Black Tern

Chlidonias niger



This bird is smaller than the Common Tern; its wings are narrower and shorter, the tail has a shallower fork, and the bill is black. During summer, birds are mostly grey above, the head, neck, breast and belly are black, the undertail is white, and the legs and bill are dark. Winter plumage is acquired slowly from July to September. During this period, the head and body whiten though dark marks remain on the back of the head and behind the eye; there's a dark fleck on the shoulder and what looks like a white collar around the neck. The legs are a matte red. Juveniles are similar to winter adults but they have brownish-grey feathers, giving the back a mottled appearance.


Breeding territories include inland or coastal marshes and lagoons. When in Britain and Ireland, the Black Tern tends towards larger bodies of water such as reservoirs. Spends winter in tropical coastal areas.


May migrate alone, but is most often in small flocks. It is a graceful feeder, hovering less than other terns, preferring a method of dipping down to water level then taking its food from the surface. Uses outposts and rocks to rest while on the water.


A varied diet including fish such as sticklebacks and roach, water beetles, flies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, frogs and tadpoles.


It's very rare for this bird to attempt to breed in the region. Female lays 2-4 eggs which both adults incubate for 21-22; hatchlings are brooded until they make a move to vegetation close by after a few days. Learn to fly at about 19-25 days old and are independent before long.


This is a regular passage migrant that the region sees in small numbers. The peak time of travel through western Europe is in July-September, and some birds may pass through Britain in May. There aren't official population figures, but numbers are largest during spring and autumn.

Observation Tips

Need to seek these birds in spring and autumn; search for them in small groups, singly or in pairs. Southeasterly winds encourage Black Terns to visit the south and east of England.


Mostly quiet in the region, but has a seldom heard 'kik, kik' call.
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