Forster's Tern

Sterna forsteri
Forster's Tern specimens on display in the exhibit "Birds of D.C."

A medium-sized (14-15 inches) tern, Forster’s Tern in summer is most easily identified by its solid black cap, deeply-forked tail, black-tipped orange bill, and pale wing tips. In winter, this species becomes duller on the head and face, becoming dark-billed and pale headed while retaining conspicuous black eye-patches. This species may be distinguished from the similarly-sized Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) by that species’ dark wing tips and (in winter) black hood. Male and female Forster’s Terns are similar to one another in all seasons. Forster’s Tern breeds in a number of widely-separated areas across North America, both inland (on the northern Great Plains and Great Basin region) and along the coast (on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts, as well as in the Great Lakes region). In winter, this species may be found along the coast from California and the Mid-Atlantic region south to Central America. Populations breeding in southern coastal areas generally migrate short distances, if at all. Forster’s Terns primarily breed in marshland habitats, being found both at inland freshwater marshes and at coastal salt marshes. In winter, this species may be found along the shoreline on sandy beaches, riverbanks, and mudflats. Forster’s Terns mainly eat small fish. Forster’s Terns may be most easily seen standing or walking along the shore or on the beach, where their pale wing tips and (in summer) black-tipped orange bill may be most apparent. With the aid of binoculars, it may also be possible to observe this species feeding by diving headfirst into the water. Forster’s Terns are most active during the day.

DC Information

A rare breeder and common fall migrant in this area, found in and around salt marshes. Nests from late April to late June. The Forster's Tern has white edging on the outer tail feathers, while the Common Tern has gray.

Specimen Information

This is the record for the young bird on the right.
Collected By: Biol Survey/Frederick C Lincoln
Locality: Hains Point, DC
Sex: Male, Immature
Catalog ID: 310605

Distribution Map

distribution map for this species

Bird Vocalizations

Sound from xeno-canto. XC16987 Sterna forsteri (Forster's Tern)

Sound from xeno-canto. XC64542 Sterna forsteri (Forster's Tern)