Black Tern

Chlidonias niger

A graceful tern, easily distinguishable in their black summer plumage, which they're named after.

Black Tern

Black Tern

Quick Facts


Scientific name:

Chlidonias niger


Gulls and terns

Conservation status:




22cm to 24cm


64cm to 68cm



What does a Black Tern look like?

The black tern is a small and graceful member of the tern family. Black terns are are most distinctive during the breeding season, when they have a mostly dark plumage. In this plumage the wings, back and belly are a slate-grey colour. In their alternative plumage, black terns have pale grey upperparts with white below and a dark patch on on the breast. The head is white and has a dark central crown. The bills are black and legs are a dark red. Both sexes look similar, with females slightly greyer during breeding.

Juvenile black terns look similar to the adult alternative plumage but will usually have a pale brown colour on their foreheads and backs.

Black Tern

What does a Black Tern sound like?

Black terns are relatively quiet compared to other gulls and become most vocal at their breeding colonies. The short call that is commonly heard is a "kip" or "kik" sound. There aren't any differences between the calls of both sexes, other than the male's copulation rattle.

Black Tern call

Ron Overholtz, XC580533. Accessible at

Black tern in flight

Black tern in flight

What does a Black Tern eat?

Black terns mainly feed on a mixture of small fish and insects, but diets will vary throughout the year. Whilst at breeding grounds, they will also eat snails, tadpoles and frogs.

These birds will often catch their food by diving down and picking it up from the water's surface. They will also catch insects in the air from time to time, with some impressive chases on insects like dragonflies lasting up to ten seconds.

Where can I see Black Terns?

Black terns can usually be seen in the UK between April and May whilst on their spring passage and then again on their autumn passage between July and August. The best places are usually reservoirs, gravel pits and freshwater lakes, but they can be seen in most places around the country.

Juvenile black tern

Juvenile black tern

Signs and Spotting tips

Black terns are much easier to identify in their summer plumage when they're mainly black. They're also gregarious birds and will often gather in large flocks.

These birds rarely will dive into the water to catch prey. Instead, they often will be found gathering around predatory fish or dolphins where they have driven up prey to the waters surface.

How does a Black Tern breed?

Black terns form long-lasting bonds with other birds, and they will mostly breed in small colonies of less than 100 pairs, but usually around 20 pairs. Nests are built rapidly on the water out of plant material or on floating mats of vegetation. Breeding takes place between May and June. Females lay clutches of 2-3 eggs that both parents then incubate for around 20 days. Black terns are ready to start breeding when they reach two years old.

Nest of a black tern

Nest of a black tern

How long do Black Terns live for?

The average lifespan for a black tern is around 10 years, although they can live for over 20 years.

Enjoyed this content? Share it now

Learn more about the Black Tern

Other birds in the Gulls and terns family

Get the good stuff

Get the latest Birdfacts delivered straight to your inbox

© 2023 - Birdfact. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.