Conservation status Has increased and spread northward in California in recent years, first nesting at San Diego in 1959 and in Orange County in 1987. At the same time, has disappeared from some former nesting sites in western Mexico. Considered vulnerable because nesting is restricted to very few sites.
Family Gulls and Terns
Habitat Coast, bays, beaches. Generally on ocean, close to shore over shallow waters, concentrating around bays and estuaries. Sometimes far out to sea. Extremely rare on fresh waters inland. Nests on sandy or rocky islands.
Formerly just a late-summer visitor to our Pacific Coast from its Mexican breeding colonies, the Elegant Tern has been reaching California in increasing numbers since about 1950, nesting there since 1959. A medium-sized tern, slim and long-billed, strictly coastal in its occurrence. In size, shape, and callnotes, very similar to the Sandwich Tern of the Atlantic Coast.

Feeding Behavior

Forages by flying over water, hovering and plunge-diving to catch prey below the surface.


One, rarely 2. Buff to white, blotched or spotted with dark brown. Incubation is probably by both parents; incubation period not well known, but more than 20 days. Young: May leave nest after a few days, gather in group (called a "creche"). Both parents probably feed young. Age at first flight and at independence not well known.


May leave nest after a few days, gather in group (called a "creche"). Both parents probably feed young. Age at first flight and at independence not well known.


Small fish. Feeds mostly on small fish, probably also taking some small crustaceans. In California waters, preys heavily on northern anchovy; increasing population of anchovies there coincided with increase in Elegant Terns.


Breeds in colonies. Sometimes associated with other terns (or, in Mexico, with Heermann's Gulls). In California, appears to prefer nesting close to the larger Caspian Terns, which may help in defense against predators. Courtship displays on ground involve both members of pair drooping wings, stretching neck upward, raising and lowering bills. Nest site is on open bare ground. Nest (probably built by both sexes) is a simple scrape in the soil.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Download Our Bird Guide App


Moves north along coast to northern California or farther in late summer and early fall, after breeding. Most move south again in October. Winter range extends as far south as Peru and northern Chile. Very rarely strays inland, but perhaps somewhat more likely in the interior than Royal Tern.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon

See a fully interactive migration map for this species on the Bird Migration Explorer.

Learn more

Songs and Calls

A loud grating kar-eek.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.