Saunders's Gull Larus saundersi is a breeding endemic of Common Seepweed Suaeda glauca habitats on the east coast of China and south-west coast of South Korea. Much of this habitat has been lost and degraded due to human land use and expansion of the introduced Smooth Cordgrass Spartina alterniflora. Yancheng National Nature Reserve (NNR) is one of three breeding and wintering areas in China. We used satellite images from 1992 to 2007 and visual interpretation combined with ground truthing to classify the land cover and quantify changes in land use and land cover (LULC) in areas of Yancheng NNR used by Saunders's Gull. The Common Seepweed habitat, in which this species nests, decreased in area by 79.1% (27,358 ha) over 15 years, predominantly as a result of conversion to aquaculture ponds (18,929 ha), and is now centred in the south-east of Yancheng NNR. The total population size of Saunders's Gull was maintained at over 900 individuals from 1999 to 2006 in Yancheng NNR, but was only 575 in 2007, and the number of breeding sites decreased from eight in 1992 and 1994 to a single site in 2000–2006 and two sites in 2007. From 1999 to 2007, the breeding population in the core area of Yancheng NNR accounted for 94.93% of the total population, and its nest-site spatial turnover rate was 0.84 ± 0.08 (n = 7 years), but it tended to decrease by about 40% in 2007 because of degradation of the Common Seepweed community. The conversion of Common Seepweed habitats to other habitat types and expansion of introduced Smooth Cordgrass were the major and direct reasons for the loss and degradation of breeding habitats of Saunders's Gull. Smooth Cordgrass habitats increased in area by 321.9% (11,057 ha) during this period and centred on the east, gradually occupying the mudflats, except the beach from Liangduo River to the south of Yancheng NNR, where potential breeding sites for the Saunders's Gull could be located. We discuss the implications of our results for the conservation this species and management of its habitats.