The ring-billed gull, shown here, is Georgia’s most common gull species in winter, occurring on inland lakes as well as on the coast. The bird is named for the black ring around its beak. (Photo: Creative Commons/Wikipedia)

There are no “Seagulls” in Georgia, birders say

A friend told me that when he was on Lake Lanier last weekend he was surprised to see a flock of “seagulls” wheeling, dipping and flapping over the water. He said he thought the birds were strictly coastal residents.

Had they been blown up here by a storm or accidentally gotten off course during migration, he asked?

Before I replied, I gave him a quick lesson in bird nomenclature — something that a veteran birder taught me many years ago. “You won’t find the word ‘seagull’ in any bird field guide,” the birder had told me.

The word seagull is actually an informal way of referring to any of several species that belong to a family of birds known as gulls. There is no single species called the seagull. If you refer to a bird as a seagull, you’ll instantly be recognized as an amateur by veteran birders — though no one is likely to chide you for it.

Eight gull species occur at least part of the year in Georgia. Most of them indeed stick close to the coast. Only one, the laughing gull, nests on the coast, where it builds its cup-shaped nest on sandy beaches or in salt marshes. Most of the other gull species breed as far north as Alaska and Canada.

During fall and winter, three gull species may take up residence on Lanier and other inland lakes. Ring-billed gulls are the most common, followed by a few herring gulls and sometimes Bonaparte’s gulls. Earlier this week, birders counted more than 300 ring-billed gulls on Lake West Point south of Atlanta.

The ringed-bill also is the gull you’re most likely to see scavenging at inland landfills and shopping centers.

Anglers on Georgia’s big lakes in winter watch for flocks of gulls when casting for striped bass and spotted bass. The birds often chase schools of threadfin shad and blueback herring, “baitfish” that also are favorite foods of the bass. So, a flock of gulls circling over the water is a good sign that “stripers and spots”also may be in the area.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be first quarter on Sunday. Mercury is low in the west just after sunset. Venus and Mars are low, and Jupiter is very low, in the east just before dawn. Saturn is very low in the southwest just after dark and sets in the west.