herring Gull Larus argentatus

YLG 'lookalikes': Herring Gulls with dark mantle and very white heads


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Herring Gull with white head in winter

Herring Gull with white head in winter

In above images, note clean white head and dark shade of grey to upperparts, recalling Yellow-legged Gull. However, the 'Herring Gull pink' legs and the very prominent white tips to the primaries confirm that it is a Herring Gull.

Herring Gull with white head in winter

This 'zoomed' image reveals clearly that the legs are 'Herring Gull pink'

A. R. Dean

By mid to late December, Herring Gulls may become very white-headed. This is particularly so with individuals of the race argenteus. However, by early January, some nominate argentatus too may become white-headed, as in the individual depicted above. Such white-headed individuals may look very different from surrounding Herring Gulls, particularly individuals with heavily streaked heads and relatively restricted amounts of black in the wing-tip. Although argenteus has a relatively pale mantle,  the shade of grey in argentatus overlaps with that of Yellow-legged Gull. At this stage of the winter, a white-headed, dark-mantled argentatus can easily  be misidentified as Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis . Thus, it is especially important from late-December onwards to use a full suite of characters in identifying Yellow-legged Gull. When gulls such as this are observed in good light and are perched on land or ice, then features such as their 'Herring Gull pink' legs and the disposition of black and white in their primaries confirm their identity. However, when gulls are observed in fading light at roost sites, where features such as leg colour and precise pattern of primaries are difficult or impossible to determine, distinguishing between them and Yellow-legged Gull can be more challenging than is sometimes acknowledged. See gallery of Yellow-legged Gull  images, especially this image, for discussion of characters of michahellis.


In summer, a clean white head is normal in argentatus of course. However, few nominate Herring Gulls are encountered in central England in mid-summer. Thus, when the occasional individual does appear, the michahellis-like dark mantle and white head can still be misleading. Once again, they may appear very different from nearby argenteus.

Below is an example photographed in Warks in late June 2011. It is quite like michahellis at rest and the legs are hidden (they were in fact argentatus pink). In flight the primary pattern shows a full white tip to p10, a prominent mirror on p9 and just a small black subterminal spot on p5. a pattern which conforms with argentatus and is not typical of michahellis.

argentatus Herring Gull, Warks, June 2011

argentatus Herring Gull, Warks, June 2011

argentatus Herring Gull, Warks, June 2011

A. R. Dean


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