Bird Fact Friday — Sabine’s Gull

Adapted from pages 69-70 of Gulls Simplified:

A small, trim gull that is smaller than a kittiwake or Mew Gull and most commonly seen in flight over ocean waters (less commonly found sitting on beaches with similarly sized gulls). In flight, Sabine’s appears short bodied, with broadbased, angular wings and a fairly long, uniquely forked tail. 

The bold tricolored upper wing pattern (black, white, and gray) is somewhat similar to that of other species but is distinctly bolder on Sabine’s and thus more visually grabbing. Stiff, shallow, steady wing beats reveal flashes of the bird’s wedge-like white wing patch. Flight is overall lofting and buoyant, but not as nimble or tern-like as that of Bonaparte’s Gull.

Sabine’s forages mostly by swimming and snatching prey from the surface of the water while at sea, and it feeds in shallow pools at breeding sites by stirring up aquatic invertebrates by stomping the substrate with its feet (see Sabine’s Gull 1). It does not respond to chum as readily as kittiwakes on pelagic birding trips. It also hovers and plucks prey from the surface. When foraging on beaches, Sabine’s walks nimbly.

This small, smart-looking, Arctic-breeding gull with a deep charcoal hood going blacker at the collar and front of the face is unique. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson.

In migration, birds resting on the water gather in tight (typically small) clusters. Sabine’s is fairly tame while on the water, allowing close approach by boats before flushing. On West Coast pelagic trips, Sabine’s Gulls are usually seen in small groups. In the interior, single birds are the norm, and these may mix with Bonaparte’s Gulls.

This localized Arctic breeder is fairly common during migration in fall, primarily in offshore northern to central Pacific coastal North American waters; very rare along East Coast in fall. Winter records are extremely rare in North America, with only a few instances of birds remaining until January. Subadult (1st winter) birds typically remain in southern waters until their 2nd year. 

This handsome, mostly pelagic gull breeds in Arctic and subarctic regions but winters in tropical seas off western South America and southern Africa. In North America, it breeds in coastal tundra of western Alaska, the North Slope, and islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, which are far from most human population centers. It also breeds in northern and central Greenland.

There are numerous records of Sabine’s Gulls in the North American interior, mostly in fall, and regular records in the Great Plains and Great Basin regions (Gulls of the Americas, Howell and Dunn, 2007). Fall migration is from late July through October; spring migration is from March through May (occasionally into June).

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull
This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Bird Fact Friday — Mew GullBird Fact Friday — Franklin’s Gull >>