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Common tern

Sterna Hirundo

What am I?

The common tern is a medium-sized bird and the one you are most likely to see inland, as well as at the coast.  Hirundo– the second half of its scientific name – is the Latin word for swallow and indeed these graceful birds are often referred to as sea swallows.

Common terns breed on shingle beaches, rocky islands and inland on the gravelly shores of lakes and rivers.

With a distinctive shrill kyar-kyar-kyar call you’ll likely hear a colony of common terns before you see them. They are noisy in their colonies and, like most terns, will attack intruders threatening their nests.

How to spot them

Common terns and arctic terns can be very difficult to tell apart. The common tern is a silvery-grey and white bird with a long-forked tail and a distinctive black tip to its red bill.

Experts at catching fish, common terns can often be seen hovering above the sea, head down, intently searching for prey on or just below the surface of the water.  They plunge-dive and their long, pointed bill acts like a spear.

Where to see them

Common tern can be seen around the coast and also inland at gravel pits, reservoirs and lakes. It nests in noisy colonies and can be spotted plunge-diving for fish. They are most obvious when feeding young as they will fly some distance for food, returning to the nest site with a fish.

Conservation status

Due to localised breeding and their vulnerability to predation and storm surges, common terns are classified in the UK as Amber, that is, a species of concern.

Did you know?

The common tern’s long tail ‘streamers’ (feathers extending past the main tail) have earned it the nickname ‘sea-swallow’.