A vagrant Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) documented from Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago: Brazils first record


We report the sighting of a specimen of Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) in Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago (SPSPA), Brazil, in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. Chroicocephalus ridibundus is a Palearctic species that breeds throughout Europe. Part of the population spends winters in the Mediterranean and coasts of Africa, and a small breeding population remains in the northeast coast of North America. The specimen was on the island for 27 days, between 09 February and 06 March 2020. The gull was identified as a first-winter bird based on its plumage. We conclude that the vagrancy of yet another Old World species at the oceanic SPSPA in the western equatorial Atlantic Ocean was caused by the southwesterly trade winds of the Intertropical Convergence Zone. To our knowledge, this is the first documented record of C. ridibundus in the Brazilian territory.

Bird vagrancy (i.e., outside their regular range) is a ubiquitous global phenomenon (Gauthier-Clerc et al. 2002; Petersen et al. 2015; Miskelly et al. 2017). Inexperience, navigational errors, changes in the environment, and adverse climatic conditions are among the main factors that divert animals from their routes (Woehler 1992; Bencke et al. 2005; Petry et al. 2013; Carpenter-Kling et al. 2017). In this context, oceanic islands can be important resting and feeding areas for vagrants or general migrant species (Ferreira et al. 2019; Whittaker et al. 2019). In the Neotropical region, several Palearctic vagrants from the Old World have already been documented on oceanic islands (Murphy 1992; Ingels et al. 2010; Behrstock and Kenefick 2012; Olmos and Burgos 2013; Whittaker et al. 2019). The two major vagrant refuge of Brazil are Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago (SPSPA) and Fernando de Noronha Archipelago (FNA). Well-known as support to both Palearctic vagrants and intertropical African migrants, SPSPA already has hosted several vagrant birds such as the Western Reef-Heron (Egretta gularis) (Fedrizzi et al. 2007; Whittaker et al. 2019), the Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) (Bencke et al. 2005), and the Black Kite (Milvus migrans) (Nunes et al. 2015). Here, we present a new record of an Old World species for Brazil, the Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus).

The Black-headed Gull was recorded at the SPSPA (Fig. 1), in the mid-Atlantic Ocean (0° 55′ N; 29° 20′ W) between the African and South American continents, approximately 1100 km from the Brazilian coast and 1860 km from the Cape Verde Islands (Fig. 1). The closest land to SPSPA is FNA, approximately 630 km away. With a total area of 17,000 m2, SPSPA is formed by a complex of ten small islets, and Belmonte Island is the largest one. Only three bird species reside at the SPSPA, the Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus), and the Black Noddy (Anous minutus) (Both and Freitas 2004).

Fig. 1

Location of Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago, between the South American and African continents. The closest point to the archipelago where the Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) regularly occurs is the African island Cape Verde, highlighted on the map

The specimen was first spotted in Belmonte Island (Fig. 2) by A.C.B. and R.B. on 09 February 2020 and was last seen on 06 March, by the same authors. The gull lingered in the island for 27 days. It was observed frequently foraging in small tide pools and sometimes flying offshore toward a fishing boat that remained close to the archipelago, where it was occasionally fed fish by the fishermen onboard. At night, the gull used the same spot for roosting, next to single brown boobies and a flock of twenty Black Noddies.

Fig. 2

Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) in the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago between February and March 2020. a first-winter plumage; b dark band at the end of the tail; c details of the outer primaries, dark with white parts; d orange legs and bill; E wings coverts with small brown spots

The bird plumage was whitish, with pale gray upperparts (Fig. 2A); the wings and tail, however, were still typical of juveniles: tertiary feathers were brown with a broad, light border, and the tail had a dark terminal band (Fig. 2B). Primary feathers were mostly dark; however, the outer feathers were white in the middle, near the rachis, and dark on the tips (Fig. 2C). The bill was orange with a black tip, and the legs were shaded orange (Fig. 2D). The covert feathers on the wings had small brown spots (Fig.2E). These characteristics indicate a juvenile gull with first-winter plumage (Fig. 2A), as described by Olsen (2010). Black-headed Gulls with this plumage are expected to be found between August and April.

The species is a small gull (total length 34–39 cm) (Howell and Dunn 2007) and can be distinguished from the two resident Chroicocephalus species that occur in Brazil, the Brown-hooded Gull (C. maculipennis) and the Gray-hooded Gull (C. cirrocephalus), because of differences in the plumage, bill, and size. Regardless of the similarities with the Black-headed Gull in size and structure, Brown-hooded Gull juveniles have black primaries with white spots on the tips; they also have the color white restricted to the external primary coverts and parts of the two external primaries. Comparatively, Black-headed Gull juveniles have white stripes extending from the base of primary coverts, and the tips of primaries are black. Moreover, the Brown-hooded Gull also has a black band on the tail, which is more distal compared with that of the Black-headed Gull (Howell and Dunn 2007). Conversely, the first-winter plumage of the Gray-hooded Gull is similar to that of the Black-headed Gull because both have extensive blackish-brown outer primaries; however, the outer primaries of the former are longer (total length 39–45 cm) and have a pale iris (Olsen 2010). The species recorded at SPSPA also differs from other Chroicocephalus species that might reach the archipelago from North America. The Slender-billed Gull (C. genei), recorded in the Caribbean as a vagrant (Holland and Williams 1978), is larger (total length 40–44 cm) than the Black-headed Gull. Moreover, its first-winter plumage is characterized by a longer bill, paler eyes, and the weak gray ear-spot is considerably smaller in the Slender-billed Gull compared to that in the Black-headed Gull (Olsen 2010), thus, ruling out this species.

Chroicocephalus ridibundus is found across the entire Palearctic; however, it is a vagrant to the Nearctic and Neotropical regions. The species is rare in most North America, but locally common in Atlantic Canada (Harrison 1983; Olsen 2010). Solitary birds have been recorded in several regions of the Caribbean and Bahamas (White 1997; Valdés et al. 2003; Kenefick and Hayes 2006). The populations of Black-headed Gulls present different migratory patterns; however, in general, they perform short migrations in different periods of the year, according to age groups (Ivanauskas 1997; Heldbjerg 2001). The closest region to SPSPA in which this species is regularly found is the Cape Verde Archipelago (Africa) (Fig. 1), where it is considered a regular winter visitor during September–March (Hazevoet 1998; Hazevoet 1999). Thus, the time in which the specimen was recorded corresponds to the time that the species is also observed in Cape Verde. In addition, SPSPA is within the Intertropical Convergence Zone, an area where trade winds blow from east to west (Talley et al. 2011). Human factors, such as ship-assistance, can also contribute to the dispersion of birds over long distances (Brum et al. 2018); however, ship-assistance in gulls is unlikely.

Therefore, the first occurrence of the Black-headed Gull in Brazil may be due to inexperienced young birds misled by the easterly trade winds. This phenomenon has already been attributed to other migrant species occurring in Europe and intertropical Africa that were documented in the SPSPA, such as the Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), Eurasian Kestrel, Lesser Moorhen (Gallinula angulata) (Bencke et al. 2005), Western Reef-Heron (Fedrizzi et al. 2007), and the Black Kite (Nunes et al. 2015).

It is noteworthy that several Palearctic vagrants recorded for the first time in Brazil, in either FNA or SPSPA, were first documented in either Central America, e.g., the Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) (Whittaker et al. 2019) or in other South American countries, e.g., the Eurasian Kestrel (LeDref and Raynaud 1993; Bencke et al. 2005). According to Whittaker et al. (2019), vagrants documented in other islands in the middle of the Atlantic, Caribbean region, or Trinidad and Tobago or from other continental countries of South America may become future vagrants in Brazil. Black-headed Gulls have been reported in the Caribbean region (White 1997; Valdés et al. 2003), Trinidad and Tobago (Kenefick and Hayes 2006), French Guiana (Tostain and Dujardin 1989), and Suriname (Davis 1979). To our knowledge, SPSPA is the southernmost point in South America where the Black-headed Gull has already been reported, confirming the prediction of Whittaker et al. (2019).

Data availability

All data and material used in the preparation of this paper are indicated and presented in the paper itself.


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We would like to thank the Programa Arquipélago de São Pedro e São Paulo (PROARQUIPELAGO) and the Brazilian Navy for logistical support; the ornithologist Glayson Ariel Bencke, for confirming the Black-headed Gull identification; the biologist Carlos Eduardo Agne and Dr. Claudio Dias Timm, for helping with the identification; all members of the Birdwatchers Club of Rio Grande do Sul, for the enthusiastic discussion and about the identification; Mr. Andrew Whittaker, for revising the manuscript for language and helpful comments; Júlia V.G. Finger, for translating the manuscript; and Marlon Ferraz, for helping us with the map.


This research was funded by the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico, CNPq (442858/2015-9). A.C.B. was awarded with a master’s scholarship from Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES) (process number 27935); R.B., a scientific initiation scholarship from CNPq (process number 121386/2019-8).

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de Brum, A.C., Brentano, R., Montone, R.C. et al. A vagrant Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) documented from Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago: Brazils first record. Ornithol. Res. 28, 263–266 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s43388-021-00036-3

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  • Laridae
  • Oceanic island
  • Palearctic bird