Common Tern

Sterna hirundo

31-35cm

Appearance

The Common Tern resembles the Arctic Tern, but some differences include the reddish-orange bill with a black tip, the paler underparts and the proportionally longer red legs. In summer the upperparts are silver-grey, it has a dark cap, and when flying the tips of the underwing feathers are dark and there's a section on the wings that can appear almost transparent. The longest flight feathers grow darker as summer progresses, appearing as a dark wedge shape. Winter plumage is similar, but the forehead whitens leaving a black bar and the bill and legs darken. Juvenile birds are white underneath, they have a partially formed dark cap, the upperparts are scaly-looking and grey, and the back is ginger. The bill is fleshy in colour or yellowish and it has a dark tip which becomes more prominent over the summer.

Habitat

Breeding grounds are beaches of sand or shingle, or on craggy seashores. Feeding is usually done on inshore waters like lakes and rivers. Prefers warmer sea waters when not breeding.

Character

Appears strong in the air, particularly when compared to other terns. Breeds colonially and frequently socialises in flocks. When flying in search of fish, the bill is angled downwards and this tern may rise in the air before diving, often with a hover before the change in direction. Sometimes carries fish in its bill, presumably to feed hatchlings or as an offering of courtship.

Food

Mostly eats fish such as herring, sprats and sand eels. Fresh water diet includes roach, perch and minnows.

Breeding

Breeding begins in May when the female lays 2 or 3 well-camouflaged eggs. Both adults incubate these for 21-22 days, and hatchlings depart the nest after 3-4 days, though they stay hidden in close proximity to the nest. They learn to fly at about 22-28 days old but are not completely independent for 2 or 3 months.

Population

This bird is a summer visitor with a large distribution, and it is also a common passage migrant. It departs the region in November and December to head south to West Africa where it winters. A few birds go to Spain and Portugal. Approximately 12 000 pairs breed in the UK and more than 3 500 in Ireland.

Observation Tips

Due to the commonality of this bird, it can regularly be found by the coast or on inland expanses of freshwater, particularly in the south and the east of England. However these birds are less common in south-west England and Wales, with the exception of Anglesey.

Voice

Has a variety of coarse calls, the most common being 'kreee-yaah'.
Back to Bird Index
Other Birds
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica Barn Owl Tyto alba Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria Bean Goose Anser fabalis Bearded Tit/Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus Bee-eater Merops apiaster Bewick's Swan Cygnus columbianus Bittern Botaurus stellaris Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros Black Tern Chlidonias niger Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa Black-throated Diver Gavia arctica Blackbird Terdus merula Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus Bluethroat Luscinia svecica Brambling Fringilla montifringilla Brent Goose Branta bernicla Buzzard Buteo buteo Canada Goose Branta canadensis Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus Carrion Crow Corvus corone Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Cetti's Warbler Cettia cetti Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax Coal Tit Periparus ater Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto Common Gull Larus canus Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos Common Scoter Melanitta nigra Common Tern Sterna hirundo Coot Fulica atra Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo Corncrake Crex crex Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomedea Crane Grus grus Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus Cuckoo Cuculus canorus Curlew Numenius arquata Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata Dipper Cinclus cinclus Dotterel Charadrius morinellus Dunlin Calidris alpina Dunnock Prunella modularis Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca Eider Somateria mollissima Fieldfare Turdus pilaris Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis Gadwall Anas strepera Gannet Morus bassanus Garden Warbler Sylvia borin Garganey Anas querquedula Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus Goldcrest Regulus regulus Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos Golden Oriole Oriolus oriolus Golden Pheasant Chrysolophus pictus Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria Goldeneye Bucephala clangula Goosander Mergus merganser Goshawk Accipiter gentilis Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor Great Northern Diver Gavia immer Great Skua Catharacta skua Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major Great Tit Parus major Great White Egret Ardea alba Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus Green Woodpecker Picus viridis Greenshank Tringa nebularia Grey Heron Ardea cinerea Grey Partridge Perdix perdix Grey Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea Greylag Goose Anser anser Guillemot Uria aalge Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus Herring Gull Larus argentatus Hobby Falco subbuteo Honey-buzzard Pernis apivorus Hooded Crow Corvus cornix Hoopoe Upupa epops House Martin Delichon urbica Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minimus Jackdaw Corvus monedula Jay Garrulus glandarius Kestrel Falco tinnunculus Kingfisher Alcedo atthis Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla Knot Calidris canutus Lapwing Vanellus vanellus Leach's Petrel Oceanodroma leucorhoa Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca Little Auk Alle alle Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus Little Egret Egretta garzetta Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus Little Owl Athene noctua Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius Little Stint Calidris minuta Little Tern Sterna albifrons Long-eared Owl Asio otus Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis Long-tailed Skua Stercorarius longicaudus Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus Magpie Pica pica Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Mandarin Aix galericulata Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus Marsh Tit Poecile palustris Marsh Warbler Acrocephalus palustris Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus Melodious Warbler Hippolais polyglotta Merlin Falco columbarius Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus Montagu's Harrier Circus pygargus Moorhen Gallinula chloropus Mute Swan Cygnus olor Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus Nuthatch Sitta europaea Osprey Pandion haliaetus Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Pallas's Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos Peregrine Falco peregrinus Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarrellii Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus Pintail Anus acuta Pochard Aythya ferina Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus Ptarmigan Lagopus mutus Puffin Fratercula arctica Purple Heron Ardea purpurea Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima Quail Coturnix coturnix Raven Corvus corax Razorbill Alca torda Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus Red Kite Milvus milvus Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisegena Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus Red-throated Diver Gavia stellatta Redshank Tringa totanus Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus Redwing Turdus iliacus Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus Ring-necked Parakeet Psittacula krameri Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula Robin Erithacus rubecula Rock Dove and Feral Pigeon Columba livia Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus Rook Corvus frugilegus Roseate Tern Sterna dougallii Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis Ruff Philomachus pugnax Sabine's Gull Larus sabini Sand Martin Riparia riparia Sanderling Calidris alba Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis Scaup Aythya marila Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus Serin Serinus serinus Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis Shelduck Tadorna tadorna Shore Lark Eremophila alpestris Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus Shoveler Anas clypeata Skylark Alauda arvensis Slavonian Grebe Podiceps auritus Smew Mergus albellus Snipe Gallinago gallinago Song Thrush Turdus Philomelos Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia Spotted Crake Porzana porzana Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus Starling Sturnus vulgaris Stock Dove Columba oenas Stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus Stonechat Saxicola torquata Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus Swallow Hirundo rustica Swift Apus apus Tawny Owl Strix aluco Teal Anas crecca Temminck's Stint Calidris temminckii Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis Tree Sparrow Passer montanus Treecreeper Certhia familiaris Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula Turnstone Arenaria interpres Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca Water Pipit Anthus spinoletta Water Rail Rallus aquaticus Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus Whinchat Saxicola rubetra White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons White-tailed eagle Haliaeetus albicilla Whitethroat Sylvia communis Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus Wigeon Anas penelope Willow Tit Poecile montanus Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix Woodcock Scolopax rusticola Woodlark Lullula arborea Woodpigeon Columba palumbus Wren Troglodytes troglodytes Wryneck Jynx torquilla Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis