Bird Photo Challenge #9: White Tern

The White Tern (Gygis alba) would have to be the most graceful delicate seabird we have ever seen.   It is a small pelagic bird living in oceanic areas and a stunning subject for our #9 Bird Photography Challenge.  It stole our heart last year when we discovered it at Lord Howe Island, and we are still well and truly under its spell.  This post is dedicated to my sister Véronique whose birthday it is today.  Joyeux anniversaire, petite soeur!

What does it look like?

White Tern Portrait

White Tern portrait

The White Tern has an exquisite snow white plumage and long pointed black bill. If you are lucky enough to get close to this bird, you notice that the beak is a beautiful shade of blue at its base. The eyes are black, made to look bigger by the black eye ring around them.  Its legs and feet are greyish. The tail is long with a shallow fork.  One of the remarkable aspects about the White Tern is that its wings appear almost translucent in flight against the sunlight.  With a wingspan of about 66-78cms, a length of 28 to 33cms, it is a small seabird.

How does it behave?

During the breeding season the White Terns perform spectacular aerial displays. During courtship the male flies up to 500 meters high at speed, followed by the female. The pair then glides and zigzags downwards before “strutting” together on the ground with tails raised and wings dropped.  We watched in awe a pair flying together, then landing on our deck, preening each other.

Mum Tern and chick

White Tern Mum and her chick, only a week or two old

A White Tern pair chooses a nesting spot and the female lays a single egg usually on a tree branch. As soon as the egg hatches in December, a chick covered in grey down hangs on to dear life with its strong feet and claws, performing a remarkable balancing act.

The White Tern feeds on squid, small crustaceans, and small fishes which it catches by plunge diving.  You can often see it catching several tiny fish in a row, lining them up in its bill.

Did you know?

As a defence against nest parasites which can cause the abandonment of an entire seabird colony, the White Tern does not build a nest. Instead it lays its egg on a small fork or depression on a thin tree branch.  At Lord Howe, an island in the middle of the Tasman Sea, it favours the Norfolk Pines.  The egg is precariously balanced.  It goes without saying that casualties are frequent as the egg can become dislodged in high winds!

Where is it found?

This seabird is found across the tropical oceans of the world. It ranges widely across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, nesting on small coral islands.  We have enjoyed seeing the White Terns at Lord Howe Island and at Elizabeth Reef.  Last year we even had the delight of having a pair spend several hours resting on Take It Easy  whilst we were sailing back towards mainland Australia.  They were not afraid of us and let us touch them ever so lightly.

The photos were taken with a hand-held Canon 60D camera and a Tamron 18-270 lens.  Click on any of the images to display them in full screen.

15 thoughts on “Bird Photo Challenge #9: White Tern

  1. Such great memories of this wonderful little bird, feel honoured to have such a close encounter with them. Again love the photos & the text, comprehensive.


  2. Stunning shots!! I love white terns—we saw them on St Helena Island in the South Atlantic and also on Cocos Keeling in the Indian Ocean. On Cocos they were nesting and they kept diving at our heads to keep us away from their eggs whenever we walked under their particular tree branches. They seemed to like Alexander laurels.

    • At Lord Howe the chicks were born when we saw them hanging in in the Norfolk pines. At Elizabeth Reef they were totally unafraid of us. We could touch them and they even landed in Wade’s head while he was fishing. We just fell in love with them!

  3. Merci d’avoir pensé à moi. Le contraste netre la blancheur du plumage et la noirceur du bec est surprenante… Ces oiseaux sont magnifiques.

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