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Common tern

Sterna Hirundo

The common tern is a silvery-grey and white bird with a long-forked tail and a distinctive black tip to its red bill.  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.

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.

All about common terns

With a distinctive shrill kyar-kyar-kyar call you’ll likely hear a colony of common terns before you see them.  Chicks are precocial when they hatch, which means they are well developed and able to leave the ‘scrape’ after just a few hours.  For protection and warmth, they cluster together in nursery groups whilst their parents are away fishing and fortuitously both parents and offspring can identify each other’s calls enabling the correct chicks to be re-united with the correct parents on their return.

Local spotlight

Over recent years floating platforms known as ‘tern rafts’ have been a useful way of providing a safe habitat for breeding common terns by alleviating the problem of fluctuating water levels.  Several nature reserves around the Solent have benefited from this initiative.

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

A common tern that was ringed as a nestling in Northumberland was spotted alive and well in Liverpool 33 years and 6 days later.