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Black Tern Chlidonias niger


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Black Tern
credit: ”mar RunŪlfsson/CCSA

© Lang Elliot/ (audio)

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Family: Laridae, Gulls and Terns view all from this family

Description ADULT SUMMER Has mainly gray upperparts, but head and neck, along with breast and belly, are black; note white vent and undertail coverts, slightly forked tail, and gray upperparts. Bill is black and legs are dark red. ADULT WINTER (this plumage is acquired gradually Jul-Sep) Has gray upperparts, entirely white underparts; black on head is restricted to cap, nape, and ear coverts. Birds in intermediate stages of molt can look a bit "moth-eaten." Bill is black and legs are dull red. JUVENILE Similar to winter adult, but back is brownish gray and scaly-looking due to pale feather margins. First-summer birds resemble winter adults, but with irregular dark spots on underparts.

Dimensions Length: 9-10" (23-25 cm)

Habitat Locally common in summer months, but declining due to habitat destruction and degradation. Favors marshes and other freshwater habitats and breeds colonially, building nests on floating vegetation. Migrates mainly overland, sometimes in flocks, and winters on coasts and at sea from Central to South America.

Observation Tips Easy to see at breeding colonies in summer months although sometimes abandons previously used sites if water levels are not suitable. Turns up during migration (Apr-May and Aug-Sep) at inland freshwater sites south of breeding range, but often only pauses to feed for a day or so, sometimes just a matter of hours.

Range Texas, Western Canada, Eastern Canada, California, New England, Florida, Rocky Mountains, Mid-Atlantic, Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, Plains, Great Lakes, Alaska

Voice Utters a harsh scherr.

Discussion Elegant wetland bird whose plumage varies markedly according to time of year and age. Breeding adults are stunning but seldom remain in pristine plumage for long. Buoyant and aerobatic flight is used to good effect when hawking insects or picking food items from water's surface. Sexes are similar.