Sabine's gull (Xema sabini)

Sabine's gull in breeding plumage, swimming
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST

Top facts

  • Yearling Sabine’s gulls do not attempt to breed and do not return to their breeding grounds after their first winter, but it is not known where they go during this period.
  • Most Sabine’s gulls migrate along the coasts or sea, although some migrate directly from north to south across land.
  • Sabine’s gull is named after Edward Sabine, who discovered the species in Greenland in 1818.
  • The distinctive black, white and grey triangular pattern on the upper surface of the wings of Sabine’s gull makes this species very easy to identify.
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Sabine's gull fact file

Sabine's gull description

GenusXema (1)

The unusual Sabine’s gull (Xema sabine) is named after Edward Sabine, who first discovered the species at Melville Bay in Greenland in 1818 (3). This species is highly distinctive, especially when in flight, as its long, pointed wings have an immediately identifiable black, white and grey triangular pattern on the upper surfaces (3). The head is dark grey (2) (3), which contrasts with the white neck, breast, belly and rump, and the slightly forked tail is also white and has a black band on the tip. When the wings are not extended, only the grey areas are visible, and the back is also grey (2). The small bill of Sabine’s gull is black with a yellow tip (2) (3), the legs are black-grey (2) and the dark brown centre of the eyes (3) is encircled by a bright red ring (2).

After the breeding season in October, the characteristic dark grey head of Sabine’s gull becomes almost entirely white, with just a small amount of grey on the rear of the head and neck (2). There are few physical differences between the male and female Sabine’s gull, except for the male being slightly larger (3). The juvenile is grey-brown on the back of the head, back and wings, which have the same triangular pattern seen in the adult, and has a black tip to the tail (2). The throat, breast and underside of the juvenile are white, and the bill is black with a yellow tip on the upperside and pink or flesh-coloured on the underside (3).

Sabine’s gull makes many vocalisations, including groaning, chirping and rattling (3).

There are four recognised subspecies of Sabine’s gull: Xema sabini palaearctica, Xema sabini tschuktschorum, Xema sabini woznesenskii and Xema sabini sabini. These all differ in their range and colouration (2).

Mouette de Sabine.
Length: 27 - 33 cm (2)
Wingspan: 81 - 87 cm (2)
135 - 225 g (2)

Sabine's gull biology

The average clutch of Sabine’s gull contains two or three eggs, although clutches containing one and four eggs occasionally occur. The eggs are olive-green with dark brown markings across the surface which are more concentrated at the larger end of the egg. Both the male and female contribute to constructing the nest (3), which is a small scrape in the ground that is occasionally lined with grass, although this is relatively rare (3) (4). Incubation of the eggs is performed by both sexes and usually lasts for between 20 and 25 days (3). Once the eggs have hatched, care for the young is equally provided by the male and female, and within three days they lead the young to nearby water, where they are taught to forage. Around ten days after leaving the nest (3), the young are left alone by the male and female, who begin their southward migration, therefore the young have to learn to feed themselves very quickly (3). Individuals of this species usually depart their northern breeding grounds from late July to August (4), and return the following May or June (2) (4).

Breeding colonies of Sabine’s gull vary between single pairs and small groups that contain up to 20 nests (3), which are usually around a metre away from each other (2). The nests of Sabine’s gull are often found among those of Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) (4).

The diet of Sabine’s gull varies depending on the time of year, with aquatic insects and terrestrial arthropods usually taken during the breeding season (3), and plankton, crustaceans and fish eaten while overwintering in pelagic areas (3) (4). This species has also been known to feed on the eggs of other species, such as those of the Arctic tern (2) (4).


Sabine's gull range

The circumpolar breeding range of Sabine’s gull stretches across the Arctic from North America to Eurasia. During autumn, individuals of this species migrate south to overwinter in the cool waters of the Humboldt Current off the west coast of Peru and Ecuador or to the Benguela Current off the southwest coast of Africa (4). Although most individuals migrate over sea, some fly over land and have been seen around the Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes in North America (2).


Sabine's gull habitat

The preferred breeding habitat of Sabine’s gull is Arctic tundra, where most nesting sites are found close to freshwater lakes, marshes, ponds or pools (2) (3) (4). After the breeding season, individuals of this species migrate south to cold water upwelling areas in the ocean, where they remain until returning north after the winter (4).


Sabine's gull status

Sabine's gull is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Sabine's gull threats

There are not currently known to be any threats to Sabine’s gull and the population is thought to be stable (4).


Sabine's gull conservation

There are not currently known to be any conservation measures in place for Sabine’s gull, although it is thought that further research into the effects of climate change within the breeding range of this species could facilitate the creation of effective conservation measures in the future (3).


Find out more

Find out more about Sabine’s gull:

Find out more about North American bird conservation:



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A major grouping of animals that includes crustaceans, insects and arachnids. All arthropods have paired jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton).
Diverse group of animals with jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton, characterised by the possession of two pairs of antennae, one pair of mandibles (mouthparts used for handling and processing food) and two pairs of maxillae (appendages used in eating, which are located behind the mandibles). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps, woodlice and barnacles.
The act of incubating eggs; that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Relating to or inhabiting the open ocean.
Aquatic organisms, usually tiny, that drift passively with water movements; includes phytoplankton (plants), zooplankton (animals), or other organisms such as bacteria.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Treeless, grassy plains characteristic of Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. They are very cold and have little rainfall.


  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2014)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Berger, J. and Gochfeld, M. (2013) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Available at:
  3. Day, R.H., Stenhouse, I.J. and Gilchrist, H.G. (2001) Sabine’s gull (Xema sabini). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  4. BirdLife International - Sabine’s gull (March, 2014)

Image credit

Sabine's gull in breeding plumage, swimming  
Sabine's gull in breeding plumage, swimming

© Ignacio Yufera /

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