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New England Seabirds

 Wilson's Storm-petrel  Dave Jones


Pelagic Gulls

Black-legged Kittiwake

Sabine's Gull

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Seabirds - Pelagic Gulls


Sabine's Gull

Larus sabini

Black-legged Kittiwake

Rissa tridactyla

Black-legged Kittiwake Jim Wallius

Black-legged Kittiwake flies over the winter ocean,  Photo by Jim Wallius

General Characteristics of Gulls
There are 87 species of gulls most of which belong to one genus Larus. This web page only covers two of the gulls which are of interest on New England pelagic birding trips: Sabine’s Gull, and Black-legged Kittiwake.

Gulls walk well with legs situated in the middle of the body. They are good at gliding and can takoff without running to get up to speed. Gulls swim buoyantly, but are not able to dive under the water.

They are scavengers and some species such as Herring Gulls have increased their numbers dramatically by feeding on human garbage dumps. Attend trawlers thereby benefiting from human activity of fishing. Also prey on eggs and young of other seabirds. Known to attack small Alcids. The author once watched a Great Black-backed Gull decapitate a Dovekie.

Gulls require 2-4 years to achieve maturity and display plumage variation with age. Most species breed in the northern hemisphere with only a few adapting to the southern hemisphere. Most gulls disburse in the breeding area, but some migrate long distances.

Sea Gulls ??
Despite the common name sea gull, most gulls are coastal. Only a few are truly pelagic. They have no salt regulation glands, and must drink fresh water which requires then to return to the land daily. In New England, Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls are seen on Stellwagen Bank and other offshore locations following fishing boats and cetaceans

Black-legged Kittiwake
The Kittiwake was named for its 3 syllable call which sounds like "Keep Away" or "Kit ti Wake". Also called "frost gull" or "winter gull" because it appears in New England waters in winter.

Breeds in northern hemisphere. Greenland, Iceland, British Isles, Newfoundland, far northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia.In winter moves south to winter off the coast of North Africa, North America on both coasts. Highly persecuted by humans. Eggs taken and birds shot for food. Relief from human persecution has resulted in increasing numbers.

Where To See
In late fall and winter pelagic trips or from land look for first year or adult winter plumage birds. Breeding birds can be seen at Cape St. Mary in Newfoundland, Bonaventure Island in Gaspe, and Bird Island in Nova Scotia.


Feeds mainly by picking from the surface. Adept scavenger in harbors and behind fishing boats.(Grant 1982). Does not prey on other birds.

Winter Adult
Late fall and winter you are likely to see non-breeding adult birds from boat trips or from land. The following three pictures are of winter adults. Notice the all black wing tips with no white windows, all white tail, black legs, dusky markings on head and collar, yellow bill.

Black-legged Kittiwake Jim Wallius Black-legged Kittiwake Jim Wallius Black-legged Kittiwake Steve Mirick


In breeding plumage, the Kittiwake's head is all white and bill yellow. Nests are built on narrow ledges of high cliffs. The cliff below the nest is stained white with guano.

Black-legged Kittiwake breeding plumage EB Tarry Black-legged Kitiwake on cliff EBTarry

Immature Kittiwakes

Large numbers of immature kittiwakes can be seen on Stellwagen Bank and other offshore locations during late August and September. When flying the immature Kittiwake shows a black "M" mark on the wing which is some times confused with the pattern on Sabine's Gull. Immature Kittiwakes photographed by Steve Mirick.

Immature Kittiwake wing with M mark Steve Mirick

Immature Black-legged Kittiwake Steve Mirick Immature Black-legged Kittiwak sitting on water

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Bent, Arthur Cleveland (1986) Life Histories of North American Gulls and Terns Dover Publications, Inc. New York

Grant, P. J. (1982,1986) Gulls A Guide to Identification Buteo Books; Vermillion, South Dakota

Harrison, Peter (1983) Seabirds an identification guide Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston

Olsen,Klaus Mailing & Larson, Hans (2004) Gulls of North America, Europe, and Asia Princeton University Press