The Black-headed Gull is an easily recognised small gull and is common throughout Europe.
Although still thought of by some as just a seaside nester, Black-headed Gulls breed in almost any wetland habitat from inland sites such as gravel pits to coastal marshes. In the winter, Black-headed Gulls can be encountered anywhere, even stealing food from birdtables! Black-headed Gulls are slim-looking birds with a domed head, slender bill and clearly pointed wings. There are distinct summer and winter plumages for the adults and immatures. Blackheaded Gulls fly with a buoyant jaunty action with fast wingbeats. They are also adept at gliding, soaring and hawking (at great height) for insects.
A first-summer Black-headed Gull resembles a ‘mix’ of adult and immature plumage, moulting out of its first-winter plumage between February and April. The head shows a brownish hood, flecked with varying amounts of white. The wings show some traces of its juvenile plumage and the tail retains a dark terminal band. The bill has a dark tip and orangey base, while the legs are also orange.
Adult summer Black-headed Gulls are very easy to identify, and the distinctive plumage is generally attained in February or March. The head shows a chocolate-brown hood, with a partial thin white eyering. The hindneck is white. The mantle and most of the wing are silvery-grey, looking very pale in some lights. The flight feathers are white with bold black tips. The rump and slightly rounded tail are white, as are the entire underparts. The bill, legs and feet are a rather dark reddish, while the eye is black.
When a first-winter ‘Blackhead’ is seen in flight, the brown on the wings is seen easily, contrasting with the grey mantle and inner wing. Note the broad blackish trailing edge on the upperwing. The black tail band is also clear.
Both plumages share a very distinctive upperand underwing pattern. Notice on the upperwing the strong white leading edge, contrasting with the black trailing edge to the outer wing feathers – the primary feathers. The underwing is silvery-grey except for a large dusky panel towards the end of the wing, while the white leading edge and black trailing edge are still obvious especially on adults.
First-winter Black-headed Gulls resemble adult winter birds except for more mottling on the head, and the wings show a large amount of brown on the coverts, secondaries and tertials. The tail shows a broad black terminal band. The bill shows a muddy-orange base and a black tip, and the legs are also muddy-orange in colour. The eye is black.
An adult winter Black-headed Gull shows identical plumage to the summer bird except for the head pattern. In winter plumage, Black-headed Gulls show a white head, with a dark spot behind the eye which appears very smudgy and two dark bands that run up and across the crown. The bill colour becomes darker and duller on the base and the tip can look blackish. The leg colour becomes dull orangey-red.