By Text and photos Peter Vankevich

Part of my life-long fascination with birds is their often-puzzling names.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has been a laugh-inducer for countless comedians. The Nashville Warbler neither breeds nor winters in Tennessee but gets its name from famed ornithologist Alexander Wilson and where he first saw the bird in migration in 1811.

The Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) was named by the ornithologist John Latham who first described the bird in 1787 based on the English town of Sandwich where he lived.

This prosaic reason for its name was not the one presented to me many years ago when I first encountered this bird. Its most notable field mark is a bright yellow tip of the bill.

“This bird loves sandwiches,” I was told by someone tongue-in-cheek, “and it dips its bill into mustard when making them.”

This was an unforgettable image and I never forgot its name.

Sandwich Terns are one of seven crested terns world-wide that make up the genus Thalasseus. In summer, another shaggy crested tern is more common in our watery part of the world, the Royal Tern.

The two species are easy to distinguish. In addition to its yellow tip, the Sandwich Tern has a black bill. The larger Royal Tern has a large, bright orange bill easily seen in flight.

Coastal birds, Sandwich Terns can be seen along the beach, sandbars and flats and feeding over the ocean and inlets. Often seen with Royal Terns, side by side, the Sandwich Tern is noticeably smaller.

Sandwich Terns on beach with a Royal Tern, probable subadult Common Tern in foreground. I

In Europe, it appears along the coasts of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, the south coast of Norway and in Germany. It winters along the West African coast from Senegal to South Africa.

In the United States in the summer, it breeds on beaches and barrier islands along the Atlantic coast with a few records in Maryland and Virginia, south to South Carolina and along the Gulf Coast from central Florida west to southern Texas. Sandwich Terns are not present, or are extremely rare, in North Carolina in winter. The Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count which takes place in the last days of December reported some lingerers only twice since 1981. The Cape Hatteras count only once during that time frame.

Year-round, these birds sport grey upperparts and white underparts. During breeding season, their heads are all black. By August, their foreheads turn white, but they retain their black crest as they molt into basic plumage.

As with other terns, they feed mainly on small fish, such as sand lance, mullet and shrimp, squid, marine worms and insects. Active feeders, they will plunge-dive for food.

Ocracoke is a good location to see these terns as a sizeable colony breeds on nearby Big Foot Slough Island, a dredge spoil island the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries pass when leaving Ocracoke.

Last year, John Weske, a Maryland ornithologist, and a group of volunteers, banded 700 chicks on Big Foot and a total of 1,851 state-wide on seven North Carolina islands.

Weske wrote last year that Sandwich Terns had a substantial increase from the total of approximately 1,400 banded in North Carolina in 2016. But last season’s tally is still below the 2,000 to 3,000 range that bandings had annually maintained for over 30 years.

By comparison, also on Big Foot, 3,070 Royal Tern chicks and 1,225 young Brown Pelicans were banded.

Sandwich Terns start breeding in their third or fourth years laying only one to two eggs, rarely three.

During courtship, males will offer a single fish to a prospective female, who may or may not accept it.

Best time to see: Late March increasing into spring and summer. Mostly gone by mid-fall

Where: Flying off of Springer’s Point to and from Big Foot Slough Island, first few miles on Cedar Island and Swan Quarter ferries, flying off the beach,  resting on beach, Hatteras Inlet


(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)

Birds of the Outer Banks Checklist

Note: Since we started with a bit of etymology, we will end with it as well. The sandwich got its name from John Montagu (1718-1792), the fourth Earl of Sandwich. He had a reputation as a gambler who ate slices of cold meat between bread at the gaming table during marathon sessions rather than leave the table for a proper meal. The family name is from the place in Kent, “Old English Sandwicæ,” which mean sandy harbor.

Banded Sandwich Tern
Sandwich Tern
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  1. Another great article! And now, you know I’ll be going back to my photos to pick out the sandwich terns!

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