The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


June 28, 2014

Old friends at the beach

BECKLEY — If your summer vacation plans include a trip to an east coast beach, I can’t predict everything you might see. But one bird that I guarantee you’ll encounter many times is the laughing gull.

I’ve been visiting the beaches of southern New Jersey almost every year since I was a boy, and if Jersey beach resorts had a mascot, it should be the laughing gull. They’re everywhere. Early in the morning just after dawn, they patrol the surf zone foraging for crabs and small fish. If a smaller tern flies by with a mouthful of food, they often harass the tern and force it to drop its meal.

At midday when the beach is filled with sunbathers, laughing gulls escape the chaos on bay side islands, but at dinnertime, as the crowds begin to thin, they return. And they’ve learned that people are a great source of junk food.

Laughing gulls find bread, popcorn, and pretzels irresistible, and sometimes swoop in by the blanket and grab treats from outstretched fingers. Feed these birds at your own peril because in just minutes they feel welcome and can become a bothersome pest.

At 17 inches long with a 40-inch wingspan and weighing just 11 ounces, laughing gulls are medium sized gulls with black heads, white eye-rings, and red bills. They are handsome birds and, because they preen frequently, rarely is a feather out of place. Plus, they can immediately be recognized by their loud, laughing voice.

Several other gulls are commonly seen at east coast summer beaches and again I can guarantee you’ll see them this time of year. Ring-billed gulls have white heads, gray backs, measure about 18 inches long with a 48-inch wingspan, weigh just over a pound, and have a telltale dark ring near the tip of the yellow bill.

Herring gulls are similar, but at 25 inches with a 58-inch wingspan and weighing 2.5 pounds, noticeably larger. The herring gull’s yellow bill is marked by a red spot near its tip.

Both herring and ring-billed gulls also occur inland. In fact, just last week I saw a report that there were at least 15 active herring gull nests on the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh.

In midwinter, when thousands of gulls gather to roost on frozen rivers, most are ring-billed gulls. And these are the gulls that often gather at landfills, garbage Dumpsters, and fast food restaurants. When you see gulls scavenging food inland along major rivers, they are usually ring-billed gulls.

The great black-backed gull is a huge bird that at a distance might initially be mistaken for a bald eagle. Great black-backs measure 30 inches long, with a 65-inch wingspan, and weigh about 3.6 pounds. The yellow bill is massive and marked by a red spot at the tip. When seen with other gulls, great black-backs stand out by size alone.

Great black-backed gulls are highly predatory and can swallow young waterfowl and small seabirds whole. I once saw one on a bay in Maine menace a hen common eider and her brood. Ultimately it grabbed the smallest duckling and swallowed it in one gulp.

Occasionally I’ve seen lone great black-backs on the beach, but more often I’ve seen them at boat docks and near seafood restaurants on the water. I suspect they clean up debris from fishing boats and tourists’ dinners.

Though usually much smaller than gulls, several species of terns frequent east coast beaches. Usually I see them fishing just off shore. Their flight is buoyant, and they often hover just before dropping into the water to grab a small fish.

As the name suggests, common terns (12 inches long, 30-inch wingspan, 4 ounces) are the most likely terns to be seen. The black cap and red bill are distinctive.

Least terns (nine inches long, 20-inch wingspan, 1.5 ounces) are half the size of a blue jay, so their diminutive size and white forehead make them easy to recognize. Because they nest on the same sandy beaches that tourists enjoy, they are most often seen from behind fences on protected beaches off limits to the public.

— Dr. Scott Shalaway can be heard 8 to 10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) or online at Visit Scott’s website www.drshalawaycom or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV  26033.


Text Only
  • 071714 Coda and Callie.jpg Coda and Callie’s excellent adventure

    How is it something that you profess to love so much can cause you so much anxiety and grief? No, I’m not talking about dealing with your children (or your spouse). This is worse. This is about dogs. More specifically, hunting dogs. 

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • 071314 Chris Ellis.jpg DNR’s ‘outdoor summer school’

    Attention all West Virginia hunters and trappers. It is once again time for outdoor summer school and the course materials are hot off the presses.

    July 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Meet the Eurasian collared-dove

    Back in 1974 a local pigeon fancier imported a flock of about 50 Eurasian collared-doves to the Bahamas. Ultimately he released the birds, and they took to living in the West Indies. By the late 1970s some had reached south Florida, and by the late 1980s, some had been seen in Georgia and Arkansas.

    July 13, 2014

  • July in W.Va.: Recreational opportunities abound

    It’s July in the West Virginia mountains, which brings vibrant orange tiger lilies, blooming rhododendron, and of course fireworks. Usually the heat and humidity is in full force, but so far the weather has been nice.

    July 13, 2014

  • Shotgun 101: Shoot more and live better

    “God is not on the side of big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best.”
    — Voltaire

    July 9, 2014

  • Fireflies are living lights

    At recent Fourth of July fireworks displays, spectators squealed with delight at the annual spectacle that illuminated the night sky. And I’m sure more than a few compared the spectacular pyrotechnics to the subtler displays of fireflies that punctuate backyards, parks, and campgrounds all summer long. We call these displays “nature’s fireworks.”

    July 5, 2014

  • Get on up, or you’ll get left behind

    “Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course.” —
    William Shakespeare

    July 3, 2014

  • Catfish, it's whats for dinner

    I think for far too long the catfish has had an image problem. They seemed to be the Rodney Dangerfield of the fish world. You know, they got no respect. Fortunately though (maybe unfortunately if you are a catfish), that seems to be in the past. They are a fish whose time has come.

    June 28, 2014

  • It’s more than a boat, it’s an adventure

    Growing up on Elk River, I couldn’t help being connected to the river and its waters. It is where I caught my first fish, learned to swim, paddle a canoe, to read water and throw a buzz bait, killed my first duck, gigged frogs and spent many a Saturday night fishing for catfish. We lived in a river bank community, and the Elk provided us with everything from water for our homes to all the recreation a young boy would need to fill his youthful requirements for adventure.

    June 28, 2014

  • Old friends at the beach

    If your summer vacation plans include a trip to an east coast beach, I can’t predict everything you might see. But one bird that I guarantee you’ll encounter many times is the laughing gull.

    June 28, 2014

Web Special Sections
  • Special Web Sections

    Click HERE for stories about natural gas and Marcellus shale gas extraction.

    Click HERE for stories about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

    Click HERE for stories about the passing of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

    Click HERE for stories from The Greenbrier Classic PGA TOUR event.

    August 6, 2010

Helium debate
AP Video
US Airlines Cancel Israel Flights Obama Signs Workforce Training Law Crash Victims' Remains Reach Ukraine-held City Diplomatic Push Intensifies to End War in Gaza Obama Offers Condolences at Dutch Embassy Cat Fans Lap Up Feline Film Festival Raw: Lawmakers Scuffle in Ukraine's Parliament The Rock Finds His Inner 'Hercules' Michigan Plant's Goal: Flower and Die Raw: MH17 Passenger Remains in Kharkiv, Ukraine Raw: Israel Hits Gaza Targets, Destroys Mosques ShowBiz Minute: Hoffman, Oberst, Box Office WWII Vet Gets Medals, 70 Years Late Raw: Israel Bombs Multiple Targets in Gaza Veteran Creates Job During High Unemployment Raw: Cargo Craft Undocks From Space Station Widow: Jury Sent Big Tobacco a $23B Message New Orleans Plans to Recycle Cigarette Butts UN Security Council Calls for MH 17 Crash Probe Obama Bestows Medal of Honor on NH Veteran