Arctic species: Arctic Tern

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce to you, the world champion long-distance migration: the Arctic Tern!! This little bird breeds as far north as Spitsbergen and flies all the way south down the Atlantic Ocean, may venture a little into the Indian Ocean towards Australia before they turn south again to the Antarctic shores. Here they spent the Antarctic summer, making optimal use of the richness both polar summers have before they fly back north again to be in time for the next breeding season in the Arctic. This roundtrip, which they make every year, is around 70.000km long! They start breeding as soon as the tundra is free of snow. In years with late snowmelt (when those still happened), they would skip breeding altogether and make another roundtrip across the globe before trying again.

Arctic Tern on the tundra

Arctic Tern – Sterna paradisaea
Length: 33-39cm, wingspan: 66-77cm
The only tern in the area, with a black cap, red legs and bill and a greyish-white plumage.

As the only tern in the area, it’s easy to identify an Arctic Tern. They are often seen feeding in the fjords or even in the pack ice. When you get too close to a colony, they will clearly let you know by divebombing you. They either might drop a ‘bomb’ on you (keep your mouth closed, it doesn’t taste nice, I speak from experience) or will pick you with their sharp beak. I several times had the blood run over my face from these attacks. When they start doing this, it’s best to leave the area the way you came and try to find another route around the colony. That way the chicks are not more exposed as necessary. If this is not possible (sometimes they breed right next to a road), it is good to know they will always attack the highest point. So if you hold a stick, or your rifle for that matter, above your head, it will attack that. Please do not wave the stick as you don’t have to hit the bird from the sky. An alternative option is, of course, to make sure you always walk next to somebody taller.

They take the defence of their nest very serious, as can be seen by this Arctic Tern attacking a Polar Bear. They clearly don’t like those attacks.

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

One comment

  • I liked the final solution, Arjen, made me laugh outloud. Great post on this remarkable tern. As an aside, I love it when only one species is in an area, makes identification so breezy. Loved both photos…it’s not often we see a polar bear, and really rare to see one under attack from a bird.


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