Common Tern

An elegant summer visitor to breaches, marshes, gravel pits and reservoirs that are often called sea swallows because of their long, forked tails and graceful flight. 

The Common Tern has a pale silver-grey back, wings, and underparts. A flat looking head with a black cap, an orange-red bill with a dark tip, and short red legs. The wings are long, pointed, and angular while the tail is forked with long streamers. There is a dark edge on the outermost wing feathers. They look ‘buoyant’ when flying, like a cork bobbing on water and so graceful. The male and female look identical. Their call is a loud “keee-yaah!”

They eat insects and fish like herring, sprat, roach, perch, minnows, with sand eels being their favourite. They catch fish by hovering and then diving headfirst into the water.

The Common Terns arrive in April and the male selects a nesting territory a few days after his arrival. They usually re-use the same site year after year within a nesting colony. He is soon joined by his previous partner unless she is over five days late, in which case he may go and find another girl who is a bit more punctual. The courtship involves presenting his sweetheart with a fish, as who can turn down a lovely fish supper? The happy couple may delay starting their family if there is not enough fish available, though breeding generally starts in May. The Tern’s nest is a scrape made in the sand or shingle close to water or on a man made floating raft. The 1-3 well camouflaged eggs hatch after 21 days. The youngsters leave the nest scrape after 3-4 days and hide in nearby vegetation or hollows in the sand where they are fed by their parents for 2-3 months despite being able to fly after 25 days. The young Terns will not breed themselves until they are 3 years old.

Common Terns are only summer visitors, leaving here in October to go back to overwinter on the west coast of Africa. There are 13,000 breeding pairs in Britain and the numbers are increasing as the construction of rafts and islands on nature reserves has helped them. Their Latin name is ’sterna hirundo’ where ’stearn’ is an old English name for a Tern and ’hirundo is Latin for a swallow. We do call them sea swallows after all!

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