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Common Tern Sterna hirundo


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Common Tern with fish
credit: Badjoby/CCSA

© Lang Elliot/ (audio)

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

Description ADULT SUMMER Has gray upperparts, black cap, and whitish gray underparts. Compared to Arctic, note black-tipped orange-red bill, longer red legs, and paler underparts. In flight from below, only inner primaries look translucent and wings have diffuse dark tips; from above, outer primaries have dark tips and shafts, inner ones are dark and appear as a "wedge." ADULT WINTER Similar, but has white forehead and dark carpal bar; bill and legs are dark. JUVENILE Has white underparts, incomplete dark cap, and scaly gray upperparts; leading and trailing edges of inner upper wing are dark.

Dimensions Length: 13-16 in (33-41 cm)

Habitat Locally common. Breeds beside forest lakes in Canada and on Atlantic coast; present mainly May-Sep. Winters on coasts of Central and South America.

Observation Tips Easy to see in summer.

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

Voice Utters a harsh kreeear call.

Similar Species Roseate Tern S. dougallii (L 12-13 in) is paler overall with black on wings limited to narrow wedge on upperside of outer primaries. Adult's bill is mostly black but goes red at base in breeding season. In breeding season has pink flush to underparts and long tail streamers. Rare breeder on Canadian coast and Florida Keys.

Discussion Elegant tern that plunge-dives for fish and hawks insects. Sexes are similar.