Iceland Gull

Larus glaucoides

(c) Glen Tepke
  • LARIDAE
  • Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers
  • Charadriiformes
  • Gaviota de Groenlandia
  • Goéland arctique
Introduction

Nesting on snowy ledges during the Arctic summer and thriving in the stormy winters of the North Atlantic, the Iceland Gull is a hardy seabird. For bird watchers, this pale, medium-sized gull heralds winter. The Iceland Gull is very closely related to the Thayer's Gull; disputes over their separation or combination have long interested gull aficionados and geneticists.

Appearance Description

The Iceland Gull is a medium-sized seabird, weighing 1.8 pounds, and measuring about 22 inches long, with a 54-inch wingspan. In North America, observers are most likely to spot immature birds. Generally, these young gulls are pale, with very light brown to beige barring on the upper parts, and white elsewhere. The immature Iceland Gull has dark eyes and a bill that is either black or pink with a black tip. In winter, the adult Kumlien's Iceland Gull has light gray upper parts, usually with a little dark color in the wing tips. The rest of the bird is white, except for light grayish streaking over the back of the head. In breeding plumage, the adult Iceland Gull is light gray above and white below, with a white head. The bird's yellow bill has a red spot on the bottom, and the feet and legs are pink. Sexes appear alike. Iceland Gulls are easily confused with Thayer's and Glaucous Gulls.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution

Two subspecies of the Iceland Gull are currently recognized: Kumlien's Gull (L. g. kumlieni) and the Iceland Gull of Greenland (L. g. gloucoides). Kumlien's Iceland Gull breeds from the eastern part of Canada's Baffin Island southward to Southampton Island. This subspecies winters coastally from the Atlantic Provinces south to Virginia and rarely through the Great Lakes. The southern coasts of Greenland host the other subspecies, which winters across a broad range, including the Canadian Atlantic Provinces, Iceland and northwestern Europe. Most Iceland Gulls winter on open waters, called polynyas, set in the Arctic ice.

Habitat

In winter, the Iceland Gull concentrates at the Arctic sea ice openings created by ocean currents and warm upwellings. Some Iceland Gulls winter in coastal waters and fresh water rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Steep, rocky cliffs overlooking ice or cold waters are preferred breeding sites.

Feeding

A visual hunter, the Iceland Gull forages mostly at the water's surface, over slushy ice, or on beaches. They appear less often at garbage dumps than other gulls. In winter, these gulls consume a variety of foods, including fish, eels, clams, snails, fly larvae and adults, and marine worms. Iceland Gulls sometimes prey upon the eggs and chicks of other seabirds, like the Thick-billed Murre and the Black-legged Kittiwake. In summer, this northern seabird times its breeding cycle with the melting of the sea ice, and forages where ice and water meet.

Reproduction

Iceland Gulls assemble at their breeding grounds in late May and early June, in colonies numbering anywhere from 50 to 2,000 pairs. They seem to form monogamous pairs for the season. The nests are built on rocky ledges ranging from near sea level to as high as 400 feet above, using a variety of materials, including grass, moss, old feathers, and turf. For about 25 days, both sexes incubate two to three yellowish to greenish eggs, marked with brown blotches. The downy chicks peck at the adults' bills to receive regurgitated clumps of partially digested food. Juvenile Iceland Gulls fledge in about six weeks and often wander alone, away from the wintering areas used by adults.

Migration

In late summer and early fall, most Iceland Gulls appear to travel short distances from their breeding grounds to open waters and ice floes in the north Atlantic, but young gulls move farther south to open coastlines. Some populations may be nomadic in winter. Most Iceland Gulls migrate in flocks and arrive on the breeding grounds between late May and mid-June.

CBC Graph
Graph Legend
Annual Population Indices
  • 295,000
  • 100,000
Population Status Trends

Population trends are difficult to calculate for the Iceland Gull, because breeding colonies are inaccessible most of the year. Since 1880, Kumlien's Iceland Gull has been recorded in greater numbers along the coast of New England, but this trend may reflect an increase in trained observers or a population shift. Iceland Gulls observed south of the Canada in winter are predominantly immature birds.

Conservation Issues

Without better knowledge of its population trends, the health of the Iceland Gull cannot be fully assessed. No government agency currently recognizes the Iceland Gull as a species of conservation concern, and the International Union of Conservation of Nature lists the Iceland Gull as a "species of least concern," based on its large population size and lack of significant decline. Its remote and inhospitable habitats protect the Iceland Gull from many human threats. However, exposure to air and water pollutants transported by wind and waves, the effects of depleted Atlantic fisheries, and the significance of global climate change may all impact the Iceland Gull.

What You Can Do

Immature Iceland Gulls can be identified fairly easily. Look for them in mixed roosts of gulls as they winter along the east coast and the Great Lakes.

Visit the Joppa Flats Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Newburyport, Massachusetts in winter; they offer bird walks geared toward finding seasonal species like the Iceland Gull.

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources

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Natural History References

Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2000.

Snell, R. R. 2002. Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) and Thayer's Gull (Larus thayeri). In The Birds of North America, No. 699 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Conservation Status References

BirdLife International 2004. Larus glaucoides. In: IUCN 2006. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. . Downloaded 1 May 2007.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2000.

Snell, R. R. 2002. Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) and Thayer's Gull (Larus thayeri). In The Birds of North America, No. 699 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.