The small but distinctive Sabine’s Gull is a high arctic breeder that winters south of North America. The Sabine’s Gull migration takes place mostly along coasts, although some birds migrate overland and provide opportunities for inland birders to find one at lakes or ponds. Young birds spend the summer following their hatch year on the winter grounds instead of migrating north.
The flight of Sabine’s Gulls has been described as graceful and buoyant, and is sometimes compared to the flight of terns. They are also good swimmers, and forage this way. The degree of territoriality during the breeding season seems highly individualized, with some pairs nesting in close proximity but others large distances apart.
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Description of the Sabine’s Gull
The Sabine’s Gull is a small gull with a yellow-tipped black bill and a striking wing pattern in flight. A triangular black wingtip contrasts with a triangular white area in the center of the wing, and the inner wing has a triangular gray patch.
Seasonal change in appearance
The head becomes partly white in winter.
Juveniles have brownish upperparts.
Ocean and tundra.
Insects, fish, and crustaceans.
Forages by dipping to the surface of the water.
Breeds in northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Also occurs in Russia and Europe. Winters off South America and Africa.
Sabine’s Gulls frequently return to the same breeding area in subsequent years.
Male Sabine’s Gulls feed females during courtship.
“Kek-kek-kek” or “keer” calls are given.
- The upperwing pattern is distinctive.
The nest is a depression on the ground.
Color: Olive with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 23-25 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Sabine’s Gull
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Sabine’s Gull – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
XEMA SABINI (J. Sabine)
This beautiful little gull was named for its discoverer, Capt. Edward Sabine, who first saw it on its breeding grounds on some low rocky islands off the west coast of Greenland, where it was associated and breeding with a number of Arctic terns. It is not an abundant bird, however, on the Greenland coast, but it has been found breeding at widely scattered points in the Arctic regions of both hemispheres. Its center of abundance during the breeding season seems to be in the vicinity of Bering Sea. Dr. E. W. Nelson (1887) says:
All the marshy coast districts on both shores of Bering Sea are chosen resorts for this beautiful gull during the breeding season. It is especially numerous along the Alaskan coast from the Kuskoquim month to Kotzebue Sound and on the Siberian side from Plover Bay to beyond the Straits, but they occur more as birds of passage along the latter coast than as summer residents.
In the vicinity of St. Michael he found these birds to be among the most numerous of the gulls, and the main body of arrivals came in the spring, as the ponds and small tide creeks were nearly free from snow and ice, dating from the 15th to 25th of May. At this season they wander in company with the Arctic tern, but the last of May or 1st of June they congregate about the tarts of the marshes selected for their fleeting ground.
Nesting: The same author gives the following interesting account of his experience with a nesting colony:
On June 13, 1880, about 20 miles from St. Michael, while egging In company with some Eskimo, we found a pond, some 200 yards across, In the middle of which were two small Islands. A gunshot caused at least 100 of these gulls to rise like a white cloud over the Islet, and showed us that we had found a breeding place. As we stood on the shore a few birds came off, and circling close about us for a few moments, but rarely making any outcry, returned to the island, where the others had already settled again and appeared to be sitting upon the ground. The water of the lake we found to be about waist-deep, under which lay a solid bed of Ice of unknown depth.
The smallest island lay nearest, and sending one of my men out to It he found’ a set of two eggs of the black-throated loon, one set of the arctic tern’s eggs, and two of Sabine’s gull. Proceeding to the next island he found a set of Aythya marila nearctica eggs as he stepped ashore, and a moment later cried out that the ground was covered with gulls’ eggs. At the same time he answered with chattering teeth that the water in the lake was very cold. Having never seen the nest of this gull I called my man back and he transported me upon his back to the island after narrowly escaping several falls on the way. The island was very low, and the driest spots were but little above the water. Built on the driest places were 27 nests, containing from one to three eggs each, and as many others just ready for occupancy. Four or five nests were frequently placed within two or three feet of each other. In about one-half the cases the eggs were laid upon a few grass blades the spot afforded with no alteration save a slight depression made by the bird’s body. In the majority of the other nests a few grass blades and stems had been arranged circularly about the eggs, and in the remainder only enough material had been added to afford the merest apology for a nest.
While I was securing my prizes the birds hovered overhead in great anxiety, although they rarely uttered their grating cry, and in the very few instances when a bird darted down at us it was In perfect silence. While we were on the island several glaucous gulls and jaegers passed by, and in every case they were attacked by several of the Xemas and driven hastily away. Two nests had been despoiled either by these birds or a muskrat, as the broken shells showed. When the eggs were secured a large and fine lot of gulls were obtained, and we then made our way back to camp heavily laden with spoils. Solitary nests were afterwards found either on islands like the last or on the border of a pond. In one instance the female left her eggs when I was over 100 yards away and flew directly away until she was lost to sight.
Thirty-five years later Mr. Hersey visited the same locality to gather information for this work. On June 19, 1915, he found a colony of about six nests that had been completely washed out by a recent heavy storm accompanied by unusually high tides. The nests were all mere hollows in the wet ground with hardly any lining. Broken eggshells were lying all about and a few dead young were seen. In other places he found other similar nests containing broken eggs-about 15 in all. This disaster evidently discouraged the gulls, for, although he visited the locality later, they apparently did not attempt to lay again. A typical nest of this species containing three eggs was found on June 5, 1915; his notes describe it as located on a narrow tongue of land projecting into a small pond among a network of ponds on the tundra. The nest was a slight hollow in the wet ground, 5 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep, lined with a few dry grass stalks. The nest cavity was wet and the eggs were covered with a coating of mud. Both of the parent birds showed anxiety while he was some distance from the nest, but kept quiet when he was near it. After he had taken the eggs the birds followed him for half a mile, darting about his head.
The Canadian Neptune Expedition to Hudson Bay, according to Rev. C. W. G. Eifrig (1905), found the Sabine’s gull “common on Southampton and other islands, breeding there along the shores and the banks of small ponds, in company with the Arctic tern. They make no nest but deposit their eggs in the sand. Two eggs were taken at Southampton, June 28, 1904.”
Eggs: Three eggs, or often only two, constitute a full set. They are ovate or pointed ovate in shape. The ground color is “Dresden brown,” “Isabella color,” “ecru olive,” or “deep olive-buff.” They are seldom conspicuously marked, but are usually faintly and irregularly spotted and blotched with “Saccardo’s umber” or “sepia.” Sometimes they are more clearly and boldly marked with “sepia,” “bister,” or “warm sepia;” occasionally an egg is marked with a few bold markings of “blackish brown;” and sometimes the markings are concentrated in a ring around the larger end. The measurements of 56 eggs, in the United States National Museum, average 45.5 by 32 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 49.5 by 31.5, 47 by 34, and 39.5 by 30 millimeters. Young:
Nothing seems to be known about the period of incubation, but both birds apparently incubate and are very devoted in the care of the young. Mr. Hersey noted that when the birds were hiding in his vicinity the parents frequently alighted on the ground near him and ran back and forth with trailing wings after the manner of shore birds, but unlike other gulls or terns.
The young are less active than most young gulls; at the approach of danger they either sit perfectly still with half-closed eyes or march slowly away In the dignified manner of adult gulls. They have a note like the adults, but It is not so sharp and is lacking in strength. While In the downy stage they hide in the grass, but when about two weeks old and nearly fledged they begin to frequent the small ponds when they swim about; if danger threatens they swim ashore and hide. Even at this age the old birds watch them constantly, and any glaucous or short-billed gull that comes near Is promptly driven away, several Sabine’s gulls uniting In the pursuit to protect the helpless young.
Plumages: The downy young is dark colored, from “ochraceous tawny” to “tawny olive” on the upper parts and throat, paler on the chin, fading off to “pale pinkish buff” or paler on the belly. The crown and sides of the head are distinctly spotted or streaked with black and the rest of the upper parts are thickly but indistinctly mottled with” fuscous black”; the under parts are immaculate. The young bird grows rapidly and the juvenal plumage soon appears; the down is retained on the tips of the feathers until the bird is nearly fully grown, wearing away or dropping off gradually, until the last of it finally disappears from the head, neck, flanks, and rump. In this plumage the crown and the sides of the head and neck are clouded or washed with different shades of “mouse gray”; the throat and under parts are pure white, and the upper parts are mainly dusky or “fuscous.” The feathers on the anterior gray portions are narrowly edged with pale buff; these edgings increase in breadth, extent, and intensity of color on the back, wing-coverts, and scapuJars, becoming “clay color” or “tawny olive” on the latter feathers. The wings and tail are as described in the next plumage. The first winter plumage is but a continuation of the juvenal; the buffy edgings described above fade out or wear away during August and September, leaving the plumage of the upper parts more uniform “fuscous” or pale grayish brown. The primaries are dull black without the conspicuous white tips of the adult wing, but the secondaries are white, producing the large white wing patch so characteristic of the species. The tail is white, broadly tipped with black, especially on the central rectrices; the bill is wholly dusky. A partial prenuptial molt takes place in the spring, at which the gray hood and black collar of the nuptial plumage are partially assumed, the amount of white remaining on the throat and head varying greatly in different individuals. At the next complete molt, the first postnuptial. in August and September, the adult winter plumage is assumed, and young birds become indistinguishable from adults.
Adults have a partial prenuptial molt, at which the gray hood and black collar are acquired before May, and a complete postnuptial molt in August and September. The latter is very variable in time and often very late; it is often completed in August and sometimes does not begin until nearly the middle of September; the black collar is the last to go. The winter plumage is similar to the spring dress except that the head is white, heavily clouded with dusky on the occiput, and hind neck; the bill becomes black:
Food: On their breeding grounds, the Sabine’s gulls feed in the small ponds and pools on the tundra, where they find small fishes, aquatic worms, insects, and larvae, and small crustaceans. They hover over the pools, daintily picking up their food from the surface, but apparently never diving for it. Mr. Hersey says in his notes:
These gulls spend much time, when the tide is out, feeding about the mud flats, where they run about like shore birds; so much do they resemble them that I have repeatedly mistaken them for plover when the light was poor and I could not easily make out their markings. The young, with their white breasts and dark backs, even more closely resemble birds of this family.
Behavior: On the wing this species bears a closer resemblance to a tern than it does to the other gulls. It flies with continuous wing beats, seldom, so far as I have observed, sailing, and Its flight is direct though not straight. It may swoop to the earth to pick up a bit of food or hover a moment if something attracts its attention, but only for an instant does it delay before resuming its onward flight in the direction it was going. It seems almost devoid of curiosity. I have never had one fly about me when walking over the tundra, as the short-billed gulls and Arctic terns frequently do, and unless I am directly Ii Its path I have never seen one torn aside in its flight to look at me. If one of their own species or another bird is shot they pay no attention to the fallen comrade, even if it be only wounded. They attend strictly to their own business. They usually fly singly or with one or more short-billed gulls, but sometimes two are seen together, rarely three. Except on their breeding grounds they are not social and are generally silent. At St. Michael I have seen as many as six birds together on the bay, but on land they are usually solitary. When a number do come together on the water it appeal’s to be the presence of food that attracts them rather than a desire for the society of their own or other species. When a half dozen birds are resting on the water it Is usual to see them scattered about, each 80 or 100 yards from his nearest neighbor and not close together, as other gulls generally are.
Doctor Nelson (1887) says of the notes of this species:
Sabine’s gull has a single harsh, grating, but not loud note, very similar to the grating cry of the Arctic tern, but somewhat harsher and shorter. When wounded and pursued or captured It utters the same note in a much higher and louder key, with such a grating file-like intensity that one feels like stopping his ears. It has the same peculiar clicking Interruptions which are so characteristic of the cry of a small bat held in the hand. A low, chattering modification of this Is heard at times as the birds gather about the border of a favorite pool, or float gracefully in company over the surface of some grassy bordered pond. The same note, in a higher key, serves as a note of alarm and curiosity as they circle overhead or fly off when disturbed. When one of these gulls is brought down the others of Its kind hover over It, but show less devotion than is usually exhibited by the terns.
Fall: Nelson (1887) says further: As August draws to a close, young and old forsake the marshes to a great extent, and the rest of the season are found scattered along the coast feeding at the water line on the beeches. Toward the end of September they become more and more scarce until only a comparatively small number are found at the beginning of October; but the last ones remain until the 8th or 10th of this month, and these birds are usually the young of the year.
On the southward migration the Sabine’s gull has occurred on both coasts of North America, probably migrants from different breeding stations, and at many points in the interior. Prof. W. W. Cooke (1915) says that “the only place where Sabine’s gull has been found in winter is on the coast of Peru. Here it is common in Callao Bay from December to April.” He also suggests that “whenever the winter home of Ross’s gull is discovered, Sabine’s gull will probably be found there also, for the two species arrived together at the mouth of the Kolyma River, Siberia, the 1st of June. 1905, and were together when seen in migration in May several hundred miles west of that district.”:
Breeding range: Arctic coasts of both hemispheres. In the Westem Hemisphere, east to northeastern Greenland (Cape Bismarck). South to central western Greenland (Upernavik), northern Hudson Bay (Southampton Island), Boothia Peninsula, Victoria Land (Cambridge Bay), northern Mackenzie (Franklin and Liverpool Bays), northern Alaska (Point Barrow and from Norton Sound to Hooper Bay), and St. Lawrence Island, Bering Sea. In the Eastern Hemisphere it is known to breed in northeastern Siberia (near Bering Strait), in northwestern Siberia (Taimyr Peninsula) and on Spitzbergen. The northernmost breeding record is at Thank God Harbor, northern Greenland, 810 40′ North.
Winter range: The only known winter range seems to be on the coast of Peru from Tumbez to Callao Bay.
Spring migration: Northward along both coasts and in the interior of North America. Dates of arrival: Maine, Scarborough, May 31; Cumberland Gulf, June 15; Melville Peninsula, Winter Island, June 29; Ellesmere Land, Fort Conger, July 6; Illinois, Chicago, April 1; Manitoba, Norway House, June 11; California, Monterey, April 9 to May 21; British Columbia, Bell Bells, May 24; Yukon, Chilkat Inlet, June 1; Alaska, St. Michael, May 7 to 25, Point Barrow, June 2 to 6, and Demarcation Point, May 28. Some birds remain in Peru until April.
Fall migration: Southward by same routes. Dates of arrival: Maine, Portland, September 22; Massachusetts, August 21 to September 27; New York, Long Island, October 7; Iowa, Burlington, October 12 to 15; Nebraska, September 2 to 30; Washington, Shoalwater Bay, September 24; California, Monterey, July 22. Dates of departure: Melville Peninsula, Igloolik, August 13; Greenland, Kikkerton Island, October 6; Alaska, Point Barrow, September 17 to October 22;. California, Monterey, October 28.
Casual records: Accidental in Bermuda, Switzerland, and AustriaHungary. Occasional in winter in British Islands and northern France.
Egg dates: Northern Alaska: Eight records, May 28 to July 6; four records, June 8 to 28. Northern Mackenzie: Seven records, June 20 to July 10; four records, July 5 to 7.