You are here

Common Tern

Click the pic!

To aid users of mobile devices as well as those with a mouse or laptop finger pad this site uses a simple image-based menu system. Virtually every picture you see (images and photos) are links to more information arranged in a sort of top-down structure. See an image, click or tap on it to open a new page.

A summer visitor to coastal habitats to breed.


Photograph by: 
Peter Orchard

Common tern: the sea swallow

Post date: Monday, 7 April, 2014 - 00:00

Do we often associate summer migrants to Britain as being hirundines (swallows, martins, etc) and warblers; generally small insect eaters? This is not the case as the tern family clearly illustrate. Terns fly south for the winter returning to us in spring to nest when our warmer seas are (hopefully) teaming with small fish.

The most numerous of the tern family nesting in Dorset is the common tern (Sterna hirundo). They nest around Brownsea Island, especially on the lagoon, and also at Lodmoor and a few at Abbotsbury. I was surprised to learn that the main loss of eggs and young on Brownsea is due to trampling by foraging sika deer, usually at night when the visitors have gone home and all is quiet. 

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. They can be seen along the shores of Studland Beach and Swanage as well as in Poole Harbour diving in to the sea after sand eels which are their staple diet. Sand eels are actually small silver coloured fish and not really eels.


Common Tern in Dorset: what your tweets tell us ...

Post date: Monday, 4 March, 2019 - 18:17

The common tern 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.

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.


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

Sites List Distribution Map Some Charts Some Photographs Original Tweets Relatives Guidance Notes
Common Name Common Tern
Scientific Name Sterna hirundo
Status Local
Interest Level
Species Family Terns
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 10 - October
Preferred Environment
  • Open sea
  • Harbours, estuaries and lagoons
Look for Birds plunging in to the sea just off shore
Additional 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
Similar Species