Gulls in and around South Africa

Article and photo by Lynette Oxley

Gulls are a common sight in and around South Africa, especially along our coastal and inland waters. These gregarious, aggressive birds are usually very vocal and noticeable close to human habitations. They are in the same family (Laridae) as terns and skuas. Confusion arises between especially skuas and gulls. People sometimes incorrectly refer to a certain type of skua as a "pirate gull". These aggressive, gull-like birds occur along the coast, after a storm and is brown in colour. They are oceanic birds whereas gulls frequent coastal and inland waters. The family Laridae includes medium to large birds with strong, hooked (at the tip) bills (Skuas and gulls) or pointed bills (terns). Skuas and gulls have robust bodies while it is more slender in terns. Feathers are dense and water resistant and enable these birds to float on the water easily.

Although gulls are aggressive, big birds with short, strong beaks, they are not equipped for hunting any live prey. These scavengers of the sea mostly feed on dead fish and animal matter while sometimes stealing food from other gulls/birds or robbing other bird nest's for eggs and nestlings. Gulls do sometimes eat molluscs (shellfish) which they carry up to a height and then drop on rocks to break the shell.

"Scraps" with other gulls and birds over food are usually accompanied by loud calls. On several occasions while fishing at Sodwana Bay in Kwa Zulu/Natal we saw territorial and food tiffs between greyheaded gulls and yellowbilled kites (Milvus migrans). The yellowbilled kite always came of second best because the gulls used their robust bodies and aggressive mentality effectively. Although the yellowbilled kites are highly manoeuvrable in flight, swooping down to pick up prey and sometimes rob other raptors of prey, they just did not seem to make the grade in this situation.

Also in Sodwana Bay we saw an over anxious and ambitious greyheaded gull go for a fisherman's spoon lying in the sand and getting itself terribly tangled in the attached fishing line. It took a team of 3 rescuers, and one jacket, 30 minutes to free the bird, while keeping a sharp eye out for the bird's beak. The gull got away unscathed, but I am not so sure that it has learned its lesson about spoons yet.

We also saw a large social group of Southern blackbacked gulls (Kelp gulls) at the new harbour in Hermanus during a recent trip. These large birds' activities were centres around waiting for the big fishing trawlers to come into the harbour. When this happened, these birds get very vocal and the harbour becomes a hive of activity with fights about who is going to get what piece of offal.

Three gull species are commonly found in South Africa namely the Harlaub's gull (Larus Harlaubii), the grey-headed gull (Larus cirrocephalus) and the southern blackbacked gull or kelp gull (Larus dominicanus). Other gulls found in South Africa are the lesser blackbacked gull (Larus fuscus), the Herring gull (Larus agentatus), the Franklin's gull (Larus pipixcon) and the blackheaded gull (Larus ridibundus).

In this article we will only concentrate on the three most common species in South Africa.

I)Hartlaub's gull (Larus hartlaubii) The smallest of our gulls is the Hartlaub's gull, which is a highly gregarious gull that frequents human habitations such as gardens, parks, restaurants and fishing vessels. This fairly tame but wary gulls are never found to far out to sea and is common resident on the South African West Coast. It is vagrant to the Eastern Cape and Kwa Zulu Natal. In Cape Town this is a very familiar gull and can be seen bathing in urban ponds, roosting on roof tops, at rubbish dumps and then away from the city centre at estuaries and cultivated farmlands. Harlaub's gulls are not found on freshwater lakes.

As with many other birds' names, the Afrikaans name for the Harlaub's gull, "Hartlaub'se sterretjie" ('sterretjie' literally translated as the diminutive form of star), is confused with its tern family members. In many cases the Afrikaans name for a tern is "sterretjie" for example the Caspian tern is called the "Reuse sterretjie" (giant star), the Royal tern the "Koning sterretjie" (King star) and the Swift tern the "geelbeksterretjie' (Yellowbilled star)

Harlaub's gull is also the gull one find fighting for food scraps at garden restaurants. Other food sources included dead fish, insects and earth worms. Ships are also followed out to sea for offal but not as far out as the Southern blackbacked gull. Insects are obtained from following ploughs and grabbing exposed insects in the soil or by catching them by streetlights at night.

Hybridization with the greyheaded gull does take place and breeding takes place in colonies from April to September.

ii)The greyheaded gull (Larus cirrocephalus)

This rarely solitary, gregarious bird is a little bigger than Hartlaub's Gull and smaller than the Southern blackbacked gull. Uncommon to the Harlaub's gull it is found on freshwater, inland lakes and is found throughout South Africa. These birds are highly vocal and calls with a loud cackle especially when they are flying over a food source or water and when they are breeding in colonies. Non-breeding flocks range from 5 - 20 birds while breeding flocks may number hundreds. Greyheaded gulls can also be found in South America and Madagascar but in South Africa they are only absent from parts of the Kalahari, Karoo and Namibia. Gauteng birds come from the south western Cape, the Free State, Harare, Angola and Maputu, probably because of post-breeding dispersal. Food includes offal, scraps, dead fish, insects, bird eggs and fledglings.

iii)The southern blackbacked gull or kelp gull (Larus dominicanus) This is a very large, robust bird, found on its own or in groups which forages on beaches, over water or on dumps. Kelp gulls sometimes follow ships 200 km offshore to obtain offal and are found around our entire coast, estuaries, offshore waters, rubbish dumps, etc. They are rarely found inland. Its Latin name "Dominicanus" comes from the distinctive black on its back that resembles the black mantles of the Dominican friars or the so-called black friars. The kelp gulls also have a fearsome, stout yellow bill with a red tip, which may give the impression of blood. Scavenging for offal and other refuse causes constant fighting and loud calls or 'mews" followed by a staccato ko-ko-ko-ko.

Gulls are birds full of character, aggression and gust and their social interaction and antics provide the onlooker with hours of amusement. Although these birds are quite common in South Africa they their interesting habits, make fascinating study material.

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