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 Common Tern - Fact File
Common Tern
Sterna hirundo
Widely but patchily distributed summer visitor.
Both coasts and inland waters.
Slightly larger and longer-legged than similar Arctic Tern, and has shorter wings. Red bill is tipped black. Most terns seen on inland waters will be this species.
34 cm (13")

Common Tern

Colonial nesters, young common terns have been ringed in considerable numbers in Norfolk for many years. Recoveries provide fascinating reading, particularly when compared with foreign records.

As an indication of age, there are recoveries up to 10 years after ringing. One was found decapitated by a nest scrape after 25 years.

An easterly movement of local common terns develops soon after fledging, as shown by records from the Netherlands, Denmark and north-east Germany. A large-scale southerly movement of juveniles accompanying adults or travelling alone follows with many recoveries from the coasts of Spain and Portugal where some halt and appear to winter.

Examples have reached Morocco as early as September, followed by Senegal arrivals by October and Angola by November. Among recoveries in the tropics are terns in their first summer after ringing; some do not breed until four years old although they may wander in a previous summer to European waters.

Many common tern recoveries come from Senegal with others on the coasts of Mauretania, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast and Ghana. A comparison with Dutch, French and Swiss common tern recoveries confirms they are similar to the British: many from France, Spain and Portugal; fair numbers from Senegal and Ghana but few from South Africa.

Birds from colonies in south-central Europe head south overland in autumn with some crossing the Swiss Alps. Yet terns breeding in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany and Russian States in Europe show considerable difference with a goodly number of South African returns.

Finally, an astonishing common tern casualty from Australia; a Swedish bird, it was recovered when a mere six months old. This amazing feat is consistent with the westerly airstream prevalent in the latitude of South Africa.

In winter quarters the birds seek fish shoals over 350 miles offshore, raining down upon their silvery victims. They need to roost at sea or else remain airborne all night.

By Michael J. Seago

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Copyright Information

  • Article: © Eastern Counties Newspapers Group
  • Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge © Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.
  • Other material: © Birds Of Britain