Or is that Gray-backed Tern? Nope, it’s the Spectacled Tern now! Oh that kooky IOC list. Anyway, returning once again to one of my favourite islands it’s time to look at one of my favourite terns from Tern Island.

The Grey-backed Tern is arguably the less well known of the the terns of the genus Onychoprion. Whereas American birders may be familiar with Sooty and Bridled Terns as stormwashed vagrants to their shores, and might get the Aleutian Tern on a pilgrimage to Alaska, the Grey-backed Tern is a much more rarely seen bird. The species replaces the widespread, almost pan-tropical, Bridled Tern in the western Pacific Ocean. It does occur in Hawaii, which is where I saw it, but everyone knows birding in Hawaii doesn’t count.

The species co-occurs with the Sooty Tern on Tern Island in French Frigate Shoals, but the uninitiated might never notice. Whereas there are perhaps 100,000 Sooty Terns nesting on Tern Island, there are barely a few dozen Grey-backed Terns. They are less aggressive than the Sooty Terns (which are positively brutal should you wander near their nests), and they tend to nest at the western end of the island where the Sooty Tern colony peters out. They also sound nicer than the Sooty Terns, which complain loudly, whereas the cries of the Grey-backed Terns sound almost plaintive.

Grey-backed Tern Onychoprion luanata

Face on

Whatcha looking at?

A rather fine shot in the evening light

A nesting Grey-backed Tern

Adjusting the egg into a more comfortable position.

A partly feathered chick

A recently fledged chick. This one is still partly dependent upon its parents.

And to end, a pair in the air at Tern. With a rainbow! What does it mean?


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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.