Adult nonbreeding. Note: partial gray hood. Black bill with yellow tip and wing pattern distinctive.
  • Adult nonbreeding. Note: partial gray hood. Black bill with yellow tip and wing pattern distinctive.
  • Adult breeding. Note: dark bill with yellow tip and gray hood.
  • Juvenile. Note: pale face/throat/breast, brownish neck/back, and dark primary tips.

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Sabine's Gull

Xema sabini
This is a large and highly varied group of birds that do not have many outward similarities. Most are water birds that feed on invertebrates or small aquatic creatures. The order is well represented in Washington, with seven families:
The family Laridae is made up of birds closely associated with water. Distributed throughout the world, representatives of this family nest on every continent, including Antarctica. Most are long-lived birds, many of which do not breed until they are three or four years old. Most are colony nesters and nest on the ground. Clutch size is generally small, varying from one to four eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs and help feed the young. The young typically hatch covered with down and stay in the nest for a few days, after which they leave the nest but stay nearby. Most, especially in Washington, raise a single brood a year. This group is known for its elaborate displays in the air and on the ground.

The Washington representatives of this family can be split into two groups, or subfamilies. The adaptable gulls are the most familiar. Sociable in all seasons, they are mainly coastal, but a number of species also nest inland. Many—but not all—are found around people. Gulls have highly variable foraging techniques and diets. Terns forage in flight, swooping to catch fish or insects. They dive headfirst into the water for fish. Although they are likely to be near water, they spend less time swimming than gulls.
Fairly common pelagic migrant. Rare fall inland.

    General Description

    The Sabine's Gull is a small gull with a graceful, tern-like flight. This gull has a slate-gray back, a white belly and tail, and black wingtips. The adult has a black bill with a yellow tip. The middle of the wings is white, giving the bird a distinctive 'M' pattern across its wings in flight. In breeding season, the adult has a dark gray hood, edged in black. The adult in non-breeding plumage has a partially gray and white head. The juvenile is brown across the back, neck, and head, with a white face.


    Sabine's Gulls nest in the high Arctic in marshy tundra ponds close to the coast. Outside the breeding season, they spend most of their time at sea, out of sight of land. When at sea, they concentrate over the continental shelf or over upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich water.


    The Sabine's Gull often hovers low over the water, dropping down to take food from the water's surface without landing. It also forages while swimming. In summer, this gull often feeds by walking along the tidal flats and picking up food. The Sabine's Gull has been known to spin in circles in shallow water, stirring up food from the bottom.


    In summer, the Sabine's Gull feeds mostly on insects and aquatic insect larvae. During migration, small crustaceans, fish, and other sea creatures are also part of the diet. Their winter diet is not well known.


    Nests are located on the open ground, in small colonies, typically close to the water. Sabine's Gull colonies are often located near or within Arctic Tern colonies. The nest is a shallow depression, sometimes unlined, or lined with seaweed, moss, or feathers. The female typically lays two eggs, which both parents help incubate for about 3 weeks. Shortly after the young hatch, the parents lead them to water, where they mostly feed themselves.

    Migration Status

    Sabine's Gulls nest in the high Arctic, migrate south off the Pacific Coast, and spend the winter as far south as Central Chile. The spring migration lasts from early April to early June. Birds start heading south in late July. The peak of the fall Sabine's Gull migration lasts from late August to mid-September.

    Conservation Status

    Their remote breeding range and seagoing nature may have protected the population, however the possibility of oil-drilling in the Arctic threatens the Sabine's Gull's nesting habitat. During migration and winter, they are vulnerable to water pollution and fluctuations of prey abundance. Since their winter diet is not well known, more research is needed to fully understand what is necessary for conservation.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    Most records for Sabine's Gulls are offshore, and pelagic birding trips give birders the best chance of spotting them. However, juveniles and adults can both be found inland, and sightings, though rare, are so regular in fall that a small percentage of the population must use an overland migration route. The best time of the year to look for Sabine's Gulls is during migration, when they are common on the open water--May for spring migration and the second half of August and September for fall migration. They are uncommon in June and July, and in October, and very rare or absent the rest of the year. They are occasionally blown towards shore in storms and can sometimes be found in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Juvenile birds are found inland rarely on both sides of the Cascades.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Oceanic FCUFFCF
    Pacific Northwest Coast
    Puget Trough
    North Cascades
    West Cascades
    East Cascades
    Canadian Rockies
    Blue Mountains
    Columbia Plateau R

    Washington Range Map

    North American Range Map

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    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

    View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern