Adult breeding. Note: red bill with black tip and dark upper primaries.
  • Adult molting into winter plumage.
  • Adults (left to right) in breeding, molting, and winter plumages.
  • Adult breeding. Note: red bill with black tip and dark upper primaries.
  • Adult nonbreeding. Note: dark carpal bar and nape.

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Common Tern

Sterna hirundo
This is a large and highly varied group of birds that do not have many outward similarities. Most are water birds that feed on invertebrates or small aquatic creatures. The order is well represented in Washington, with seven families:
The family Laridae is made up of birds closely associated with water. Distributed throughout the world, representatives of this family nest on every continent, including Antarctica. Most are long-lived birds, many of which do not breed until they are three or four years old. Most are colony nesters and nest on the ground. Clutch size is generally small, varying from one to four eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs and help feed the young. The young typically hatch covered with down and stay in the nest for a few days, after which they leave the nest but stay nearby. Most, especially in Washington, raise a single brood a year. This group is known for its elaborate displays in the air and on the ground.

The Washington representatives of this family can be split into two groups, or subfamilies. The adaptable gulls are the most familiar. Sociable in all seasons, they are mainly coastal, but a number of species also nest inland. Many—but not all—are found around people. Gulls have highly variable foraging techniques and diets. Terns forage in flight, swooping to catch fish or insects. They dive headfirst into the water for fish. Although they are likely to be near water, they spend less time swimming than gulls.
Fairly common coastal migrant. Uncommon fall east.
  • Puget Sound Seabird Survey

General Description

The Common Tern is a streamlined bird with narrow, pointed wings. The tail extends beyond the wingtips when the bird is perched. In breeding plumage, the Common Tern has a light gray mantle and belly, a white tail, a white face, and a black cap. Unlike many larger terns, the Common Tern does not have a crest. The bill is bright red with a dark tip (the dark tip is often gone by July), and the legs are red. In the non-breeding season, this tern has black legs, a black bill, and a white forehead. A bold, dark bar is visible on the wrist of first-year birds. The outer wing feathers are dark. Juveniles are brownish with orange bills and legs. As they age, they lose the brown wash and look like non-breeding-plumage adults.


Common Terns frequent lakes, rivers, oceans, bays, and beaches. During the summer, they use a wide range of coastal and inland aquatic breeding habitats, but most are found in lowlands, with undisturbed flat islands or beaches surrounded by shallow water. In winter, they are more restricted to warm water coastlines.


The Common Tern forages in flight, flying over the water, hovering, and dropping out of the air to catch prey below the surface. They also occasionally steal food from other terns.


Small fish are the mainstay of the Common Tern's diet, along with insects, crustaceans, and other aquatic creatures.


Breeding starts at 3 to 4 years. Most nesting takes place in colonies, but some isolated pairs will breed as well. Both sexes help to make a shallow scrape in soil or sand, which they line with vegetation and other debris. Incubation of the 1 to 3 eggs lasts for about 3 weeks. After a few days, the young leave the nest, but stay nearby. Both parents help feed the young, which first fly at 3 to 4 weeks of age, but stay with the adults for another couple of months.

Migration Status

After breeding, Common Terns may move short distances north before beginning their southward journey. A few fall migrants may linger in the north until November. Common Terns rarely winter in North America, preferring coasts as far south as Peru and Argentina.

Conservation Status

Some populations, especially those in northeastern North America, have declined recently due to competition and predation from large gulls. Coastal populations have become more and more concentrated into fewer colonies. Some inland populations have also experienced decline.

When and Where to Find in Washington

The closest Common Tern breeding colonies are in Alberta and central Montana. In Washington, this tern is a common migrant in coastal areas in saltwater and sandy-shore habitats in May through early June, and then again from August through October. It is uncommon in freshwater habitats. In eastern Washington, it is a rare spring migrant and fairly common in small numbers in fall.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest Coast UC RFFU
Puget Trough R RFCU
North Cascades
West Cascades UUR
East Cascades
Okanogan R
Canadian Rockies
Blue Mountains
Columbia Plateau UFR

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern