Gulls of Helsinki

This spring, while I was introducing friends of mine to birdwatching in Helsinki, I taught them the differences between the most common gull species we could observe there. Later on, I opened this blog and thought that it could be a good topic for an article, especially since gulls are generally not shy animals: they are easy to spot, and easy to shoot.

French-speaking readers: I have included French names; please make sure you don’t miss the footnote.

Common gull (Larus canus)

fr – Goéland cendré

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The most common gull in Helsinki is everywhere. You’ll see it in Kauppatori (see my tourist guide of the city for places), waiting for some human to drop a chunk of bread or a piece of salmon. On my first photography trip after I had bought my tele-lens, I went to Suomenlinna and was totally mesmerized by the ballet of gulls, mainly Common gulls, following the ferry and fishing in its wake.

This bird is not so common in France, at least according to my experience, unlike the two following species.

Identification criteria

Medium size

Grey back

White head

Yellow bill

Yellow-greenish legs

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Black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)

fr – Mouette rieuse

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A very common gull in Europe; its French name means “laughing gull”. In Helsinki (well, actually in Espoo), there is an important colony in Suomenoja (3400 pairs in 2008). If you go there, you can’t miss them: they are noisy!

Identification criteria

Small

Grey back

Brown hood

Red bill

Red legs

gull6

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European herring gull (Larus canus)

fr – Goéland argenté

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Even though it’s one of the most common gulls in northern Europe (including Brittany), it is a discreet host to the Finnish coast. Its role in France is here occupied by the Common gull, but I still managed to catch it in Vanhakaupunki, in the rapids of Vantaanjoki.

Identification criteria

Large

Grey back

White head

Yellow bill, with a red spot underneath

Pink legs

 

Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus)

fr – Goéland brun

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This one is not so common either, as sometimes you see one in a flock of Common gulls, for instance following the boat going to Suomenlinna, taking advantage of it moving the water underneath, bringing fishes and molluscs to the surface.

Identification criteria

Large – medium size

Black back

White head

Yellow bill, with a red spot underneath

Yellow legs

gull11

 

The taxonomy of these last two species is quite contested, with authoritie not agreeing about which form should be a species and which should not. This is not specific to gulls, as recent improvements in genetical analysis have brought us to interesting discoveries in the field of bird classification. The coming years promise to be fascinating.

Furthermore, these identification criteria deal with adult gulls. Gull plumage is a complicated thing, and depending on the species, the birds get their final plumage on the second (Black-headed gull), third (Common gull) or fourth year (Herring gull). Therefore, I gave you the very basics of gull identification (adult birds during mating period), but nothing more. In any case, I don’t have the knowledge to give an exhaustive lecture.

fr – Note for French readers: Vous savez sans doute que nous, on a les mouettes, et les goélands. Apparemment, le français est le seul langage à faire la différence, différence basée sur, si j’en crois Internet, ben… pas grand chose, en fait! Les goélands désignent plutôt les grosses espèces, notamment celles issues du genre Larus (mais pas que), tandis que les mouettes désignent généralement des espèces de taille plus réduite. Là encore, rien de bien concret… Vive la France ! 😀

Néanmoins, maintenant vous saurez distinguer une mouette d’un goéland, en tout cas en ce qui concerne ces espèces assez communes. Une belle occasion de briller en société !

Photo-quiz

What species does this gull belong to? You have two hours!

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> Wildlife gallery

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