Dispersal is a key process for the population dynamics of spatially structured populations (at local and metapopulation levels), so the understanding of the mechanisms underlying the movement of individuals in space and time is important for evolutionary and ecological studies. Here we analyzed, for the first time, a long-term (1992–2009) multi-site capture– recapture database collected at four local populations of a long-lived seabird, the Audouin’s gull Larus audouinii, covering 90% of its total world population. Those local populations show different ecological and demographic features that allow us to assess the influence of several key factors involved in breeding dispersal patterns at large spatio-temporal scales. A recently developed analytical tool in mark–recapture modelling, the multi-event approach, allowed us to obtain separate departure and settlement probabilities and test different biological hypotheses for each step of the dispersal process. Our results revealed that site fidelity was the most common strategy among breeders, and dispersal was only high from the site with the lowest population size and habitat quality. However, departures from the two largest local populations increased over the study period in response to severe ecological perturbations. Dispersers chose different settlement patches depending on their site of origin, with settlement choices determined by the population size of the destination colony rather than by the local reproductive performance, foraging area (a proxy of food availability) or distance to the destination site. Our results indicate that a breeding site is not abandoned by breeders unless a series of cumulative perturbations occur; once dispersing, settlement is directed towards densely populated sites, with dispersers using population size to rapidly assess the quality of the breeding patch.