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Sabine's Gull

Xema sabini

Sabine's Gull

Other Names
Some authors Grant (14) and Harrison (2) 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 on arctic ponds in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. Bent (15) 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' 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 seawatches 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 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.


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

Both this and the next photograph taken by Steve Mirick on a Debbi Shearwater pelagic in California. Steve saw more than 1000 Sabine's Gull on this trip. Photo remains the property of the photographer.
Nonbreeding adults lose the gray hood. Juveniles have brown rather than light gray triangle in wings and back.

Photo by Steve Mirick and used with his permission.

Immature Sabine's Gull photographed by Jim Besada on the 2010  fall NH Tri-State Pelagic.  This gull appeared smaller than nearby gulls and had a scaled appearance to the wings. 


 Same gull flying.  Sabine's Gull is much easier to see on Pacific coast trips.  This bird does not show the light tip to the bill of mature birds and the gray wing panel appears brown.


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 property of Steve Mirick and used with his permission.

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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