Animals explore and prospect space searching for resources and individuals may disperse, targeting suitable patches to increase fitness. Nevertheless, dispersal is costly because it implies leaving the patch where the individual has gathered information and reduced uncertainty. In social species, information gathered during the prospection process for deciding whether and where to disperse is not only personal but also public, i.e. conspecific density and breeding performance. In empty patches, public information is not available and dispersal for colonisation would be more challenging. Here we study the prospecting in a metapopulation of colonial Audouin’s gulls using PTT platform terminal transmitters tagging for up to 4 years and GPS tagging during the incubation period. A large percentage of birds (65%) prospected occupied patches; strikingly, 62% of prospectors also visited empty patches that were colonised in later years. Frequency and intensity of prospecting were higher for failed breeders, who dispersed more than successful breeders. Prospecting and dispersal also occurred mostly to neighbouring patches where population density was higher. GPSs revealed that many breeders (59%) prospected while actively incubating, which suggests that they gathered information before knowing the fate of their reproduction. Prospecting may be enhanced in species adapted to breed in ephemeral habitats, such as Audouin’s gulls. Interestingly, none of the tracked individuals colonised an empty patch despite having prospected over a period of up to three consecutive years. Lack of public information in empty patches may drive extended prospecting, long time delays in colonisation and non-linear transient phenomena in metapopulation dynamics and species range expansion.