Herring Gulls
Larus argenatus

Herring gulls, the most widespread gull in North America, are some of the larger gulls on the Island. Adults have white heads, pale gray backs, and yellow bills with a red spot on the lower beak. Immatures are brownish with black tipped pink bills. An easy way to identify a herring gull is by the way that it eats. Herring gulls will fly up in the air and drop a clam on the beach to open the shell, being careful with the timing since he doesn’t want another bird to steal his food. Although herring gulls are seen year-round on Kiawah, they are more commonly seen on Kiawah’s beach and ponds during the winter.



Gulls are the most common bird that you will see on Kiawah’s beach any time of the year. They’re about 16 inches tall, with gray upper bodies, white under bodies, webbed feet, and medium sized stout beaks with a hook on the end.  These highly adaptable birds eat crabs, small fish, crustaceans, and insects, but mostly they are scavengers, stealing scraps of food, garbage, and even other birds’ eggs. They are quick and sneaky birds, often waiting near other birds, hoping that they will drop their lunches. 

Although there are a number of different species of gulls on the Island, young gulls of all species look somewhat alike, with brownish speckled feathers. If you quietly watch the gulls, you may notice some interesting ways that they interact with each other. One gull may display dominance by loudly cackling, nodding his head and upper body, flapping his wings, and even chasing other birds away. Notice how gulls show submission, by turning their heads and walking away. One of the benefits of gulls is that they will eat anything. These assertive and adaptable birds are survivalists, and are quite helpful in keeping our beach clean.

Photo by Jim Chitwood

Laughing Gull
Leucophaeus atricilla

Laughing gulls are medium-sized seagulls. During the summer, they have dark gray backs, black heads, and red bills. As winter approaches, their feathers molt leaving behind lightened white heads with gray smudges and dark bills. Laughing gulls are common year-round on Kiawah's beaches, ponds, creeks, and marshes. 

If you happen to be eating on the beach, you may hear the loud cackling of laughing gulls before you see them. They often congregate in groups of other gulls and may even intermingle with other species of birds on the beach.

Photo by Pamela Cohen

Brown Pelican
Pelecanus occidentalis

Brown pelicans are large shorebirds with massive pouched bills. Adult pelicans are grayish-brown with white heads and necks. During the breeding season, the pelicans’ necks turn a rich brown.

At the beach, brown pelicans can be spotted flying over the ocean and dunes in lines or in “V shaped” formations. From high up in the sky, a pelican will slowly turn and then plunge down towards the water to grab an unsuspecting fish in its large beak and expandable neck pouch. Brown pelicans can travel up to 40 miles per hour and live year round on Kiawah. At Captain Sam’s Spit on Kiawah, brown pelicans can be observed patiently waiting on the shore’s edge, ready to grab extra fish flying through the air from dolphin strandfeeding.

Brown pelicans made a remarkable recovery from near extinction during 1950’s to 70’s after the 1972 banning of DDT in the United States. This is an excellent example of how research and awareness can work together to educate the public, promote change, and protect wildlife. If you think about dinosaurs as you watch the brown pelicans on the beach, it may be because pelicans have changed very little during the past 40 million years. 

Photo by Jane Lurie

American Oystercatcher
Haematopus palliatus

Oystercatchers, shy migratory birds on Kiawah, are easy to identify because of their black heads and distinctive orange eyes and long red beaks. Look for these fairly large birds on the eastern and western ends of the beach, from 17 to 21 inches tall, with brownish-black feathers on their upper bodies, and white feathers on their underside. Oystercatchers use their sharp, needle-like beaks to stab at unsuspecting bivalves--oysters, clams, and mussels that have partially opened their shells. These birds try to disable the muscle that is used to close the shell before the shellfish snaps it closed. Because oystercatchers diet primarily on shellfish, they walk more than they fly. 

Photo by Pamela Cohen