The Gull That Nests in Trees

Bonaparte's gull on nest, Churchill (photo by Dr. Matthew Perry, Pawtuxent Wildlife Research Center, USGS)

Gulls always nest on the ground, right?

Wrong!  There’s one gull species in North America, migrating through western Pennsylvania this week, that nests in trees.

Bonaparte’s gulls seem to lead double lives.  In the winter they’re just like any other gull on the coast, loafing near humans on the beach and skimming the ocean to catch small fish.  Their beautiful moth-like flight sets them apart but otherwise they’re unremarkable.  In winter they look like this:

Bonaparte's gulls loafin on the beach in Florida (photo by Chuck Tague)


In the spring they molt into sharp black, gray and white breeding plumage.

Bonaparte's gull in breeding plumage (photo by Chuck Tague)


But even before their heads turn black they migrate north, passing through Pittsburgh along the Ohio River.  Their peak numbers often occur on the same day every year, April 10 at Dashields Dam.

When the Bonaparte’s get home to the boreal forest they eat insects on the wing, build their nests in conifers, and become so secretive that they’re hard to find.  That’s the other half of their double lives.

Here come the “Bonnies.”  They’re heading for the trees.


(nest photo by Dr. Matthew Perry, Pawtuxent Wildlife Research Center USGS. Click on the image to see the original.  Bonaparte’s gull portraits by Chuck Tague)

4 thoughts on “The Gull That Nests in Trees

    1. Hmmmm! Eagles are messy killers compared to peregrines. By the time the meal reaches the peregrine nest it’s dead, killed in transit by a bite to the neck. Not so easy to die at the “hand” of an eagle.

  1. The Hays Eagles had a gull for dinner last night – and there are lots of nice white feathers lining the nest now!

    1. Wild Sow, yes I saw that. I didn’t like the streaming … I think that was probably the gull. 🙁

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