Photo: Alcides Morales/USFWL

Priority Bird

Roseate Tern

Sterna dougallii

Widespread but very local on the coasts of six continents. In North America, only on Atlantic seaboard, mainly in northeast and Florida. More strictly coastal and oceanic than most similar terns. Has a very light and buoyant flight, with relatively fast and shallow wingbeats, and often gives a musical callnote in flight. Its numbers on this continent are in a long-term decline, probably owing to a combination of reasons, and it is now considered an endangered species.
Conservation status Now considered an endangered species in the northeast. Apparently was once far more numerous along much of Atlantic Coast, but today nests at only a few sites. Initial decline may have been caused by hunting for plume trade in late 1800s. After partial recovery, some colonies disappeared after 1930s when islands were overrun by expanding populations of Herring Gulls in northeast. Continuing decline may involve hunting of terns on wintering grounds in northeastern South America.
Family Gulls and Terns
Habitat Coastal; salt bays, estuaries, ocean. Nests on sandy or rocky islands with some low plant cover, close to shallow waters for feeding, especially in protected bays and estuaries. Forages in coastal waters and sometimes well offshore, with a seeming preference for warmer waters.
Widespread but very local on the coasts of six continents. In North America, only on Atlantic seaboard, mainly in northeast and Florida. More strictly coastal and oceanic than most similar terns. Has a very light and buoyant flight, with relatively fast and shallow wingbeats, and often gives a musical callnote in flight. Its numbers on this continent are in a long-term decline, probably owing to a combination of reasons, and it is now considered an endangered species.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, breeding
  • immature (1st year)
  • juvenile
  • adult, breeding
  • adult, breeding
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly by patrolling in flight above water and then plunging to catch fish below surface. Sometimes dips down in flight to take prey from surface of water. May hover less than most terns.


Eggs

1-2, sometimes 3. Cream to pale olive, blotched with blackish brown. Incubation is by both sexes (female may do more), 21-26 days. Young: Are fed by both parents; may move away from nest to better shelter a few days after hatching. Age at first flight usually 27-30 days, but remain with parents at least 2 more months.


Young

Are fed by both parents; may move away from nest to better shelter a few days after hatching. Age at first flight usually 27-30 days, but remain with parents at least 2 more months.

Diet

Mostly fish. Feeds mainly on small fish, including many sand lance and herring off eastern North America; also a few crustaceans, mollusks, rarely insects.


Nesting

Usually first breeds at age of 3 years. Nests in colonies, associated with Common Terns in northeast. Early in breeding season, groups fly high, glide down. On ground, birds display with tail raised, neck arched. Male may feed female. Nest site on ground under cover such as grass, shrubs, or rock ledge, sometimes in abandoned burrow or in open on bare sand. In Florida, some nest on gravel roofs. Nest (built by both sexes) is shallow scrape, usually lined with bits of debris.

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

Migration

Leaves North America entirely in winter, to winter in Caribbean and along northern coast of South America. Migrates along coast or well out to sea. Birds younger than 3 years old may remain all year on wintering grounds.

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Migration

Leaves North America entirely in winter, to winter in Caribbean and along northern coast of South America. Migrates along coast or well out to sea. Birds younger than 3 years old may remain all year on wintering grounds.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Loud, harsh zaap, likened to sound of tearing cloth. Also a softer chew-wick.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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