Adult nonbreeding, note long, thin, decurved bill
  • Adult nonbreeding, note long, thin, decurved bill
  • Adult breeding with Caspian Tern in background
  • Juvenile

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Elegant Tern

Thalasseus elegans
This is a large and highly varied group of birds that do not have many outward similarities. Most are water birds that feed on invertebrates or small aquatic creatures. The order is well represented in Washington, with seven families:
The family Laridae is made up of birds closely associated with water. Distributed throughout the world, representatives of this family nest on every continent, including Antarctica. Most are long-lived birds, many of which do not breed until they are three or four years old. Most are colony nesters and nest on the ground. Clutch size is generally small, varying from one to four eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs and help feed the young. The young typically hatch covered with down and stay in the nest for a few days, after which they leave the nest but stay nearby. Most, especially in Washington, raise a single brood a year. This group is known for its elaborate displays in the air and on the ground.

The Washington representatives of this family can be split into two groups, or subfamilies. The adaptable gulls are the most familiar. Sociable in all seasons, they are mainly coastal, but a number of species also nest inland. Many—but not all—are found around people. Gulls have highly variable foraging techniques and diets. Terns forage in flight, swooping to catch fish or insects. They dive headfirst into the water for fish. Although they are likely to be near water, they spend less time swimming than gulls.
Irregular visitor on outer coast.

    General Description

    The Elegant Tern is a fairly large, slim tern, with a long, orange, slightly drooping bill. It has narrow, angled wings, a deeply forked tail, and a shaggy crest. The adult in breeding plumage has a gray mantle, white breast and belly, and white face with a black, crested cap. The legs are black. The adult in non-breeding plumage is similar, but with a white forehead that darkens to streaky black, as if the cap has receded. Juveniles appear similar to non-breeding adults, but their legs are yellow.


    A coastal species, the Elegant Tern is found in shallow waters, in bays and estuaries, and sometimes far out to sea. It is extremely rare inland. Nesting habitat is isolated, flat, sandy or rocky islands without much vegetation, and is restricted to five sites in Mexico and southern California.


    Elegant Terns are highly social and very vocal, especially when feeding in flocks. They forage by flying over water, hovering, and plunging down to catch prey below the water's surface.


    The key prey of this species on its breeding grounds is the northern anchovy. Other small fish and small crustaceans round out the diet.


    Elegant Terns sometimes breed in mixed colonies with other terns or Heerman's Gulls, where their nests are packed closely together. They nest on bare ground, out in the open. Both parents help to make a simple scrape in the ground, collecting debris to form a rim and sometimes lining the scrape with pebbles or shells. The female lays one or perhaps two eggs. Incubation is by both sexes, and lasts about 4 weeks. After hatching, the chick stays in the nest for about a week. Then, like other crested terns, it joins a group of up to several hundred chicks called a crèche. The adults take turns guarding the crèche, standing at the perimeter of the group and herding the chicks together. A parent feeds only its own chick in the crèche, recognizing the chick by its call note. Chicks stay in the crèche until they fledge at about 35 days, after which they follow their parents for at least five or six more months.

    Migration Status

    Elegant Terns migrate north and south along the coast in late summer and early fall after the breeding season. Birds that dispersed northward head south again in October. Their winter range extends as far south as Peru and Chile.

    Conservation Status

    The Elegant Tern has the most restricted breeding distribution of any tern in North America, and only five colonies are currently known. The largest of the five, located on Isla Rasa, Mexico hosts 90-97% of the worldwide population. Historically, this is a species of limited distribution, with only about a dozen nesting colonies, but disturbance from humans and feral animals, habitat degradation, and changing climatic conditions have reduced it even further, to the current small number of colonies. The breeding range is currently expanding northward into California, however, perhaps in response to the shifting distribution of northern anchovies. The Elegant Tern is a highly vulnerable species and is listed as a species of special concern in California. Some conservationists believe that the US and Mexico should immediately list the Elegant Tern as endangered and begin recovery programs before it is too late.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    The Elegant Tern is a rare visitor to Washington from July to mid-September, along the southern outer coast in sandy habitats and offshore. In some years, Elegant Terns can be found in fairly good numbers in southwestern Washington locations, e.g. Ocean Shores (Grays Harbor County) and in Pacific County. They may be absent in other years.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest Coast II
    Puget Trough
    North Cascades
    West Cascades
    East Cascades
    Canadian Rockies
    Blue Mountains
    Columbia Plateau

    Washington Range Map

    North American Range Map

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    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

    View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern