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Photographing The Common Tern

Here are some tips on photographing the common tern, an acrobat of the bird world.

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Here are some tips to photograph the common tern, its graceful flight and spectacular aerial acrobatics.


The common tern, although smaller to the arctic tern (between 27-31 centimeters in height), is very similar to it. Male and female’s nuptial feathering are identical: both have a white plumage with gray back and upper gray wings. The top of the head is deep black and forms a nice contrast with the orange-red black tipped beak. Juvenile birds also have a gray-brown plumage and orange legs, which will later take on the dark red of adults.

common tern


The common tern breeding area widely covers Europe, stretching from Great Britain to Spain and Eastern Siberia. Other breeding areas are North and South America, Africa and Australia. To reach their hibernation areas, the Terns have to travel several thousand kilometers to the tropical regions of Africa. Surprisingly, this species breeds both in coastal and inland areas. Terns prefer to nest on gravel islands in estuaries and quiet coastal areas, but also accept artificial islands. Lakes are also suitable, provided there is enough food and the birds are not disturbed.

Photographing tips

The terns are very elegant and agile birds. Their slender body and their tail divided into two make them kings of aerobatics. For feeding, they spot small fishes and then capture them by diving into the water, like lively harpoons. The Terns’ cries are difficult to ignore. They are characterized by a harsh "kiarr" and frequent "kit-kit-kit-kirr".

Calm gravel islets are very important to them as they dig shallow nest there and lay among the pebbles and the gravel. Both parents incubate their eggs and later also watch over their offspring together. This requires a lot of attention until the chicks fly off four weeks after hatching. But even afterwards, the adults still accompany their juveniles and stay with their families. After all, it takes some time for a fluffy chick to become an intrepid aerial acrobat.

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