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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

Sabine's Gull painiting

Sabine's Gull  Other Names
Formerly Xema Sabini. Authors Grant (1986) ,Harrison (1983) , Olsen & Larson (2004 ) place this gull in the genus Larus so Larus sabini.

A Gull That Thinks It Is A Tern
Unlike most gulls which are coastal, Sabine's Gull is truly pelagic when not breeding. It is highly migratory (breeds in the arctic, vacations below the equator) unlike most other gulls which disperse only within the region. In both of these characteristics it is more like a tern.Most gulls have a complete molt in the fall and a partial molt in the spring. Sabines is just the opposite having a complete molt in spring before it starts the migration north and a partial molt in fall after arrival in the wintering waters off Africa and South America.

Like Ross' Gull, Sabines breeds in loose colonies on arctic ponds in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. Bent (1986) contains a complete description of the nest and eggs written by an egg collector in 1887. The small gull was able to defend its nest against jaegers if not against the egg collectors.Unlike Ross' Gull which winters in the arctic as well, Sabine's Gull migrates south below the equator where it is pelagic in winter.

Siberian and Alaskan birds winter off the coast of Columbia and Peru. They disburse east across the Pacific Ocean passing down the west coast of the US, where they are often seen on offshore trips. Canandian and Greenland birds disperse east passing along the coast of Europe to winter off the coast of Africa. After a strong westerly wind they are seen on European sea watches usually in September and October.Only a few birds show up on the east coast making it a sought after pelagic in our waters.

When and Where to See
Sabine's Gull is much easier to see on west coast pelagic trips. It can be seen on the east coast trips in late August through September on Stellwagen Bank and Jeffrey's Ledge. Also seen on offshore trips to continental shelf edge in early fall. Even after a poor birding summer on Stellwagen Bank, Sabine's Gull can enliven a pelagic trip in the fall.

Smaller than a Kittiwake. Breeding adults have a charcoal gray hood outlined in black and a yellow tip to the black bill.

Tail is white and roundly forked. Nonbreeding adults lose the charcoal gray hood.

Upper wing has three triangles of color: gray close to the body and black at the distal end of the wing. Between the gray and black triangles is a white triangle.

Both of these photographs taken by Steve Mirick on a Debbi Shearwater pelagic in California. Steve saw more than 1000 Sabine's Gull on this trip

Sabine's Gull Steve MirickSabine's Gull Steve Mirick

Immature Sabine’s Gull
Immatures have brown rather than light gray triangles nearest the body. Folded wing shows delicate scaling as can be seen in the first of two pictures taken by Jim Beseda on the 2010 NH Audubon trip out of Rye, NH. The gull was noticeable smaller than other gulls and had a scaled appearance to the folded wings. The triangles on the upper wing closest to the body were dark brown rather than light gray. Bill does not have yellow tip.

Immature Sabine's Gull Jim Beseda Immature Sabine's Gull Jim Beseda
Immature Kittiwake

Black "M" Not A Sabine's Gull
Excited birders may confuse an immature Black-legged Kittiwake, numerous in fall with Sabine's Gull. The Kiitiwake has a black "M" mark on the wing separating gray and white areas. Some birders call this a black "W: but whatever. Photo Steve Mirick

Sabine's Gull wing painting

The mature Sabines shows 3 areas of color: black, white, and gray. Both show white triangles. Try to keep in mind a black "M" is not Sabine's Gull. You need to look for black triangles. But there is nothing wrong with the "excited" part.


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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