The IOC World Bird list proposed a number of unconventional bird names, most notably the Great Northern Loon (Gavia immer) and the Roughleg (Buteo lagopus). One proposed change was Angel Tern, a new name for the angelic White Tern. The name wasn’t proposed to settle a trans-Atlantic dispute like the previous two names, but instead merely in an effort to give this little species a suitably noble name. The name didn’t stick and the species went back to being the White Tern, but it’s a change I liked and would have been happy to see remain. The species is also known sometimes as the Fairy Tern, but this name invites confusion with the similarly names Fairy Tern (Sterna nereis). At any rate White Tern works because they are indeed very white, and they are elegant, classy and beautiful in an understated not flashy way.

A pair of White Terns (Gygis alba)

White Terns are found across the Pacific Ocean as well as more restricted populations in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. They breed on small coral islands and hunt for fish and squid in crystal blue tropical seas.

White Tern with prey fish

White Terns on Tern Island would sometimes float by silently and regard you with great interest before floating off again.

It is the breeding of White Terns that is the most remarkable aspect of this species. They construct no nest, instead laying their egg on a bare branch, usually in a slight depression, a fork in the branch or the midrib of a palm. Where available they may also nest on rocks in cliffs. It is thought that the absence of nesting material creates a resulting lack of nesting parasites, which compensates for the increased risk of egg loss due to, well, the egg rolling off. Due to this danger White Terns will remain on the nest even when approached, although they are more likely to flee when nesting on rock.

What passes for a White Tern nest.

Incubating the egg

Having hatched the chicks have strong claws with which to grip the branches in order not to get dislodged; a fact I can testify too having once had to remove one in order to do some work!

A very young chick on a building ledge.

An older chick on a branch

Brooding the younger chick. In my opinion this is the best photograph I have ever taken.


This post has been submitted to Bird Photography Weekly #153. Go check it out!

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Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.