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Elegant Tern

Thalasseus elegans

Length: 17 inches Wingspan: 34 inches Seasonality: Non-resident in South Dakota
ID Keys: Long slightly drooping orange bill, full dark cap in breeding plumage, rear cap in non-breeding, light gray wings with darker upper primaries, white underparts

Elegant Tern - Thalasseus elegansThe Elegant Tern is a large tern species found on the west coast of North America.  They have an extremely small breeding range, as most breeding occurs on a few islands off the west coast of Mexico.  Over 90% of all breeding for the species occurs on Isla Rosa alone.  In recent decades, Elegant Terns have expanded their breeding range northward, with small numbers nesting around southern California.  Despite the increase in nesting range, the high proportion of breeding birds on Isla Rosa makes Elegant Tern populations susceptible to disturbance or introduction of predators on Isla Rosa and other nesting locations.

Habitat: Found on a handful of islands off the west coast of North America when breeding.  Outside of the breeding season, Elegant Terns are typically found relatively close to shore, but occasionally further out to sea.

Diet: Feeds on small fish, but also will take small crustaceans or other small marine creatures.

Behavior: Forages by flying over the water's surface looking for food, and then plunge-diving into the water when prey is spotted.

Nesting: The nest of an Elegant Tern is a depression on the ground, without any lining or nest material.  The female usually lays a single egg, and both parents help to incubate it.  After the egg hatches, both parents help to feed the young. Young at breeding colonies typically leave the nest just a few days after hatching, joining communal groups of young (a 'creche').

Song: The most common call of an Elegant Tern is a carrying keerik.

Migration: Most breeding occurs on a handful of islands off the west coast of Mexico, but they also breed in smaller numbers in Southern California.  After breeding, birds disperse northward, and they can be found up the west coast of the United States to Washington state.  Birds winter off the west coast of southern Mexico, Central America, and South America.

Interactive eBird Map: Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Elegant Tern sightings

Similar Species: A number of tern species are light in overall appearance with dark caps.  The most similar tern species to the Elegant Tern in size and plumage are the Royal Tern and Caspian Tern.

Conservation Status: Populations currently appear to be stable.  However, nesting locations for the species are very few, making populations vulnerable to disturbance events at nesting locations.  The IUCN currently lists the Elegant Tern as a "Near Threatened" species.

Further Information: 1) Audubon - Elegant Tern

2) BirdLife International - Elegant Tern

3) Ocean Oasis Field Guide - Elegant Tern

Photo Information: Photo taken by David Slater - October 18th, 2008 - Morro Strand State Beach, California - Photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Click below for a higher-resolution map
Elegant Tern - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Non-resident in South Dakota

Additional Elegant Tern Photos (coming soon!!)