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Elegant Tern

Thalasseus elegans ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: LARIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

A medium-sized tern with a shaggy crest and a long, slightly drooping orange bill, the Elegant Tern is seen along the Pacific Coast. After nesting in very southern California and Mexico, it wanders northward to northern California, or even to British Columbia.

Appearance

Gull-like
Gull-like
Typical Voice

Adult Description

Medium-sized tern. Long, slender yellow to reddish orange bill, appears to droop at tip. Short, forked tail. Complete black cap while breeding. Black in narrow, shaggy band around back of head; forehead white in winter. Mostly white all over, with some dark in wingtips. Underparts often with pink blush.

Immature Description

Juvenile similar to nonbreeding adult, but bill smaller and pale yellow to orange-red, back with variable amounts of dark spotting, and wingtips darker.

Range Map Help

Elegant Tern Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

  • Breeding Adult

    Caspian Tern

    Breeding Adult
    • Larger and more robust
    • Crisp, jet-black cap, lacking the shaggy crest
    • Thicker, more blunt bright dark-red bill
    • Black or streaked forehead at all times
    • © Christopher L. Wood, New York, May 2011
  • Adult

    Caspian Tern

    Adult
    • Larger and more robust with broad wings
    • Crisp, jet-black cap, lacking the shaggy crest
    • Thicker, more blunt bright dark-red bill
    • Black or streaked forehead at all times
    • Square tail only shallowly notched
    • © Ned Harris, Bolsa Chica Wetlands, Huntington Beach, California, September 2011
  • Breeding Adults

    Royal Tern

    Breeding Adults
    • Larger tern
    • Shorter crest
    • More robust reddish bill
    • Keeps its dark breeding cap for only a short time
    • © Tim Lenz, March 2010
  • Nonbreeding Adult

    Royal Tern

    Nonbreeding Adult
    • Larger tern
    • Keeps its dark breeding cap for only a short time
    • More robust reddish bill
    • Shorter crest
    • © Gary Tyson, Chincoteague NWR, Virginia, September 2012
  • Breeding adult

    Sandwich Tern

    Breeding adult
    • Black bill with yellow tip
    • © Cleber Ferreira, Fort De Soto, Florida, April 2011
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Sandwich Tern

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Black bill with yellow tip
    • © Jon Corcoran, Mexico, January 2014

Similar Species

  • Caspian Tern larger and more robust, with broader wings, thicker and more blunt bright red bill, short, square tail only shallowly notched, a black or streaked forehead at all times, and lacks a shaggy crest.
  • Royal Tern larger, has a shorter crest, a more robust reddish bill, and keeps its dark breeding cap for only a short time.
  • Sandwich Tern similar in shape, but has black bill with yellow tip.

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