Bonaparte’s Gull – A Different Kind of Gull


Posted 2/26/07
by Paul Kerlinger
Outdoor Editor

Cape May, NJ - When most of us who live at the Jersey shore think about gulls, we usually don’t think about the delicate and graceful Bonaparte’s Gull (called “Bonies” by birders).

Instead, we focus immediately on Laughing Gulls stealing hot dogs from a picnic table or the enormous Great Black-backed Gulls dropping clam shells on our houses.

In fact, we generally don’t like gulls.

I was reminded of how different some gulls are while my wife and I were taking a recent winter beach walk.

At first, we spotted only a couple of Bonies farther ahead on the beach. As we got closer, the few, scattered birds turned out to be a flock of nearly 300!

We were able to approach within about 10 yards as they dipped their faces into the water catching seemingly invisible food.

Unlike the larger gulls that eat fish, carrion, garbage, and even some small birds, Bonies mostly eat crustaceans and other large zooplankton. They swim in small circles or zigzags looking for food that is often less than one-half inch in length.

When they see a small shrimp or amphipod, they duck their heads briefly, pull their heads out of the water and swallow the morsel. It happens so quickly that you almost never see anything in their beak.

In fact, Bonies are so different that they don’t even act like gulls most of the time.

They nest in the forests of Canada well away from water.

As bizarre as this may sound, they actually make their nests in spruce and fir trees unlike Laughing Gulls that nest in the marshes behind Wildwood and other barrier islands.

Bonies are only seen along our shores, as opposed to inland, and they normally are seen during fall and spring migration, while on their way farther south.

A few do remain for the winter, although they are much less numerous than during migration.

The flock of nearly 300 Bonies that we had stumbled upon between Cape May Point State Park and Cape May's Cove beach is somewhat unusual along the Jersey shore during February.

They were apparently drawn to the site by the drifting seaweed that was accumulating on the beach by onshore winds.

A storm had loosened the seaweed and east winds were pushing the weeds into the shallow water adjacent to the beach. Much of it had already been washed ashore and was forming a thick wrack line.

The washed up seaweed also attracted shorebirds and some of the more obnoxious gulls.

Perhaps 200 Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, and Dunlin, along with two Red Knot were also working the wrack line looking for the same types of crustaceans as were being eaten by the Bonies.

Birding Tips

Bonaparte's Gulls are easiest to see during fall (late October-November) and spring (March and April) migration.

Perhaps as climate change keeps our ocean temperatures slightly warmer, many more Bonies will be spotted in winter.

Best bets for sighting them are the Avalon Sea Watch, Hereford Inlet and the Cape May beachfront.

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