Royal Tern in flight IPS MG_3390


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Thalasseus maximus

Text and photos by Peter Vankevich

This is a bird more often heard first before being seen, as it makes a frequent loud “Keer-reet ” call in flight. It can be identified in by its large bright orange bill, long pointed wings, black cap in breeding plumage and black crest in basic plumage. Royal terns forage by plunging into the water, often just off the breakers.   

Royal Tern in basic pumage
Royal Tern in basic pumage

When to see: Present year round, far fewer from mid-December till March as most migrate south. Common from Mid-March into November.

Where: Unlike the larger similar appearing Caspian Tern, Royal Terns can be found only in coastal saltwater areas. During the right time of the year, they can be seen from all three Ocracoke ferries. They fly just off the shore line, over the village and back and forth from the sound to the beach and will perch on pilings in the water.


(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)

Additional notes:

Royal Terns do not currently nest on Ocracoke. They do nest in colonies on nearby uninhabited Big Foot island and North Rock island that are in the Pamlico  Sound. Big Foot Island had more than 7200 nest sites in 2014.

Royal Terns are the opposite of pelicans. Their chicks are precocial, that is, they hatch out downy and can stand up within a day or so of hatching. However, they usually stay in the nest scrape for a week or so. When they get bigger they form into a group called a crèche The crèche is tended to by some of the colony’s adults while the rest keep busy bringing in fish for their chicks.

Surprisingly John J. Audubon himself confused the Royal Tern with the Caspian Tern (Sterna caspia). In his Birds of America, Audubon depicted depicted a bird he called the Cayenne Tern that included a combination of features of both birds.

Birds of the Outer Banks checklist
Terns often take a foot-look glance.
Terns often take a foot-look glance.
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