White-eyed Gull (L. leucophthalmus) & Sooty Gull (L. hemprichii)

(last update: 2-2-2011)

Avi Meir (Israel)
Mars Muusse (the Netherlands)


Sooty Gull L. hemprichii.

These two species are of medium size, about the size of or little smaller than a Common Gull (L. canus), but completely different in shape and behavior. They have long wings and a strong and powerful bill and head giving the impression of a larger sized gull at a distance. They are both dark grey above and have dark under-wing coverts in all ages. The dark head extends to the upper-breast and resembles an executioner's hood in adult White-eyed Gull. At rest, with folded wings they have an elongated rear end. In many ways they appear different from the other Western Palearctic gulls. 
Both White-eyed and Sooty Gulls develop a full adult plumage in three years, as can be found in e.g. Common Gull. They can be identified readably easily: first winter birds of both species show a complete dark juvenile tail, a plain grey scapular region and most wing-coverts are pale brown, obviously fringed in fresh plumage. Second winter birds show a blotched patterned tail with variable amount of black and second generation blackish primaries with rounded tops and white tips on at least the innermost primaries. In adults the tail is completely white. 
Grant (1997) mentions great variation in the timing of breeding among different population of both species. Since the timing of moult is fixed to the date of fledging, it's difficult to set date limits for subsequent moult strategies. Birds on this website were observed in Eilat, Israel and the southeast Sinai, Egypt. They may give an insight in what can be expected in this area. White-eyed Gull breeds commonly on Tiran Island, only a few kilometers from the Sinai coast were some pictures were taken. Sooty Gull breeds further south in the southern Red Sea and Persian Gulf but small numbers can be found in the Nabq National Park in SE Sinai, Egypt.

Mars Muusse spent the period 19 February to 05 March 2002 near Sharm El Sheik. This place lies close to the breeding sites of White-eyed Gull on Tiran Island, where 30-80 pairs were found in the 1970s-80s (Shirihai 1996). By September, White-eyed Gulls may aggregate to large feeding frenzies, with up to 1.000 or 2.000 individuals at the mouth of the Gulf of Suez. He only saw groups of maximum 6 individuals along the SE coast. 
White-eyed Gull and Sooty Gull both are omnivorous and scavenge the shores for food. Early in the morning, when the sea is still quite near Shark Bay, White-eyed Gulls used a Skimmer-like method of foraging; with fast stiff wing-beats they scanned the surface at close range and chased small fish living near the surface. This method had to be suspended as in the morning strong NE winds created small waves. During the day White-eyed Gulls could be found looking for food left-overs from tourists or just perched on the rocks along the entire coastline from Sharm El Sheik to Dahab (the range visited by Mars, late February). 
White-eyed Gulls seemed to be more a strolling species than Sooty, and was found near a few Bedouin huts at the beach of Nabq N.P. They seemed pretty bound to this site. Sometimes small groups of 2-4 White-eyed Gulls could turn up out of the open sea (the Gulf of Aquaba) or disappear further north in a characteristic stiff flight. White-eyed Gull is known to reach the shores of Eilat where it is recorded annually from the 1980s - with several tens on some days (August-October). Sooty Gull dispersion is a different story; up to year 2000 only a handful of Sooty Gulls were recorded near Eilat. 

White-eyed Gull (Larus leucophthalmus) 2CY

Compared to Sooty Gull, which is the only likely confusing species in the area, White-eyed Gull has a longer, thinner and slender bill, appearing all dark from a distance and clearly lacking the two-toned billed of Sooty Gull. The bill is slightly drooping and the gonydeal angle is practical absent, recalling Slender-billed Gull's bill. White-eyed Gull is smaller in size than Sooty and especially more elegantly build; lacking the high breast and strong neck characteristic for Sooty Gull. White-eyed Gull, as the name suggests, has two white crescents in all plumages and especially the upper crescent is very obvious. This is only a small crescent in Sooty Gull and the lower crescent is completely lacking in that species.
In fresh juvenile plumage, Sooty Gull is more contrastingly patterned by the clear white tips of the coverts, tertials and the white crescents of the juvenile scapulars, creating a scaly pattern. The fringes of the wing-covert are narrower and buffish brown in White-eyed Gull. By February (late winter) this difference is less obvious as the scapulars are moulted to second generation feathers and the wing-coverts are strongly bleached and abraded, lacking the pale tips in both species. 

Sooty Gull (Larus hemprichii) 2CY

Sooty Gull has a thicker and straighter bill, with a pronounced gonydeal angle. In all plumages the bill is clearly two-toned with a paler basal half and a dark tip. The basal half is yellowish-grey in immatures and yellow in adults. At close distance, the black tip of the bill in adult plumage appears to be a black bill-band with a small red tip. The eye crescent is worse-defined in Sooty, yet obvious above the eye, white in adults and off-white in first winter plumage, but never as conspicuous as in White-eyed Gull. Normally the lower crescent is missing, where White-eyed Gull shows a clear crescent both above and below the eye. 
Sooty Gull is more robust than White-eyed Gull with a strong neck and high breast. It has a steep forehead (sloped forehead in White-eyed) and a rounder head-shape in profile, unlike the elongated pointed head-shape of White-eyed. 
The base colour of White-eyed Gull is greyish or brown-grey with the accent on the grey hue. Sooty Gull is obvious warmer brown; the immatures warm brown on the head and neck and adults warmer brown on the scapulars and mantle. Sooty Gull lacks the black feathers present on the head of second winter and adult winter White-eyed Gulls.

2CY birds

Sooty Gull 2CY, March 04 2002, visitor's centre of Nabq National Park, SE Sinai, Egypt.

3CY birds

Sooty Gull 3CY with 2CY (back), March 04 2002, visitor's centre of Nabq National Park, SE Sinai, Egypt.
Sooty Gull 3CY, March 04 2002, visitor's centre of Nabq National Park, SE Sinai, Egypt.

sub-adult birds

near-adult Sooty Gull, March 04 2002, visitor's centre of Nabq National Park, SE Sinai, Egypt.

adult birds

Adult Sooty Gull, March 04 2002, visitor's centre of Nabq National Park, SE Sinai, Egypt.
With White-eyed Gull, March 04 2002, visitor's centre of Nabq National Park, SE Sinai, Egypt.