Ian’s Bird of the Week – Common White Tern

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Common White Tern ~ by Ian Montgomery

Newsletter – 4/2/12

Another species on my photo list on Norfolk Island was the (Common) White Tern. I’d admired on Lord Howe Island more than twenty years ago, before I got seriously into bird photography. They’re only Common if you’re on a remote coral or rocky island in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, but the label really means ‘standard’ and reflects a split of the species, not universally recognised, into ‘Standard’ and Little White Tern. It used to have the attractive name ‘White Noddy’, until some prosaic purist decided that only terns belong the genus Anous were real Noddies.

They are unusually looking terns, with a pointy, slightly upturned bill and very white, actually translucent, feathers, usually described as ‘ethereal’. Seen against the sunlight, the effect is something like looking at an X-ray as in the second photo. In this one, you can see the bill is very thin laterally so it is shaped more like a pair of scissors.

White Terns are numerous on Norfolk Island and as they nest on the branches of Norfolk Island Pines, you see them all over the island. If you’re used to seeing terns near water, it’s initially slightly disconcerting to see them flying around in forest. Many of these are parents feeding young, but do also see pairs or small groups of birds, as in the third photo, and very pretty they are too.

In March, the breeding season is nearly over, but there are still some hungry and very bored looking chicks in the pines waiting for a feed. The single egg is laid precariously in a concavity on a branch or palm frond. Norfolk Island pines, with their horizontal limbs, are ideal for this and the recent establishment of breeding White Terns on Lord Howe Island can probably be attributed to the introduction of Norfolk Island Pines.

The fourth photo shows a nearly fledged juvenile. At this age they look like furry toys, but the slightly younger ones, that were just losing the last traces of their down, often looked quite comical. The bird in the fifth photo shows one that looks for all the world like an aged goddess of the silver screen who doesn’t believe in growing old gracefully, with faux eye-lashes, smudged mascara, thinning hair, an ancient fur coat and a grumpy expression.

Hopefully, though, it has a bright future ahead.

Best wishes

Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 ian@birdway.com.au
Check the latest website updates:

Lee’s Addition:

What a description of the that last photos. Puts a chuckle in you. What is so amazing is that it fits.

Anyway, Terns are in the Laridae – Gulls, Terns and Skimmers Family and see Ian’s Laridae Family of photos at his Birdway site. More of his photos of the Common White Tern can be Here.

“The White Tern (Gygis alba) is a small seabird found across the tropical oceans of the world. It is sometimes known as the Fairy Tern although this name is potentially confusing as it is the common name of the Fairy Tern Sternula nereis. Other names for the species include Angel Tern and White Noddy.

Wow! Look at this from ARKive:


The White Tern is a small, all white tern with a long black bill, related to the noddies. It ranges widely across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and also nests in some Atlantic islands. It nests on coral islands, usually on trees with thin branches but also on rocky ledges and on man-made structures. The White Tern feeds on small fish which it catches by plunge diving.

…there are costs associated with tree nesting, as the eggs and chicks are vulnerable to becoming dislodged by heavy winds. For this reason the White Tern is also quick to relay should it lose the egg. The newly hatched chicks have well developed feet with which to hang on to their precarious nesting site. It is a long-lived bird, having been recorded living for 17 years.” (Wikipedia)

Looks like the Lord, in his creation of these chicks, provided feet that can help them hold on.

All the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth to their young, and under its shadow lived all great nations. (Ezekiel 31:6 ESV)

Other Links:

Common white tern  (Gygis alba) – ARKive

White Tern – Wikipedia


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