Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Gulls and Terns


Bonaparte's Gull Chroicocephalus philadelphia

This small gull breeds in the far north in inland ponds and marshes.  It winters on both coasts and is mainly a migrant in the interior United States other than the southeast.  In Maricopa County, this bird is mainly a spring and fall migrant, especially in late fall and some of early winter.  Watch for Bonaparte's Gulls throughout spring migration, but mainly in fall during the month of November and the early stages of December, where larger numbers pass through.  March and April are the best times during spring, but they are harder to find.  Look on different ponds and lakes throughout the county.


Franklin's Gull Leucophaeus pipixcan

This beautiful gull is common in the Great Plains, where it nests on prairie marshes and lakes.  It is sometimes seen on agricultural lands, where it follows farming machines to feed on insects kicked up from the farm work.  Flying insects are also an important part of the Franklin's Gull's diet when they are over the ponds and lakes the gull inhabits.  The Franklin's Gull is a fairly widespread in North America, mainly in the western interior United States and is rare on both coasts.  In Arizona and Maricopa County, Franklin's Gulls are most often seen in spring migration, especially towards the end of March and throughout much of April.  It is very hard to find at other times.  Check lakes and ponds throughout the county during this time frame.


Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis

The Ring-billed Gull is the most common and widespread gull in North America.  It breeds on inland lakes of the north and is an abundant migrant and winter resident throughout the southern parts of the United States and both Pacific and Atlantic Coasts.  This is the easiest gull to see in Maricopa County, and is found throughout the year on different lakes and ponds throughout the area.  It has a very omnivorous diet and will eat just about anything, and is often seen at dumps feeding on trash.


California Gull Larus californicus

California Gulls summer and breed on lakes in western North America, and winter along the Pacific Coast in high numbers.  Migrants pass through the interior United States in good numbers, some of them being present in winter.  In Maricopa County, look for California Gulls as migrants and winter visitors throughout the year, especially in late fall/winter at different lakes and ponds.


Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia

The Caspian Tern is the largest tern in North America, and flies with wingbeats more typical of a gull than a tern.  It's large size, bill, and noticeable black on it's outer primaries help distinguish this tern from others.  Caspian Terns feed on fish, diving completely underwater to catch food source.  This bird is found along both coasts and also nests inland on lakes and rivers in the northern parts of the United States and some of Canada.  Caspian Terns are uncommon but regular throughout Arizona, visiting ponds and lakes.  In Maricopa County, they may show up at different times of the year, especially April through July.  Glendale Recharge Ponds and Tres Rios Overflow Wetlands (Area 7) have been some of the better places to see Caspian Terns in Maricopa County.


Black Tern Chlidonias niger

The distinctive and small Black Tern breeds on marshes, ponds, and wet meadows, where it feeds on flying insects.  It's breeding range is found further north than Arizona, consisting of much of Canada and the northern parts of the Lower 48.  This tern is a rather common migrant overall in North America, on both the interior and coasts.  In Maricopa County, the Black Tern is a migrant annually in uncommon but very regular numbers.  Good time frames to see them in are:  May-early June, and late July through much of September.  Look in different ponds throughout the county, especially larger ponds that are more open and have a lot of space.


Common Tern Sterna hirundo

The Common Tern is a medium-sized tern that breeds in northern inland lakes throughout Canada and the some of the Northern 48.  It gathers in high numbers to feed on fish by diving in the water.  This bird is a very common coastal and inland migrant on the east, less common in the western interior although common on the Pacific Coast.  The Common Tern is best seen on the Lower Colorado River in western Arizona in good numbers, but is uncommon elsewhere throughout Arizona.  The time frame they typically migrate through Arizona is very short, especially during September.  Keep an eye out for this bird in September especially in Maricopa County on different ponds and lakes.


Forster's Tern Sterna forsteri

The Forster's Tern nests throughout North America inland on marshes, where it plunge-dives into the water for fish.  In migration, this bird is found on both coasts as well as inland marshes and lakes.  Forster's Terns are medium-sized and is the same size as the similar Common Tern.  In the photograph below, the Forster's Tern is the bird on the left, while the tiny Least Tern is the bird on the right.  In Maricopa County and the rest of Arizona, the Forster's Tern is strictly a migrant.  Some years may result in seeing Forster's Terns often in the county, and then they can seem absent and scarce in other years.  Sightings are scattered of this bird mainly from spring through fall, especially in late summer and September.


Also keep an eye out for...


Least Tern Sternula antillarum

The tiny and interesting Least Tern is the smallest tern in North America.  This little bird dwarfs in size comparison to other terns (except Black) and a list of other waterbirds.  It is often missed due to it's tiny size.  It looks very graceful in flight as most terns do, and it feeds by plunge diving into the water for fish.  There are two subspecies of Least Terns in North America: Coastal and Inland populations.  Inland birds are endangered, due to human disturbance and destruction of habitat.  Remarkably, the two pairs of inland Least Terns decided to nest recently in 2009 in Maricopa County's own Glendale Recharge Ponds (Area 7).  It was the first nesting record for the county (discovered and well monitered by Melanie Herring), as well as the state of Arizona.  One pair was successful and raised a fledged juvenile bird, while the other pair attemped to nest and weren't successful.  Besides this breeding record, Least Terns are considered rare in Arizona but have become annual in recent years in Maricopa County during spring and fall migrations (usually in May/beginning June and sometimes August).  The Glendale Recharge Ponds and Agua Fria Riverbed (Area 7), and Gilbert Water Ranch (Area 4), have held several records apiece in the last few years. 


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