Conservation status Remote summer range and sea-going habits probably help ensure survival. Like other seabirds, could be vulnerable to pollution in coastal waters during migration or winter.
Family Gulls and Terns
Habitat Ocean; nests on tundra. During summer on low, marshy tundra close to coast, especially areas with many ponds and shallow tidal flats. In migration and winter mostly at sea, typically a few miles offshore over continental shelf; concentrates in winter where there are upwellings of cold water near coastlines south of the Equator.
A small gull with a spectacular wing pattern. Generally a prized sighting for birders, because it nests on tundra of the high Arctic and migrates south at sea, often well offshore. A young Sabine's that goes astray in fall may cause excitement by showing up on a pond far inland. Delicate in its feeding, this species often floats in the air low over the water, dipping down to take food from the surface without landing. Its flight action may suggest a tern more than a gull.

Feeding Behavior

During migration and winter (mostly at sea), forages by dipping to surface of water in flight, or by picking up items near surface while swimming. During summer, also does much feeding while walking on tidal flats or in marshes. In shallow water may spin in circles, stirring up items from bottom.


2, sometimes 1-3. Olive with darker olive-brown spots. Incubation is by both sexes, 23-25 days. Parents may defend nest by dive-bombing intruders, or may try to lead predators away with distraction display. Young: Shortly after young hatch, parents lead them to area near water; young mostly feed themselves. Age at first flight unknown.


Shortly after young hatch, parents lead them to area near water; young mostly feed themselves. Age at first flight unknown.


Insects, fish, crustaceans. Diet in summer mostly insects and aquatic insect larvae, also some crustaceans, mollusks, marine worms, small fish. Winter diet not well known, includes small fish, crustaceans.


Male on territory lures female by giving long call, arching neck, bowing. In courtship, male may feed female. Nest site is on open ground, in small colony, typically close to water. Usually located in or near a colony of Arctic Terns. Nest is a shallow depression, either unlined or with a lining of seaweed, moss, feathers.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

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Birds from Alaska and Siberia migrate south along Pacific Coast to spend winter off western South America. Those from eastern Canada and Greenland mostly migrate eastward across North Atlantic and then south, wintering mostly off South Africa. Thus migrants are often seen on boat trips off our west coast, rarely off our east coast. Every fall, a few (mostly young birds) show up on lakes in the interior of North America.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon

See a fully interactive migration map for this species on the Bird Migration Explorer.

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Songs and Calls

High-pitched grating or squeaking notes.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.