Sabine’s Gull

Ah, if you seen a gull, you’ve seen ’em all. After all, they’re mostly ring-billed, right? That’s a tempting way to avoid the challenge of identifying these birds over the lake. They are tough, partly because they seem to rarely perch. Let me introduce to you the Sabine’s gull. The adult breeding bird has a very dark gray head with a red ring around the eye and black neck ring. Look for a yellow tip to the bill and outstanding white tips on the edges of the wings. Both sexes are about 13.4 inches in length and weigh from 5.5-7.5 ounces. This is a smallish gull.

It has only two cycles – a first and adult one. In contrast, the bald eagle has four. Besides two cycles, another challenge is the effect of molting. Let’s not go there in this article.

Want some hints to separate the Sabine’s from the rest of the gulls? A lot of others have rounded tails at the end. Not our bird. It has a forked tail. After all, somebody has to be different. Also, the others are mostly larger. Some folks could easily confuse a Sabine’s gull with an immature black-legged kittiwake, especially in the fall. Here’s the difference. The kittiwake has the letter w in black on the wing, that separates the gray and white areas. There’s no black mark doing that job on the Sabine’s gull. But don’t forget. The adult Sabine’s does have black, white and gray. Want to get more confused? Both birds have white triangles. OK. What fun would birding be, if there was no challenge?

This black-headed gull breeds at high latitudes, but winters near the tropics. Specifically, it breeds in the Spitzbergen-Franz Joseph region and other Arctic areas in June. The Dutch discovered the Arctic archipelago in 1596 and named it Spitsbergen. Now, folks more often call it Svalbard, the Viking word for “cold coast.” Makes sense to me. When our bird is not in breeding season, it sometimes joins other birds in western Great Britain before heading south.

In the western hemisphere, this bird’s territory includes Alaska, northern Canada and the west coast of Greenland. Eskimos have reported huge numbers in the interior of northwestern Baffin Island. You have a better chance of seeing it out west on the coast, than in the east.

On the Pacific coasts of North and South America, it migrates all the way to Peru and northern Chile. Guess what? We’re in the book! It says that sometimes the Sabine’s gull is seen in New York, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, Nebraska, other states to the interior and in the islands of Bermuda. Its colony would be found on a steep cliff or small island. Have you ever heard of the Stellwagen Bank National Sanctuary, which includes Jeffrey’s Lodge? It’s at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. Evidently, it’s a popular place for experienced scuba divers. The exposed waters cause pretty challenging diving conditions. If you are brave enough, the sanctuary provides a great place for divers to explore. Our bird often can be seen there from August through September, a great time travel to the east coast. Maybe it thinks it’s a tern, because it often behaves like one. The Sabine’s gull usually migrates along the coasts or over the ocean. Primarily, that would be offshore. The Sabine’s seems to be the odd one. It doesn’t bother heading to the coast like all the others. Oh no. It might fly directly from the north to the south. This is what I call a feisty bird which flies straight south, like the tern, over the land. Its route is a lot harder.

Why does it usually fly offshore? It’s all in the food. In the winter, it prefers zooplankton, crustaceans, aquatic insects and fishes. It takes its food from the water surface, as it is flying. But, darn those jaegers, who often steal the insects.

We have a lot more to learn about this bird. There’s lots of research available. You can learn more at my blog, which I am revising. Here’s the address:

It should be up and running soon.