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Learn Your Terns

18 Jun Posted by in Blog, north carolina birding, shorebird | Comments Off on Learn Your Terns
Learn Your Terns

The sandbars and beaches of Wrightsville Beach and Masonboro Island are important habitats for many shorebirds, including black skimmers, American Oystercatchers, brown pelicans, and many different varieties of gulls. But the title for most entertaining to watch undisputably rests in the wings of one family of birds: the Sternidae family.

What's a Sternidae, you ask? You probably have seen one diving for fish or making sudden, seemingly impossible mid-air manoevers. Perhaps you've seen a pair of them belly-wetting to keep their egg at a certain temperature. Or maybe you've been walking along the south end of Wrightsville and have heard coming from behind the dunes the piercing calls of a colony of especially vocal Sternidae. No matter how you've experienced them, you probably know them by their common name– terns.

The tern family is a big one, including eleven different genera. Previously thought to belong to the Laridae family of birds (one that includes that infamous thief of french fries, the laughing gull) these birds are typically grey and white, angular, forked-tailed and short-legged, with a masterful and acrobatic flight. Many terns are capable of incredible, transhemispheral migrations.

Around Wrightsville Beach, we most commonly spot several different types of tern: common, foresters, least, royal, and sandwich, to name a few. Look at these images and see if you can tell the differences in plumage, leg color, and stature between them.

Common Tern


The common tern was first described by the master classifier Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. We see a lot of these- go figure.

Forster's Tern


Named after the German naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster, this tern has a distinct black eye mask when in it's nonbreeding plumage.

Least Tern


The smallest member of the tern family, we often refer to it on the Shamrock as a cigar with wings. These birds possess incredible visual acuity, with the ability to spot and dive on a fingernail-sized fish from high up in the air. They also engage in a courtship ritual in which the male presents the female with a fish to win her little tern heart.

Royal Tern


Larger than most other tern species (excluding the caspian tern), the Royal has a uniquely red-orange beak and tuft of feathers like a crown on the back of the head during breeding season.

Sandwich Tern


These birds are easy to spot when you see them- their beak is black with a yellow tip, and in the breeding season they look a little like a punk rocker with their wild mop of black hair. Like most terns, it fashions its nest out of a scrape in the sand and lays a clutch of one to three eggs.


For more information about terns and other shorebirds, and to experience the magic of these birds in person, come with our renowned local ornithologist Capt. Joe Abbate on our famous birding trip, departing our dock (275 Waynick Blvd, across the street from the Blockade Runner Hotel) every Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. Call (910) 200-4002 to make your reservation today!