Common tern

Common Tern

©Richard Steel/2020VISION

Common tern

Scientific name: Sterna hirundo
During the breeding season, the common tern can be seen around our coasts and also inland at gravel pits, reservoirs and lakes. It nests in noisy colonies and can be spotted plunge-diving for fish.

Species information


Length: 31-35cm
Wingspan: 88cm
Weight: 130g
Average lifespan: 12 years

Conservation status

Classified in the UK as Amber under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2021).

When to see

April to September


The common tern is a medium-sized tern and the one you are most likely to see inland, as well as at the coast. Common terns breed on shingle beaches, rocky islands and inland on the gravelly shores of lakes and rivers. They are noisy in their colonies and, like most terns, will attack intruders threatening their nests. They hover over the water before plunge-diving to catch their fish prey.

How to identify

Common terns and arctic terns can be very difficult to tell apart. The common tern is whiter below, has shorter tail streamers, and has a longer bill, which is orangey-red with a black tip. It is silvery-grey above, with a black cap and short, red legs.


A summer visitor, nesting on gravelly beaches and islands around the coast and on inland flooded gravel pits and reservoirs.

Did you know?

The common tern's long tail 'streamers' (feathers extending past the main tail) have earned it the nickname 'Sea-swallow'.

How people can help

The Wildlife Trusts manage many wetland and coastal nature reserves for the benefit of the wildlife they support. You can help by supporting your local Trust and becoming a member; you'll find out about exciting wildlife news, events on your doorstep and volunteering opportunities, and will be helping local wildlife along the way.


Common Tern by Tom Hartwell