Gulls & Terns

Water is the source of life. Virtually no living creature can survive without it. But water has an importance that goes beyond the vital task of supplying fluid for life. It forms the habitat not only for mankind, but also for birds, animals and plants.

Water is equally important to our economic well-being. Communities have historically been built around waterways, a convenient and economical means of transportation since the beginnings of history. Water transportation is a vital part of today’s world.

In previous years there was less sensitivity to the need for environmental protection for waterways and the surrounding wetlands and marshes. Today we know that the maritime industry and the natural environment can coexist, bringing economic vitality to a region as well as the pleasures that come from walking along the water’s edge and enjoying the natural wetlands.

As you visit the marshes and beaches and natural areas along the Port of Oakland’s shoreline, you’ll have a chance to encounter a large variety of gulls, terns and small animals.

These are some of the birds that you are likely to see if you sit quietly and watch and listen:

Western Gull

One of the largest gulls on the Bay, measuring up to 27 inches from bill to tail, the Western gull lives here year-round. The adult has a white head, yellow eyes, a yellow bill with a red dot on the lower mandible, dark wings with white spots at the tips and pink legs and feet. Some 3,000 nest on Bay islands and bridges, and an estimated 30,000 nest on the Farallon Islands. From October to April, more arrive on the Bay from outlying nesting sites.

California Gull

This looks like a slightly smaller version of the western gull, except that it has dark eyes, the wings are a lighter gray and the legs and feet are greenish. It lives throughout western United States and Canada, nesting on islands in salt, alkaline and freshwater lakes. There are approximately 50,000 California gulls in the South Bay, making it the most common gull here.

Herring Gull

This gull is similar to the California gull, but has white eyes and pink legs and feet. It tends to be a scavenger, following boats and frequenting dumps. It spends the winter in the Bay area, nesting in northern Canada and Alaska.

Mew Gull

The gull is so-named because its call sounds like a low mewing. This is a small gull, about 16 inches long, with a white head, a short yellow bill, white spots on black wingtips and yellow legs and feet. It nests in Alaska and northern Canada, but spends the winter in the Bay area.

Caspian Tern

The largest North American tern, the stocky Caspian tern is about the size of a California gull, approximately 21 inches from head to tail. The adult has a brilliant orange bill, a black cap which fades in winter, and black legs and feet. The body is light gray above and white below. It is common on the Bay in the spring and summer.

Elegant Tern

The aptly named Elegant tern visits the central and south Bay between July and October. It is slightly smaller than the Caspian tern, with a long thin, orange bill, and black cap, legs and feet. Its tail is much more deeply forked than that of the Caspian gull.

Forster's Tern

This tern looks like a smaller version of the Caspian except that its bill is thinner and orange-red as are its legs and feet. Its tail is deeply forked. The Caspian gull, with a length of 14 inches, is the most common tern on the Bay during the spring nesting season and the summer.

California Least Tern

With a length of only 9 inches, the California least tern is the smallest North Americana tern. It resembles the Forster’s tern except that its bill, legs and feet are orange-yellow instead of orange-red and its wing beat is quicker. It has black wing tips during the breeding season. The species was listed as endangered in 1970 but today is making a slow comeback. <!–Approximately 100 pairs of terns have been found nesting in colonies at the Alameda Naval Air Station and the Oakland International Airport, where they are now protected.

Colleen Liang, Director of Environmental Programs and Planning

Colleen Liang

Director of Environmental Programs and Planning

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