At a Glance
A slim, long-billed tern, swift and graceful in flight. Strictly coastal in the southeastern states. Larger than the typical terns of the Forster's / Common sort, but distinctly smaller than Royal or Caspian terns. Might be thought of as the Royal Tern's sidekick; typically found with that species, usually even nesting in mixed colonies with it, but tends to be less numerous. Named after the town of Sandwich in County Kent, England, where this tern was first discovered.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Gull-like Birds, Gulls and Terns
Coasts and Shorelines, Saltwater Wetlands
Florida, Mid Atlantic, New England, Southeast, Texas
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Withdraws in winter from most of Atlantic Coast north of Florida. Along much of Gulf Coast, more common in summer than winter, indicating some southward migration from there. Very rare inland except in Florida, where occasional in migration and after storms.
16" (41 cm). W. 33 (84 cm). Contrasting yellow tip on long black bill is diagnostic but hard to see (and is faint on some young birds). Wispy crest; forehead is white from late summer through winter. Shape and flight style intermediate between Royal Tern and smaller "typical" terns.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Black, Gray, White, Yellow
Long, Narrow, Pointed, Tapered
Forked, Long, Notched, Pointed
Songs and Calls
Loud harsh curr-it.
Flat, Rising, Undulating
Rattle, Raucous, Scream
Coastal waters, jetties, beaches. Favors warm waters near coastlines, often fairly shallow areas such as bays and estuaries near extensive beaches, mudflats. Sometimes forages farther out to sea. Nests on sandy islands, beaches, sandbars, in coastal lagoons or offshore.
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1-2, rarely 3. Pale cream, blotched with black, brown, gray. Incubation is by both parents, 21-29 days. Young: If colony subject to disturbance, young may leave nest after a few days and gather in group (called "creche") with others. Young bird recognizes its own parents by voice, comes out of creche to be fed when they approach. Age at first flight about 28-32 days; young may remain with parents another 4 months.
If colony subject to disturbance, young may leave nest after a few days and gather in group (called "creche") with others. Young bird recognizes its own parents by voice, comes out of creche to be fed when they approach. Age at first flight about 28-32 days; young may remain with parents another 4 months.
Forages by plunging headfirst into water from flight (often hovering first), and emerging immediately with fish held in bill. Sometimes catches insects in flight.
Mostly fish. Feeds mainly on smaller fish, such as sand lance and mullet; also eats shrimp, squid, marine worms, and many insects.
Usually first breeds at age of 3-4 years. Nests in colonies, very often associated with Royal Terns. Early in courtship, high spiraling flight with long descending glides. On ground, male feeds fish to female; both birds may point bills up, droop wings, turn heads from side to side. Nest site is on ground in open spot. Nest (built by both sexes) is shallow scrape, sometimes lined with bits of debris.
Probably went through serious decline in late 1800s when eggs were harvested from many colonies. Has made a slow comeback in many areas, but still uncommon. Still vulnerable to disturbance or destruction of nesting sites.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Sandwich Tern. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Sandwich Tern
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.