Natural La Jolla: Western gulls a common sight along our coast

Kelly Stewart, Ph.D. is a postdoc with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Contact her at

By Kelly Stewart

A walk along our shore would not be complete without seeing one of our regular residents — the Western gull. This large gull is easy to identify with its pure white head and underparts, pink legs and feet, a slatey gray back and a red spot on the lower half of its yellow beak (in adult plumage).

As opportunistic foragers, gulls may steal fish from other birds or have a look through a discarded paper bag for tasty scraps. They also collect hard-shelled prey like sea urchins, flying them up high over a rock or other hard surface and then dropping them to smash the shell and expose the soft parts. Western gulls even steal milk from seal mothers while the seals lie sleeping on the beach.

A western gull — Larus occidentalis— rests on a cliff. Photo: Kelly Stewart

The Western gull is the only gull to nest in coastal Southern California. Around the Cove where the cormorants sit drying their wings, you may see these birds sitting on their solitary nests on rocky outcroppings. Nests are shallow depressions on the ground lined with seaweed and other dried material. Mating in late April and early May, both parents tend to the nest, incubate the eggs (usually three) and take care of the chicks once they’ve hatched.

One of the parents incubates eggs in the nest. Photo: Kelly Stewart

I’ve watched a pair of gulls each spring for the past three years nesting on the chimney across the street from my porch. I’m not sure it’s the same pair, but I’m excited to see how many chicks there will be (there were two last year and only one the year before). Any day now I’m expecting to see fluffy gray heads sticking out of the nest, begging for food. Each day the chicks grow larger and venture a little further from the nest. They parade clumsily around on the rooftop, making a racket when they see their parents approach with a meal. The parents will feed their chicks throughout the summer months until the chicks can fly and catch their own food.

Gathering nest-building material. Photo: Kelly Stewart

Although Western gulls appear to be common, their numbers are thought to be declining as harsh El Niño seasons take a toll on chick production.

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Posted by Kathy Day on Jun 1, 2011. Filed under Columns, Editorial Columns, Featured Story, La Jolla, Natural La Jolla, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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