Seagulls and Terns and Skuas are three distinct genera (the level of genetic relationship below family) that are part of the order Charadriiformes, like auks and multiple families of waders. Because this order contains so many families that are so different in shape and ecological role, we have decided to separate them in different sections. In this section we will discuss seagulls, terns, and skuas because they are closely related, generally physically similar, and behave in similar ways. Terns are small highly migratory predators, and they mainly eat small fish. Seagulls and skuas are opportunistic predators and scavengers that are found most commonly around coasts, but some are mostly pelagic and others can be found far inland. Seagulls can highly variable in plumage depending on age and season. All pictures will present adult summer (breeding) plumage unless specified; in winter, most species of gulls will have a similar but "dirtier" plumage, for mottled with brown in some areas. There are usually no differences between male and female plumage. All species of seagulls and skuas commonly found in the East Atlantic Arctic are described below.
Seagulls, like terns, belong to the Laridae family. Many species of seagulls look similar, so we have tried to group the most similar species´together to help with identification. The following species are found in the East Atlantic Arctic.
- The Black-legged kittiwake Rissa tridactyla. Although it looks like other gulls at first glance, this rather small species (37-41 cm in length, wingspan 91–105cm) is very interesting. It is the most pelagic of all gull species, spending its entire life out to see except for breeding season. It is more elusive than most other gulls, and will rarely be seen near harbors and ships during the winter. It can be distinguished from other gull by its bright yellow beak and black legs. Breeding sites are found in eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Great Britain, northwestern France, Svalbard, and coastal Fennoscandia except around the Blatic Sea. The black-legged kittiwake does not breed in Finland, but is an annual vagrant. The black-legged kittiwake is globally considered as a vulnerable, as most colonies are experiencing sharp declines in population and chick survival.
- The Herring gull Larus argentatus. This large gull (54-60cm in length for wingspans between 130-150cm) is one of the most well-known in western Europe. They are found year-round on coasts and human settlements close to the coast from western France to the Faroe Islands and Iceland (except the Westfjords) and Norway. It is found in some parts of Sweden and most of Finland, but only in summer as a breeding bird. They are absent from Greenland and Svalbard. Herring gulls are considered least concern globally, but populations have been decreasing. This species is on the UK red list of endangered species.
- The Common gull Larus canus. This medium-sized (40-42cm in length for wingspans of 110-130cm) gull is almost exclusively migratory, with a very large range. It breeds around Iceland, the Faroe Islands (where it is also a common winter visitor), and throughout most of subarctic and Arctic Eurasia (including Fennoscandia). In North America, it breeds in Alaska and northwestern Canada. The common gull is absent from Greenland and Svalbard.
Black-legged kittiwake. It is identified by the black legs, bright yellow beak, small size, pure black wing tips, head and beak shape, and the bright red coloration inside the beak.
Herring gull. It is identified by the large size, pink legs, black-tipped wings with white spots, yellow eye, yellow beak with a red spot, and flat head shape.
Common gull. It is identified by the medium size, black-tipped wings, yellow legs, small round head shape, short yellow beak, and red circle around the eyes during breeding season.
- The Ivory gull Pagophila eburnea. This interesting medium-sized species (about 44cm in length), which is the only white gull, is an Arctic specialist. It breeds in scattered colonies in Arctic Canada, northeastern Greenland, southeastern Greenland, Svalbard, and Siberian islands. The ivory gull spends the winter at sea, and can be seen as far South as northern Iceland and southern Greenland, for example. They are rare vagrants to the Faroe Islands. The population size has been decreasing, and this species is classified as near-threatened globally.
- The Glaucous gull Larus hyperboreus. This large species (62-68cm in length for wingspans of 150-165cm) is coastal and circumpolar, breeding in Svalbard, Siberia, western Alaska, northern Canada, and northern Greenland. It is found year-round in western Iceland and western Greenland. It winters in temperate and subarctic areas of the North Hemisphere, including coastal Fennoscandia, They are regularly seen in the Faroe Islands outside of breeding season.
- The Iceland gull Larus glaucoides. Contrary to what its name suggests, the Iceland gull does not breed in Iceland, but in southern Greenland and northern Canada. The Greenland population mainly winters in Iceland, Great Britain, and northern Europe up to southern Norway and Sweden. Some individuals also winter in the Faroes Islands. The Iceland gull is large with a length of 52-60cm and a wingspan of 130-158cm, but it is slender and light for its size.
Ivory gull. This gull is easy to identify with a white plumage especially in breeding adults, black legs, and a blue beak with yellow tip.
Glaucous gull. The winter plumage is similar to that of the Iceland gull. It can be identified by its larger size and flatter head shape. Note the absence of black wing tips.
Iceland gull (first winter plumage). The breeding plumage is identical to that of the glaucous gull. It can be identified by its smaller size and rounder head shape. Note the absence of black wing tips.
- The Lesser black-backed seagull Larus fuscus. This large seagull (52-64cm in length for wingspans 117-134cm) is about the same size as a herring gull. It is a western Eurasia Arctic and Subarctic breeder that migrates to more southern regions in the winter. In the East Atlantic Arctic, it is a common breeder from southwest Greenland, where it has been breeding since the 1990's, to northern Norway. This includes Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. It is also a rare breeder and annual summer visitor to Svalbard. Over this range, populations are divided in three subspecies. These subspecies vary in appearance with different shades of grey on the wings.
- Greenland, Iceland, Faroe Islands: Larus fuscus graellsii. Upper wings are dark grey.
- Southwest Sweden and western Norway: Larus fuscus intermedius. Upper wings are almost black.
- Northern Norway, Sweden and Finland: Larus fuscus fuscus. Upper wings are deep black. This subspecies is most likely to be confused with the Great black-backed seagull.
- The Great black-backed seagull Larus maritimus. This is the largest member of the Laridae family, with lengths between 64 cm and 78 cm for wingspans between 150 cm and 165 cm. Globally, it is present from eastern North America to western Siberia. In the East Atlantic Arctic, It is found all year long around Iceland, in the Faroe Islands, and in southern Greenland. It is a common summer breeder around the coast of the Baltic Sea and northern Fennoscandia. Finally, it has been breeding in Svalbard since the 1920's, and has become more common since then with more than 150 pairs today.
Lesser black-backed seagull (graellsii subspecies). It can be recognized from the Great black-backed seagull by the much smaller size, yellow legs, and in most of the East Atlantic Arctic
Great black-backed seagull. It can be recognized by its very large size, deep black upper wings, and pale pink legs.
- Sabine's gull Xema sabini. This small long-distance migrator (30-34cm in length for a wingspan of about 95cm) breeds in northwestern and northeastern Greenland, western Svalbard, as well as some areas of northern and northeastern Siberia. It migrates through sea routes to winter as far south as northwestern South America and southwestern Africa. It can be seen as a passage visitor off the coast of many countries such as Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Norway.
- The Black-headed gull Larus ridibundus. A small migrating gull (34-37cm in length for wingspans of 100-110cm), the black-headed gull has a large breeding range from Iceland (where it has only been breeding since the 1930's) and western Europe to eastern Russia. This includes Fennoscandia and the Faroe Islands, where it is a sparse breeder and a common winter visitor. It is a common winter visitor to southeastern Greenland as well.
- Ross's gull Rhodostethia rosea. Ross's gull is found breeding in four fragmented populations in northern Canada, eastern Greenland, southwestern Greenland, and northeastern Siberia. It winters at sea between Siberia and Alaska. It is the smallest Arctic gull apart from terns with lengths between 29-31cm and wingspans between 90-100cm. Ross's gulls are vagrants to Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and they are also regular summer visitors to Svalbard.
Sabine's gull. In breeding plumage, it can be distinguished from the laughing gull from its size, black bill with a yellow tip, and more extensive black coloration on the wings. The dark grey area on the head and upper neck has a deep black ring around the neck. The tail is white and forked. The legs are black.
Black-headed gull. In breeding plumage, it is recognized by the black head with a white circle around the eye, black wing extremities, crimson legs, and crimson beak with a black tip. It is slightly bigger than Sabine's gull.
Ross's gull. It is easy to recognize in breeding plumage by the white-pink coloration on the breast, black beak, red legs, and black ring around the upper neck.
Like seagulls, terns are part of the gull family Laridae. However, they are slightly different from seagulls in terms of shape and behavior. They are generally smaller, more slender birds with shorter bodies from head to feet but more slender wings and longer tails compared to their body size.
- The Little tern Sternula albifrons. This little bird (21-25cm in length, 41-47cm wingspan) breeds in fragmented populations from western Europe and Africa to eastern Asia. In the East Atlantic Arctic, it is only found as a breeding bird, in a small area near the Baltic sea in central Finland. However, they are rare vagrants to other countries such as Norway, the Faroe Islands, and Norway.
- The Common tern Sterna hirundo. Slightly bigger than the the Arctic tern (31-35cm in length, 77-98cm wingspan), this tern is more continental and found in more southern regions. It breeds throughout most of subarctic and temperate Eurasia and North America. This includes southern Finland, most of Sweden, and coastal Norway. Like the little tern, it is an extremely rare vagrant to Iceland, having been seen only five times between 1964 and 2011.
- The Arctic tern Sterna paradisaea. Medium-sized for a tern (28-39cm in length, 65-75cm wingspans), this species is an Arctic breeder that is found in summer throughout most of the Arctic and Subarctic except for northern and eastern Greenland. This includes breeding colonies around Iceland, the Faroe Islands, southern and western Greenland, Norway, northern Sweden, northern Finland, and Svalbard. The Arctic tern winters in the southern ocean and has the longest migration of any animal.
Lesser tern. It can be identified from other species by the smaller size, yellow legs and bill, and white spots at the front of the head.
Common tern. The head of the common tern is flatter than that of the Arctic tern, and the dark red bill has a black tip which is absent in Arctic terns.
Arctic tern. The common tern is slightly smaller than the common tern. It is also more slender with narrower wings,
Skuas (also called jaegers) are part of the family Stercorariidae which contains a single genus Stercorarius. Skuas are similar to larger seagulls in size and shape, and they are predatory or parasitic in similar ways to some seagulls such as the great black-backed seagull. However, they are long-distance migrants, which is uncommon in large seagulls. There are three skua species that breed in the East Atlantic Arctic, and one common visitor:
- The Arctic skua, or Parasitic jaeger Stercorarius parasiticus. This small skua (41-46cm in length for wingspans of 107-125cm) is a circumpolar bird and an Arctic breeding specialist. It migrates to the southern hemisphere in winter. In the East Atlantic Arctic, it breeds throughout Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland (except the North and Northeast), the Faroe Islands, and around most of Fennoscandia. It is well-known for stealing prey from other birds. There are three morphs of Arctic skuas: the pale morph shown below which is most common in the East Atlantic Arctic, an intermediate morph, and a mostly uniform dark morph.
- The Long-tailed skua Stercorarius longicaudus. Like the Arctic skua, this is a circumpolar Arctic breeder which winter in the southern hemisphere. It is about the same size as the Arctic skua (41-46cm in length for wingspans of 105-115cm). In the East Atlantic Arctic, it breeds in northern and mountainous areas of Norway, eastern Greenland, northwestern Greenland, and Svalbard.
- The Great skua Catharacta skua. This large skua species (lengths of 53-58cm for wingspans of 125-140cm) is a vagrant that winters at sea in the North Atlantic without a set migration path. It breeds in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, and the northern British islands like the Shetlands. Since the 1970's, it has also started breeding in Svalbard, where it is now considered a common breeder. It is a common winter visitor to Norway and southern Greenland.
- The Pomarine skua Stercorarius pomarinus. This medium-sized skua ressembles the Arctic skua (light morph) and long-tailed skua in color, but with a stockier build and larger size (46-51cm in length for wingspans between 113-125cm). It is a common visitor to Svalbard and Iceland. This article describes in detail how to identify juveniles of the Arctic skua, long-tailed skua, and pomarine skua.
Arctic skua (pale morph). The Arctic skua has a slightly stockier build compared to the Long-tailed skua, a slightly longer neck, and proportionnally longer bill. There is a white "flash" under the wing. The cap is slightly lighter.
Long-tailed skua. Adults can be identified from the Arctic skua by the very long tail and dark primary feather (the longest in the wings) without white underneath. The brown color of the plumage is colder-toned.
- "Ivory Gull Portrait" by jomilo75 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- "Parasitic Jaeger (Arctic Skua)" by Aaron Maizlish is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- "Great Skua (Stercorarius skua)" by Noel Reynolds is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
- "Long-tailed Skua (Long-tailed Jaeger) (Stercorarius longicaudus) summer adult" by Allan Hopkins is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
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- "Tyvjo (Stercorarius parasiticus) Parasitic jaeger" by NTNU, Faculty of Natural Sciences is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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