The Out-of-towner

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

The stranger from across the sea swelled himself up and strutted into the group of natives, not intimidated a bit. He had webbed feet like they did but he wasn't closely related. On Nantucket, he is a rarity, but in the British Isles, he is the most common gull. This species is a 'must see' for birdwatchers visiting our island during the winter.

I'm over on Hooper Farm Road, looking at a herd of Mallards (some might say 'flock') and in their midst, competing quite effectively, is a smaller, silvery bird, standing very tall and officious, trying to get to beak level with the ducks. What we have here is a Black-headed Gull. Local birders think this is the same individual, which wintered here last year. It took him (her?) until late February last winter to find this yard but this year he was present with all the ducks as early as mid-December.

Black-headed Gulls are another example of a very successful species. They are doing so well in the habitat created by man that they have overflowed their territory in Europe. Their range has expanded westward, first breeding in southwestern Greenland in the sixties, then Newfoundland in 1977, and now along the New England coast. Now we see them almost every year and they are considered 'rare' on Nantucket from December through early April. The first Nantucket Christmas Bird Count to record this bird was in 1974. Since 1979 it has been present every year.

You might think that the Black-headed Gull would have a black head. If so, you probably haven't done much birdwatching. Birders are continually jaded by the names of the birds we have to learn. The Red-bellied Woodpecker has red on the back of its head. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet almost never displays his ruby crown. Only half the Red-winged Blackbirds have red wings and are black. At this time of year, the Black-headed Gull's head is mainly white. But in the summer, then it has a black head -- right? Well no, it is actually a nice chocolate brown color.

John James Audubon referred to our Laughing Gull as the 'Black-headed Gull' when he painted it in the early 1800's. And strangely enough, the Latin name of the Black-headed Gull is 'Larus ridibundus', which translates to a gull which laughs. So perhaps Audubon thought he was encountering this European gull. Nothing laughs quite as uproariously as a Laughing Gull, even a Black-headed.

Black-headed Gulls are small relative to Nantucket's most common gulls, the Herring Gulls. Last week, I stopped at Consue (didn't 'park', just stopped) and there was this same Black-headed Gull treading confidently toward me with the ducks, his white head, with the two black stripes across it, bobbing amongst the green Mallard's. There were a few Ring-billed Gulls there too and he was even smaller than they were, but more erect in his posture. His back looked a lighter shade of gray than the other gulls and you could see his cool, two-tone, orange and black bill.

Black-headeds mature more quickly than our larger gulls. Herring Gulls take four years to reach their striking white and gray plumage. Black-headeds are 'two year' gulls. So there are fewer plumages to learn. The head pattern is quite similar, young to adult, and they all have the same, graceful, buoyant style of flight.

In Europe, this species is more of an inland species, often shunning the coast. On Nantucket you occasionally see a Black-headed with the masses of Bonaparte's Gulls at the east end of the island. But more often these gulls are mavericks, happy to be in the more urban of our island settings. It is a bay or estuary gull, rather than an ocean one. So it seems content to prowl our wharves, the Cricks, and even front yards.

Any of you remember the movie called "Watership Down"? This was an animated treatment of the best selling book from the 70's, where most of the characters are rabbits. One of the heroes in that book, which has an English setting, was a very handsome, brown-headed, Black-headed Gull! They even had his "keeee-yar" call exactly reproduced. Perhaps that movie is still rentable on video.

This winter we know of two Black-headed Gulls on the island. They are fairly observable since you don't have to go stand at Low Beach and stare into a flock of 3,000 Bonaparte's Gulls to try and pick one out. No, just stop by Consue when the ducks are there, and look for a smaller white head bobbing in their midst, with two charcoal bars going across the top. You'll see another newcomer to America, one that birders across the U.S. would eat their heart out to see as well.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.