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Common Tern

A summer visitor to coastal habitats to breed.

Photograph by: 
Peter Orchard

The common tern (Sterna hirundo) is a summer visitor to the shores of Dorset and is seen here both as a breeding species and as a passage migrant. Long distance travelers, they spend our winter months far away in west Africa with some going as far south as southern Africa and return in our spring to nest around most of the British coast although scarce in the south west and west coast of Wales.

It is quite easy to distinguish the common tern from the sandwich tern that also nests on Brownsea because it is smaller, it has a red bill and lacks the sandwich tern's scruffy hair cut. It is much harder however, to tell the common tern from the Arctic tern as the Arctic tern has no black tip to its bill, otherwise they are virtually identical. During the months of migration we get both species passing through and so quite often the exact identity is unknown and they are then informally called comic tern's, honestly, no joke! The common tern is also informally known as the sea swallow, not just because it migrates like the swallow but because of its pronounced forked tail and swift flight. 

The weekly reports show the first arrivals in Dorset coming in during week 14 in mid-April and by week 17 in early May movement is at its peak.  After regular reports from breeding sites here in June and July the autumn outward movement seems to take place during August with a few lingering birds being seen through until week 42 in October.

Common tern nest on the lagoon in Brownsea, on the scrapes at Lodmoor and in the Swannery at Abbotsbury. There are also a good number of reports from Ferrybridge although this is not, as far as I know, a nesting location but more a good place to see them on migration. They can be seen at several sites near the main locations as they seek small fish to take back to their young.

For common tern as a new addition to your Dorset list take the ferry across to Brownsea Island in June or July and go the Mac Hide by the lagoon and see common terns just a few feet away from you.


Common Name Common Tern
Scientific Name Sterna hirundo
Species Group Birds Gulls Skuas and Terns
Status Locally frequent
Interest Level
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 10 - October
Look for

Birds plunging in to the sea just off shore

Identification Notes
  • The most frequently seen of the tern family in Dorset especially during migration periods
  • Smaller than the sandwich tern and larger than the little tern
  • Almost identical to the much more scarce arctic tern which is only seen on passage in spring and autumn
Primary Habitat
Preferred Environment
Look for
Additional Identification Notes
Similar Species

The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Notebook Distribution Map Sites List Some Charts Some Photographs Recent Records Guidance Notes

To see related species click here: 

Birds Gulls Skuas and Terns