Photo: Arthur Morris/Vireo

Priority Bird

Arctic Tern

Sterna paradisaea

Famous as a long-distance champion: some Arctic Terns may migrate farther than any other birds, going from the high Arctic to the Antarctic. Breeds on coasts and tundra from New England, Washington, and Britain north to the northernmost limits of land, and spends the rest of the year at sea. Its migrations take it to every ocean, and to the vicinity of every continent. In North America, seldom seen from land south of its breeding grounds.
Conservation status Steadily declining at southern end of breeding range on Atlantic Coast. Elsewhere no obvious trend. Most of very extensive range is remote from effects of human activities.
Family Gulls and Terns
Habitat Open ocean, rocky coasts, islands; in summer, also tundra lakes. At sea for most of year, in wide variety of situations, but seems to spend most time over cold waters and well offshore. Nests on islands, gravel beaches, coastal tundra; also far inland around lakes, rivers, ponds in tundra regions.
Famous as a long-distance champion: some Arctic Terns may migrate farther than any other birds, going from the high Arctic to the Antarctic. Breeds on coasts and tundra from New England, Washington, and Britain north to the northernmost limits of land, and spends the rest of the year at sea. Its migrations take it to every ocean, and to the vicinity of every continent. In North America, seldom seen from land south of its breeding grounds.
Photo Gallery
  • adult
  • adult
  • juvenile
  • adult
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly by flying slowly upwind, hovering briefly, then plunging to catch prey below water's surface. Sometimes dips down in flight to take items from surface, or chases flying insects in the air. Despite its small size, may steal food from other birds, swooping at them to startle them into dropping their catch.


Eggs

1-3. Buff to pale olive, blotched with black and brown. Incubation is by both parents, 20-24 days. Parents are vigorous in defense of nest, will dive at and strike intruders. Young: Leave nest 1-3 days after hatching, find place to hide nearby. Both parents bring food for young. Age at first flight 21-28 days; young remain with parents another 1-2 months.


Young

Leave nest 1-3 days after hatching, find place to hide nearby. Both parents bring food for young. Age at first flight 21-28 days; young remain with parents another 1-2 months.

Diet

Fish, crustaceans, insects. Diet varies with season and location; mostly small fish and crustaceans, also many insects in summer on breeding grounds. Also known to eat mollusks, marine worms, earthworms, rarely berries.


Nesting

Usually first breeds at age of 3-4 years. Nests in colonies, sometimes with other terns. Much of courtship is aerial, with groups and pairs performing high flights. Male may fly over colony carrying fish, wings beating high above back. On ground, pair of birds posture, bow, strut in circles; male presents fish to female. Nest site is on ground in the open. Nest (built by both sexes) is a shallow scrape, usually lined with a few bits of plant material, debris.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Most migration is offshore. In spring migration, some may move up the St. Lawrence River and then fly overland to James Bay and Hudson Bay; others may come overland from farther south on Atlantic Coast, but very few records inland in spring. Strays found in the interior in fall are mostly young birds.

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Migration

Most migration is offshore. In spring migration, some may move up the St. Lawrence River and then fly overland to James Bay and Hudson Bay; others may come overland from farther south on Atlantic Coast, but very few records inland in spring. Strays found in the interior in fall are mostly young birds.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Harsh tee-ar or kip-kip-kip-tee-ar, higher pitched than call of Common Tern.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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