The UK terns are a sumptuous bunch – snow-white angels airing through the sky with effortless wingbeats and long forked tails that give them the colloquial moniker "sea swallows". These long distance migrants visit our shores to stop off, to rest and even to breed. Take a look at the terns that you could see in the UK.
Terns that breed in the UK
With ivory white plumage, elegant tail streamers and a rosy breast, roseate terns are one of our most splendid birds. Recent conservation work at Coquet Island is helping to secure these birds in the UK for the future. There were 118 breeding pairs of roseate terns on Coquet island in 2018, and 1.5 chicks fledged per pair the previous year, while two chicks fledged from The Skerries, Anglesey, in 2018 – the first for 12 years. There are only a few colonies of Roseates in the UK, and 100% of the UK population nested on RSPB reserves in 2018.
Where to see: Coquet Island; The Skerries; RSPB Pagham Harbour, West Sussex
Our smallest breeding tern, there are under 2,000 pairs of little terns breeding in the UK. With very fast wingbeats, look for the adult's yellow bill and legs. As the summer comes to an end, the little tern's white forehead becomes larger, its bill darker and its legs paler. They can be seen all around the coast but favour the area between Yorkshire and Hampshire. They are scarce in the south-west and Wales.
Where to see: RSPB Dingle Marshes, Suffolk
This locally common tern has black cap, pale grey upperwings and a black-tipped red bill. There are 10,500 breeding pairs in the UK, nesting from the south coast to Shetland and both on the coast and on lakes inland. It is scarce in the south-west of England. They nest on shingle and sandy beaches or rocky seashores. In 2018, 55 common tern chicks were raised on the new islands at Dungeness
Where to see: RSPB Belfast WOW; RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes, Cambridgeshire; RSPB Havergate Island, Suffolk; RSPB Dungeness, Kent
This locally common tern is the largest UK breeding tern. It has a short tail and a largely or entirely black bill. There are 11,000 UK breeding pairs, scattered around the coasts of the UK and Ireland. They use shingle, sandy and sometimes rocky beaches, as well as islands close to the shore.
Where to see: RSPB Havergate Island, Suffolk
The migration of the Arctic tern to the UK, all the way from the Southern Ocean off the pack-ice of Antarctica, is the longest of any bird. Look for deep red bill and legs, shorter than the common tern, and smoky grey underparts with uniformly grey upperwings. The densest populations of these birds is found in Shetland and Orkney. A total 51,500 UK pairs breed in the UK. In 2018, 3,435 pairs of Arctic terns nested on the Skerries, 655 more pairs than in 2017.
Where to see: RSPB Belfast WOW; Loch of Spiggie, Shetland; RSPB North Hill, Orkney; The Skerries
All illustrations by Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)
Terns that visit the UK
A very rare migrant from southern Europe, an average of three gull-billed terns visit the UK each year. They resemble the Sandwich tern but have a shorter and thicker bill.
Where to see: In 2015 a gull-billed tern was seen at RSPB Dearne Valley Old Moor, South Yorkshire
A very rare migrant from southern Europe, this marsh tern is grey with white cheeks and a black cap. There are approximately five records of it per year.
Where to see: You have the best chance to seeing these birds in May and June. They have been seen all over the UK, but more frequently in England. A sighting was made in 2013 on the Blithfield Reservoir in Staffordshire.
A very rare migrant from eastern and southern Europe, this tern is the size of a large gull with a red bill. There are approximately five sightings per year.
Where to see: A caspian tern paid a fleeting visit to RSPB Leighton Moss, Lancashire, in 2017.
White-winged black tern
A very rare migrant from Europe, it differs from the black tern with a black back dividing grey wings. Average of 15 sightings per year are recorded in the UK.
Where to see: A white winged black tern was seen at RSPB Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire, in 2015, and another appeared at RSPB Dearne Valley Old Moor, South Yorkshire, in 2016. One was then seen at Bowling Green Marsh, Devon, in 2017.
This is a very scarce passage migrant. It is smoky-grey and black in summer plumage and can be seen nesting on lakes, as well as on its annual spring passage. Black terns can be seen almost anywhere around freshwater lakes, gravel pits and reservoirs in spring and autumn.
Where to see: Four were seen in May 2017 at RSPB Leighton Moss, Lancashire.
Rare terns that have been sighted in the UK
Terns often get blown off course during migration, other rare records include:
Our terns need our help. From habitat loss to predation, our UK breeding terns face numerous threats. Find out more about our Little Tern Recovery Project and our Roseate Tern LIFE Recovery Project, and learn how you can help.
All photos Getty
A very rare migrant from Europe, it differs from the black tern with a black back dividing grey wings. Average of 15 sightings per year are recorded in the UK. 192.168.0.1
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654
Accepting all non-essential cookies helps us to personalise your experience
These cookies are required for basic web functions
Allow us to collect anonymised performance data
Allow us to personalise your experience