Little Gull by Kenn Kaufman
Lifelong naturalist Kenn Kaufman is best known for his birding memoir, Kingbird Highway, and for his field guide series, which includes titles such as Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. The field guides are illustrated with digitally edited photos, but Kenn also has been drawing and painting birds since childhood. He’s a believer in the value of sketching birds directly from life as a way of learning about them, and has filled up many sketchbooks over the last three decades. In the past, he used his paintings to illustrate bird identification columns in both American Birds and Birder’s World magazines. Currently living in Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn devotes much of his time to painting portraits of waterbirds and birds of prey.
The Little Gull (Larus minutus) is aptly named—the Latin word minutus means “little”—because it is the world’s smallest gull species. Adults are identified in flight, even at great distance, by their distinctive black underwings. The dorsal wing surface is gray with white tips. Breeding plumaged adults have black heads that in winter plumage are reduced to a black ear patch and patch on the crown. As illustrated on the cover of this issue, juvenile Little Gulls have a distinctive dorsal wing pattern with a prominent black “M” and a black tip to the tail. They lack the dark underwing pattern of the adults. By the second winter, the dorsal wing pattern is reduced to dark patches near the wing tips and the underwings are darker. The adult plumage is attained by the third winter. The sexes are similar in plumage. Little Gulls are monotypic and are probably most closely related to the Ross’s Gull.
Little Gulls are found mainly in Europe and Siberia, but they have been recorded in North America sporadically since the 1920s. They were first confirmed breeding here in 1962. In recent decades, they have been recorded breeding in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River basin with scattered reports from Minnesota and as far north as James and Hudson’s bays. Little Gulls are migratory, wintering in small numbers along the East Coast from Maine to Florida, along the Gulf Coast from Alabama to Texas, and along nearly the entire West Coast of the United States. They also winter on several of the Great Lakes. In Massachusetts, Little Gulls are considered rare to uncommon migrants along the coast, and there are at least two inland occurrences in Berkshire County. When found, they are often in flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls. They have been recorded in every month of the year, with a spring peak in April and May and a fall peak in August.
Little Gulls are monogamous. Their breeding biology is poorly known in North America but is better known from European studies. Little is known about their pair formation; however, during courtship a pair may assume an upright posture and walk around each other. They are territorial around a nest site.
Little Gulls utter a so-called “long call” that is used in a wide variety of circumstances, including in the presence of intruders as well as to mates and young. It is probably also important in individual recognition. The call consists of several elements variously described as kay, ke-koo, and ke-keh. Oblique posture—where a standing bird extends its head and neck forward, tail tilted slightly up, and gives long calls—is used in aggressive situations but may also serve to attract females. When approaching another bird, Little Gulls may use a vertical posture, in which the standing bird extends its head and neck vertically with its tail also pointing up.
A rather strange aggressive behavior, the function of which is unknown, involves extended chases usually involving three individuals: a pursuer, a pursued, and a follower at the end of the procession. The pursuer may chase with its head and neck extended, uttering long calls; then it may fly with fast, stiff wingbeats with its head tilted upward; and then it may glide with wings held stiffly down or extended. Occasionally it will attack the pursued bird. The three birds involved in this chase may be adults of either sex or immatures, and they participate in any order—very odd.
Little Gulls nest in freshwater wetlands, wet meadows, and in brackish marshes. They may nest solitarily or in small groups, often with other gulls and terns. The method of nest-site selection is not known, but at the nest site the gulls may give a choking display with body inclined downwards, bill down, and wings slightly raised, uttering ko-ko sounds. The nest site is often on floating mats of vegetation. The nest is a shallow cup of aquatic plants such as cattails, reeds, or grasses. Both parents are presumed to have brood patches and share incubation of the usual clutch of three olive buff eggs for the three weeks until hatching. During nest relief, they give long calls and sometimes exchange choking calls. The chicks are precocial; within a day or two they are able to leave the nest either by walking or swimming. However, they return to the nest to be brooded and fed for about a week. Presumably both parents feed the chicks, but the extent and particulars of parental care are poorly known. The chicks can fly after about a month.
Little Gulls are mostly aquatic foragers, flying low over the water and dipping down to take prey from the surface or just below it. They may hover over the water and sometimes plunge-dive, submerging the head and neck. They also forage while swimming and sometimes hawk flying insects. Most of their prey consists of small fish, but they also take crustaceans and insects.
Not much is known about nest predation of Little Gulls, but they probably are preyed upon by small mammals and by birds such as owls and larger gulls. Adults will mob predators and will dive-bomb human intruders. The number of reports of Little Gulls nesting in North America has steadily increased since 1962, as have the numbers recorded on Christmas Bird Counts. It is thought that much of the population increase has occurred from an influx of birds from Europe or Siberia. Indeed, it appears that this delightful little immigrant gull is here to stay.