Common Tern

Sterna hirundo


The common tern is a medium-sized tern and the one you are most likely to see away from known breeding colonies. Common terns are noisy in their colonies and, like most terns, will attack intruders threatening their nests. They breed on sandy coasts, in dunes and on islands but also breed inland on gravelly banks of lakes and rivers. They plunge-dive 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 a longer bill which is orangey-red with a black tip. Common terns are silvery-grey above with a large, black cap and short, red legs.

Where to find it

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


When to find it

  • April
  • May
  • June
  • July
  • August
  • September

How can people help

Common terns are threatened by habitat loss, pollution and disturbance. Local Wildlife Trusts across the country are looking after coastal habitats for the benefit of birds like terns. Ensuring breeding birds are not disturbed and nature reserves are well-managed are just some of the ways we're helping. You can help too: volunteer for The Wildlife Trusts and you could be involved in everything from monitoring populations or raising awareness about nesting birds.

Species information

Common name
Common Tern
Latin name
Sterna hirundo
Gulls and seabirds
Length: 31-35cm Wingspan: 88cm Weight: 130g Average Lifespan: 12 years
Conservation status
Classified in the UK as an Amber List species under the Birds of Conservation Concern review.