The Arctic Tern is a widespread and beautiful seabird that undertakes a remarkable migration. Drawn by the promise of rich feeding grounds and endless days, these graceful birds fly to opposite ends of the Earth and back each year.
The Arctic Tern is a medium-sized seabird with a long, deeply forked tail and long wings that end in a sharp point. They have short legs, set far forward on their bodies, and a fairly long pointed bill. Males and females look alike, although their plumage varies between the breeding and non-breeding seasons.
Breeding birds are silver-gray over most of their body, with a white tail and rump. They have a bold black cap from bill to nape, bordered below by white plumage. Their legs and bill are bright red.
Non-breeding Arctic Terns have black bills and legs. They are whiter below and have a dark bar across the upper wing. They have a white forehead and black cap from their crown to their nape.
Young birds appear more compact, with shorter bills, wings, and tails. Their bills and legs are black, and they have crescent-shaped markings on their backs, which create a scaled appearance.
Arctic Terns are easily confused with several other species, including the Common Tern, Antarctic Tern, Roseate Tern, and South American Tern.
Arctic Tern (breeding plumage)
Juvenile Arctic Tern
Arctic Terns are medium-sized Terns. The sexes are similar-sized, although males are generally longer.
Arctic Terns are 11 to 15 inches (28 - 39cm) long, including their long forked tail, which measures nearly 5 inches (12.5cm) on some birds.
Arctic Terns weigh three to four ounces (90 - 120g). They are heaviest before breeding but lose mass while incubating and caring for their young.
Arctic Terns have long, narrow wings ideally suited to long-distance travel. They have an impressive wingspan of 25 and a half to 29 and a half inches (65 - 75cm).
Arctic Tern in-flight during the breeding season
Arctic Terns make a variety of high-pitched calls. These harsh screams and cries include ‘kee-aa,’ ‘pi-pi-pi,’ and ‘kik’ notes. They are most vocal around their breeding colonies but vocalize in many social contexts and when alarmed or distressed.
Arctic Tern standing on post screaming out
Arctic Terns are carnivorous. They feed on small fish up to about 6 inches long, crustaceans, insects, and their larvae. These agile birds catch most of their prey near the surface by picking them off the water or diving to depths of a little over a foot (up to about 50cm).
Arctic Tern chicks are fed by both parents. Small fish such as sand eels and juveniles of many larger fish species are their most important food source, although they also eat insects and marine invertebrates. Individual prey items are delivered singly in their parent’s beak rather than regurgitated.
Adult Arctic Tern feeding its chick at the nest
Arctic Terns are a marine species in the non-breeding season when they forage in coastal and offshore waters. They are adaptable to many environments (including freshwater habitats) during the breeding season when they nest in coastal and inland areas. They survive in an incredible range of latitudes, although they spend most of their days between temperate and polar regions.
Arctic Terns have a circumpolar distribution in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. They migrate between these extremes each year by crossing the lengths of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
In the summer breeding season, Arctic Terns nest in coastal and inland colonies in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe, and Northern Asia. The non-breeding season is spent in the waters between Antarctica and southern Africa and South America.
Arctic Terns are true travelers. Individuals spend their lives everywhere, from the ice sheets of Antarctica and the open waters of the middle of the Atlantic to ponds and meadows in their northern breeding grounds, sometimes hundreds of miles from the ocean.
The world population of Arctic Terns is thought to exceed two million, although you are not likely to see these common migratory birds very often unless you visit a breeding colony.
Arctic Tern in-flight over natural habitat
Arctic Terns reach the southern limit of their North American breeding range off the coast of Massachusetts, although birdwatchers are more likely to see them off Maine, where they currently nest on several islands. Smaller numbers breed in the Northwest, where there are records from Washington and Montana.
An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Arctic Terns nest in Canada. Minchan Archipelago National Park Reserve and Terra Nova National Park are great places to look out for these extraordinary seabirds.
Arctic Terns nest at many sites in the United Kingdom, particularly around the coast of Scotland. The Outer Hebrides and the Farne, Orkney, and Shetland Islands are hotspots, although they may be seen virtually anywhere along the coast or around inland waters during spring and autumn migrations.
Arctic Tern resting on top of a rock
Arctic Terns are long-lived birds that can survive for an impressive 34 years. They first breed when they are three or four years old, and their typical lifespan is around 13 years.
Adult Arctic Terns are most vulnerable to birds of prey like Peregrine Falcons, Gyrfalcons, Great Horned Owls, and Snowy Owls. Magpies, ravens, crows, and gulls take eggs and chicks. Red and Arctic foxes, otters, rats, and mink also prey on eggs and young birds.
Arctic Terns enjoy the protection of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the United States and the Migratory Birds Convention Act in Canada. They have an Amber status in the UK, where they are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Arctic Terns in Europe are also protected by the Convention on Migratory Species, the EU Birds Directive, and the Bern Convention.
Arctic Tern numbers are thought to be in decline, although they are not endangered. These widespread seabirds are evaluated as a ‘Least Concern’ species on the IUCN Red List.
Pair of Arctic Terns near to the sea
Arctic Terns nest on the ground near water, usually in a scrape on sandy or gravelly soil but occasionally on low vegetation or rock. Only after they have laid their eggs will they add nesting materials such as vegetation, shells, wool, or plastic to the rim of the nest.
These birds nest in Northern Europe, the north of North America, and Asia. They usually nest in small groups (2 -25), although they also nest alone or in colonies that may contain hundreds of pairs.
Arctic Terns nest in the spring and summer. At lower latitudes, they may lay their eggs as early as May, while High Arctic nesters must wait until July before conditions are suitable.
Arctic Terns typically lay two heavily blotched and speckled eggs with a grayish, greenish, or brownish background color. Their eggs measure about 41 millimeters long and 29 millimeters at their widest.
Arctic Terns form monogamous pairs, and they are believed to mate for life.
Arctic Tern sitting on its nest
Arctic Tern chick in the nest
Arctic Terns usually avoid humans, but researchers on their breeding grounds have found them to be quite fearless in defense of their nest. Aggression towards other intruding birds is more commonplace and usually results in a mid-air or dive-bombing attack. These terns are known to steal food from other terns and seabirds, but they are also stolen from in turn.
Arctic Terns sleep in flocks or on their nest (breeding season), perched on the ground with their head turned back and their bill under their feathers. These graceful birds are so comfortable in flight that they can even sleep on the wing out over the open ocean where there’s nowhere to land.
Arctic Tern resting in the tundra
Arctic Terns are extreme long-distance migrants that nest in the Arctic and temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere and overwinter in the Southern Hemisphere. Tracking studies show that they take a wandering route south, with long pauses along the way, but hurry back with a more direct route. All in all, the journey can span a jaw-dropping 56,000 miles (90,000 km) in a single year.
There’s a lot more to learn about Arctic Tern migration. Check out our in-depth guide for more about their amazing journey.
Arctic Terns are said to chase the sunshine. This may sound romantic, but these birds hunt by sight, and the long summer days at higher latitudes provide excellent fishing opportunities. However, the summer is short-lived in the Arctic and Antarctic zones, which keeps them migrating back and forth.
Arctic Terns are a native species in North America. These long-distance migrants nest across Alaska and Canada, just reaching the contiguous United States around Maine. They may be seen off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts on migration.
Arctic Terns are native breeding visitors to the United Kingdom.
Artic Tern in-flight over land
Arctic Terns are remarkable for the distances they travel on migration. They migrate far further than any other species, and during their lifetime, they may cover a distance equivalent to the moon and back three times.
A study on Arctic Terns breeding in the United Kingdom revealed that they can fly as much as 5,000 miles nonstop (while feeding) as they cross the Indian Ocean.
Arctic Terns migrate south to escape the cold and dark of the northern winter. The rich waters off the coastline of Antarctica provide an abundant food source, and the extreme day length of the polar summer means there’s no shortage of foraging time either.
Family:Gulls and terns
28cm to 39cm
65cm to 75cm
90g to 120g
Named in honour of the French naturalist and ornithologist, Jean Victor Audouin (1797 – 1841) the Audouin’s gull is one of the world’s rarest and is limited in the main to regions within and surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
Until fairly recently yellow-legged gulls were considered a subspecies of the caspian gull or the herring gull. In 2007, the British Ornithologists’ Union first listed it as a distinct species with key differences in appearance and distribution range from similar-looking gulls.
Sandwich terns are migratory seabirds that breed at large nesting colonies along the warm-water coasts of Europe, parts of the south-eastern United States, the Caribbean and as far south as Patagonia in South America. Their distinctive yellow-tipped bill and shaggy black crest make them relatively unmistakable alongside similar seabird species.
Roseate terns have a wide distribution range, and are found on six continents around the world. However, numbers have declined dramatically in some regions, leading to conservation concerns over the long-term survival of the species.
Despite its name, the Mediterranean gull is not limited to coastal waters of southern Europe, and is widespread on the Atlantic and Black Sea coasts, as well as in coastal regions and inland reservoirs of England and Wales.
A tiny, but feisty, seabird, the little tern undertakes epic annual migrations of up to 10,000 km (6,000 miles) between breeding grounds along the UK coast to winter territories in West Africa. Further east, little tern populations complete similar journeys from China and Japan to Australia each year.
Little gulls are small, tern-sized seabirds that breed mainly in Central Asia, but are occasionally reported as vagrant breeders in North America and may be seen in passage around coastal areas of the UK, and rarely reach the United States and Canada.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull
The Lesser Black-backed Gull is one of many attractive ‘white-headed-gulls’ from the Larus genus. Common in the UK throughout the year, these migratory seabirds also visit the eastern half of the United States each winter.
The Kittiwake is an attractive, short-legged gull that breeds on rocky cliffs along the UK’s coastline. These birds disperse each winter to forage out over the open ocean.
Iceland Gulls breed exclusively along the rocky coastlines of north-east Canada to Greenland. Winter migration south occurs, with temporary visitors arriving along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States, and to coastal areas across north-western Europe.
A familiar bird of the coast, the bold and long-lived Herring Gull is a fascinating seabird in decline.
Great Black-Backed Gull
The Great Black-backed Gull is the world’s largest gull and one formidable seabird. This impressive species lives and breeds along Northern Hemisphere shores on both sides of the Atlantic.
A large, pale gull species, the Glaucous gull breeds across the Arctic, where it hunts for fish, birds and small mammals and scavenges for carrion. Known for their intolerance of sharing a food source with other birds, Glaucous gulls can be physically aggressive as well as highly vocal when approached.
Terns are water birds from the family Sternidae and are expert fish catchers. There are generally considered to be forty five separate species of terns worldwide. Generally smaller than gulls but with long tails, thin bodies and short legs, they are long distance migrants.
There are four sub-species of the common gull with the European variant being the nominate. The other three are the Russian, Kamchatka and American, which are all predominantly confined to the geographical region attributed by their name. There are subtle differences in plumage and overall size of bird between sub-species.
The title of Black-headed Gull is rather a misnomer for this bird as its head is not black but a dark brown colour and only in adult birds during the breeding season. It is not present during the winter months or in other plumages. Unlike many gulls it is not restricted to coastal regions and is widespread inland in both rural and urban areas.
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