Laridae (gulls, terns, skimmers)

Number of genera: 23
Number of species: 105
Number of species completed: 21
In French: mouettes, goélands, sternes et becs-en-ciseaux en Français


The Laridae is one of the numerous families of the order Charadriiformes. Two former families are now grouped with the Laridae: “Rhynchopidae” (skimmers) and “Sternidae” (terns). Their inclusion within the Laridae is widely accepted. Formerly, the skuas (Stercorariidae) were included in it but are now unanimously classified as a separate family. The closest families are often grouped in a sub-order (Lari); in addition to the skuas, there are the Crab-Plover (Dromadidae), the pratincoles and coursers (Glareolidae) and the auks and puffins (Alcidae).

Gulls and terns are found everywhere on the planet, this family being possibly the most widespread of all.

Click here to see the legend used in family pages

Anous_stolidus_fam1.JPGGenus Anous – 5 species

Blue and Grey Noddies are little known birds of the Pacific Ocean, formerly placed in their own genus (Procelsterna) and sometimes grouped in a single species. Genetics studies have clearly shown that they are embedded in Anous and constitute 2 different species. However, although they might be basal of the family, exact position of the genus is still to be determined.

Noddies are widespread pelagic species of tropical ocean, mostly breeding on islands and are rarely seen near the shore.

Brown Noddy Anous stolidus – NA, photo above
Black Noddy Anous minutus NA
Lesser Noddy Anous tenuirostris – NA
Blue Noddy Anous ceruleus – ON REQUEST
Grey Noddy Anous albivitta – SPECIAL TARGET

Genus Gygis – 2 species

This small genus is probably related to Anous, but a definitive study is lacking. The 2 species might deserve to be lumped in one, Little White Tern is a little know taxon that should be researched properly. Status is unclear and it might be threatened.

Common White tern is Widespread in tropical Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, where it breeds on small islands and atolls.  Little White Tern is restricted to a few archipelagos of South-central Pacific Ocean (better know to the west, eastern limit unclear).

Common White Tern Gygis alba – ON REQUEST
Little White Tern Gygis microrhyncha – SPECIAL TARGET

Rynchops_niger_fam1Genus Rynchops – 3 species

Those spectacular birds are definitely Laridae, but their position inside the family is unclear. Some authors place them as basal of the family.

The 3 species are largely allopatric with one in Tropical America (widespread and often common), one in Africa (locally common but declining) and one in Asia (threatened, only good population now restricted to Northern India).

Black Skimmer Rynchops niger – NA, photo above and on very top
* African Skimmer Rynchops flavirostris
Indian Skimmer Rynchops albicollis – ON REQUEST, VULNERABLE

Genus Creagrus – 1 species

Monotypic genus, probably basal to all the gulls (Larinae sub-family). Its phenotype is clearly different to other genera and classification of Swallow-tailed Gull in a separate genus is accepted by all.

It breeds almost exclusively in the Galapagos, and migrate or disperses on South-Eastern Pacific, down to central Chile.

Swallow-tailed Gull Creagrus furcatus – ON REQUEST

Hydrocoloeus_minutus_fam1.jpgGenus Hydrocoloeus – 1 species

This small species is well distinct to all others, being probably closest to next genus. It was long placed in Larus, as most of the gulls, but classification in monotypic genus it now widely accepted.

It is fairly widespread in Eurasia, and colonised North America last century (first breeding in Canada in 1962) ; global population is decreasing.

Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus – NA, photo above

Genus Rhodostethia – 1 species

This gull is unique, most similar to Little Gull in non-breeding plumage and probably related to it. It is considered by some as basal to Chroicocephalus.

It is mainly breeding in Eastern Siberia with few and irregular pairs trying to breed in Canada (with little success) and Greenland. Most seems to winter around Bering straits, but details are little known.

Ross’s Gull Rhodostethia rosea – SPECIAL TARGET

Rissa_tridactyla_fam1.JPGGenus Rissa – 2 species

This is a very distinct genus of two closely related species. Both are pelagic, usually breed on islands and cliffs along the shore and live mainly far at sea of the year at sea. Black-legged Kittiwake is the most abundant gull species on Earth, but declining quickly because of over-fishing, climate change and direct hunting (in places such Faeroe and Greenland). It lives in both Northern Atlantic Ocean and Northern Pacific, while Red-legged exist only in North Pacific (where they live sympatrically).

Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla – NA
Red-legged Kittiwake Rissa brevirostris – ON REQUEST

Genus Pagophila – 1 species

Monotypic genus with a distinct phenotype that is placed as sister to Xema by genetics.

Population is limited and breeding occur only in Northern Russia, Svalbard, Greenland and Canada. It is decreasing.

Ivory Gull Pagophila eburnea – ON REQUEST

Genus Xema – 1 species

Distinct monotypic genus that has proven to be sister with Pagophila. Plumage and moult pattern are unique.

It breeds in Arctic tundra, mainly in Siberia, Canada, Alaska and Greenland with a very small population on Svalbard.

Sabine’s Gull Xema sabini – SPECIAL TARGET

Genus Saundersilarus – 1 species

Unique gull in several morphological aspect, its position is still disputed. Placement in monotypic genus (close to Chroicocephalus) is provisional.

It is a rare and declining gull of coastal Eastern China and Korea, wintering further south.

Saunders’s Gull Saundersilarus saundersi – SPECIAL TARGET, VULN.

Chroicocephalus_cirrocephalus_fam1Genus Chroicocephalus – 10 species

This genus, formerly included in Larus as most gulls, is sometimes called  “masked” gulls although only 6 species have a dark mask while 4 have white head in breeding plumage. It is one of the most widespread genus, with species on all continents. Most are common, except the rare endemic Black-billed Gull.

* Slender-billed Gull Chroicocephalus genei
* Bonaparte’s Gull Chroicocephalus philadelphia
Black-billed Gull Chroicocephalus bulleri – SP. T., ENDAN., ENDEM. (New Zealand)
Andean Gull Chroicocephalus serranus – NA
Brown-headed Gull Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus – NA
Brown-hooded Gull Chroicocephalus maculipennis – NA
* Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
* Grey-headed Gull Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus, photo above
Hartlaub’s Gull Chroicocephalus hartlaubii  – NA
* Silver Gull Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae

Leucophaeus_atricilla_fam1Genus Leucophaeus – 5 species

This genus was formerly included in Larus and sometimes called “hooded gulls”. Dolphin Gull is aberrant and have a plumage of a Larus ; it might deserve a monotypic genus.  Lava Gull is one of the rarest gulls with a very limited range.

The genus is restricted to the American continent (including Galapagos) from North to far South. Some might consider them as American counterpart of next genus.

Grey Gull Leucophaeus modestus – NA
Dolphin Gull Leucophaeus scoresbii – NA
* Laughing Gull Leucophaeus atricilla, photo above
Franklin’s Gull Leucophaeus pipixcan – NA
Lava Gull Leucophaeus fuliginosus – on request, VULN., ENDEM. (Galapagos)

Genus Ichthyaetus – 6 species

This genus is another split from Larus. As most have black head, they are sometimes called “black-headed gulls” ; they are somehow intermediate in size and shape between Chroicocephalus and Larus.

All species are found in the Old World (mainly Eurasia and Middle-East) while related Leucophaeus are American. Most species have a limited breeding range and Relict Gull has been a long mystery to science (considered as a sub-species of Mediterranean Gull, as an hybrid of Brown-headed Gull with Pallas’s Gull or a (very) aberrant Brown-headed Gull.

Pallas’s Gull Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus – NA
Relict Gull Ichthyaetus relictus – on request, VULNERABLE
* Mediterranean Gull Ichthyaetus melanocephalus
* Audouin’s Gull Ichthyaetus audouinii
White-eyed Gull Ichthyaetus leucophthalmus – NA
* Sooty Gull Ichthyaetus hemprichii

Larus_delawarensis_fam1Genus Larus – 22 species

Most gulls were included in this genus in the past. Now largely split, it is still the largest genus of the family in number of species. They are generally called “large white-headed gulls”. Their taxonomy is one of the most complex of all birds, and the species limit and  order given here is largely provisional.

It is a cosmopolitan genus, seen almost everywhere on the planet.

Heermann’s Gull Larus heermanni – NA
Pacific Gull Larus pacificus – NA., ENDEMIC (Australia)
Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris –  NA
Belcher’s Gull Larus belcheri – ON REQUEST
Olrog’s Gull Larus atlanticus – ON REQUEST
* Mew Gull Larus canus
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis – NA, photo above
California Gull Larus californicus – NA
Western Gull Larus occidentalis – NA
Yellow-footed Gull Larus livens – ON REQUEST
* European Herring Gull Larus argentatus
* Armenian Gull Larus armenicus
* Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis
Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans – NA
* Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus – NA
Vega Gull Larus vegae – NA
Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus – NA
Glaucous-winged Gull Larus glaucescens – NA
Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus  – NA
Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides – NA
Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus – NA
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus – NA

Onychoprion_fuscatus_fam1Genus Onychoprion – 4 species

Those 4 species were, like most terns, included in Sterna in the past. It was now proven that they are monophyletic and, interestingly, basal of all the terns.

All are pelagic and Sooty Tern is one of the most abundant sea bird on Earth, found in all tropical oceans and seas. Bridled Tern is also pantropical, and Grey-backed Tern is restricted to South Pacific. Only species in cold seas (North Pacific) is Aleutian Tern, that is still common in Far-East Russia but declining dramatically in Alaska.

Aleutian Tern Onychoprion aleuticus – ON REQUEST, VULNERABLE
Grey-baked Tern Onychoprion lunatus – ON REQUEST
Bridled Tern Onychoprion anaethetus – NA
Sooty Tern Onychoprion fuscatus – NA, photo above

Sternula_saundersi_fam1Genus Sternula – 7 species

This genus is distinct from all others, although it was formerly included in Sterna. Species within the genus is, in opposite, very closely related. All are tiny with mainly white or pale grey plumage, black cap and often white forehead.

It is present on all continents, most species are mainly coastal. Three species are threatened.

Little Tern Sternula albifrons – NA
Saunders’s Tern Sternula saundersi – NA
Least Tern Sternula antillarum – NA
Yellow-billed Tern Sternula superciliaris  – NA
Fairy Tern Sternula nereis – NA, VULNERABLE
Peruvian Tern Sternula lorata – ON REQUEST, ENDANGERED
Damara Tern Sternula balaenarum – ON REQUEST, VULNERABLE

Phaetusa_simplex_fam2Genus Phaetusa – 1 species

A very distinct and spectacular species, unique in its kind. Morphology seems closest to Thalasseus, and behaviour somehow recall Gelochelidon.

It has the largest bill of all tern species, hence its English name.

It is widespread inland, in tropical South America, East of the Andes.

Large-billed Tern Phaetusa simplex – NA, photo above, main image on top

Gelochelidon_fam1.JPGGenus Gelochelidon – 2 species

This genus is clearly distinct from all others, possibly slightly closer to Phaetusa and Hydroprogne. It has the size of a large Sterna or a small Thalasseus, but its behaviour can somehow recall the much smaller Chlidonias.

One former Worldwide species is now split in 2 allopatric species, both being generally common.

* Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
Australian Tern Gelochelidon macrotarsa – NA, photo above

Hydroprogne_caspia_fam1.JPGGenus Hydroprogne – 1 species

The largest tern on Earth is monotypic very distinct from all other Larids, superficially looking like a large and heavy Thalasseus, but genetically and structurally closer to Gelochelidon.

It is cosmopolitan and generally common, although population densities vary much through the huge range.

* Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia

Genus Larosterna – 1 species

Very distinct genus, usually listed near Chlidonias although their relationships are not that close. It often catch invertebrates on surface as Chlidonias do.

It is restricted to Pacific coast of Peru and Chile.

Inca Tern Larosterna inca – ON REQUEST

Chlidonias_leucoptera_fam1Genus Chlidonias – 4 species

This genus exist as such since long, but it is actually another one closely related to Sterna. The behaviour, especially the fact they don’t fish or do it rarely, is clearly distinct from Sterna as well as Sternula that has similar size.

All but one breed in Eurasia and the same 3 are also seen in Africa. Only one species (Black Tern) breed in America.

Black Tern Chlidonias niger – NA
* White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus
* Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida
Black-fronted Tern Chlidonias albostriatus – ON R., ENDAN., E (New Zealand)

Sterna_forsteri_fam1.JPGGenus Sterna – 13 species

Most terns were included in Sterna before, a treatment that was neither useful or logical. With a better, more modern classification, the situation of the terns is much clearer. It is still the largest genus within the sub-family Sterninae. It is probably closest to Thalasseus.

Species listed here are covering most of the World, with a special mention for the Artic Tern that has the longest migration of all bird species, breeding in Arctic and wintering in Antarctic. Most are coastal, some are pelagic and few species only are found inland. Those restricted to rivers are the most threatened.

River Tern Sterna aurantia – ON REQUEST
Roseate Tern Sterna dougallii – NA
White-fronted Tern Sterna striata – NA
Black-naped Tern Sterna sumatrana – NA
South American Tern Sterna hirundinacea – NA
Common Tern Sterna hirundo – NA
White-cheeked Tern Sterna repressa – NA
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea – NA
Antarctic Tern Sterna vittata – NA
Kerguelen Tern Sterna virgata – ON REQUEST
Forster’s Tern Sterna forsteri – NA, photo above
Snowy-crowned Tern Sterna trudeaui – NA
Black-bellied Tern Sterna acuticauda – SPECIAL TARGET, ENDANGERED

Thalasseus_acuflavidus_fam1Genus Thalasseus – 7 species

This genus is split from Sterna, to witch it is related. It groups large terns with a crest. Chinese Crested Tern is probably the rarest Laridae on Earth.

Several species are widespread and all live on the shore and at sea, being rare inland. They are found around the World, but most are restricted to warm waters.

Royal Tern Thalasseus maximus – NA
* Great Crested Tern Thalasseus bergii
* Lesser Crested Tern Thalasseus bengalensis
Chinese Crested Tern Thalasseus bernsteini – SPECIAL TARGET, CRIT. END.
Sandwich Tern Thalasseus sandvicensis – NA
Cabot’s Tern Thalasseus acuflavidus – NA, photo above
Elegant Tern Thalasseus elegans – NA

Back to family list

Left is Black-headed Gull ; black leading edge narrows toward tip and end there. Trailing edge near tip is white (green arrow).  On the right, Grey-headed Gull ; black leading edge is becoming broader towards tip and is prolonged on trailing edge (blue arrow). Tip is white (sometimes called “mirror”) and black.


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