Sterna elegans


The acrobatic Elegant Tern can be seen diving headlong into the water for fish. The numbers of this bird appear to be rising, and major population increases appear to coincide with El Nino years. Until around 1986, Elegant Terns had not nested in Southern California for years. Now they breed on a few protected beaches.


General: Sexes similar. 16 to 17 inches in length.

Adult Alternate: White face, neck, breast, and belly. Black cap with shaggy crest. Pale gray back and upperwings. Underwing pale with dark tips on outer primaries. White rump and tail, which is short, deeply forked and sometimes has dark edgings. Long, slender, orange bill, which appears to "droop". Black legs.

Adult Basic: Similar to adult alternate, except black cap only extends from around eye to the rear of the head. Forehead is white.

Juvenile: Similar to adult basic, except black cap is dark brown. Legs are black with variable amounts of yellow. Dark brown carpal bar and uppersurface of secondaries and outer primaries. Dark gray tail with darker tips and paler edges.


Lagoons, beaches, and bays.


1 variable colored, but often buff, egg. The eggs have a 20+ day incubation period. Fledging occurs in ? days. The nest is a ground depression on a sandy beach, typically on an island. Nests in colonies.

Observed Locations:

  • Tijuana river mouth, Imperial Beach

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Copyright © Scott Streit, 2000.