[Ocean Oasis Field Guide] Satellite image of the Baja California peninsula and Gulf of California See Spanish version
Sterna elegans
Elegant Tern

Family: LARIDAE (Skuas, Jaegers, Gulls, Terns)

See FILM CLIP of terns in mating dance ritual. (1.7MB)
Elegant Tern colony on Isla Rasa, taken from Ocean Oasis film, © Summerhays Films 2000
Elegant Terns during mating ritual on Isla Rasa — from the film, Ocean Oasis.


Sterna elegans, the Elegant Tern, is a medium-size, orange-billed, shaggy-crested member of the tern subfamily. It is very similar in appearance to the Royal Tern, but is smaller and more slender, with a much thinner, proportionately longer, slightly decurved orange or orange-yellow bill. Its tail is moderately forked.

In summer, the Elegant Tern has a black cap with a long crest that extends from the top of the bill to the back of the head. In winter, the plumage on the head changes. The forehead is white, the crown gray, and the black nape extends forward to the eyes.

Size: It is approximately 39 to 43 cm (15.5 to 17 inches).

Voice: A grating karreck, karreck, karreck

Range and Habitat

Elegant Terns breed on islands in the Gulf of California (90% of the know population on Isla Rasa), along the west coast of Baja California, and near San Diego, California (since 1959). Postbreeding birds commonly occur north to the central California coast from midsummer through fall. This species winters along the coast of western South America, from Peru to Chile.

It is seen only on the coast, frequenting estuaries and beaches along the California coast in summer and fall.

Natural History

Behavior: The Elegant Tern is very noisy, calling "karreck, karreck, karreck...." When the birds are in a flock, and all calling simultaneously, the resulting din can be heard at a distance of a quarter mile.

Reproduction: Terns are gregarious birds and breed colonially. The Elegant Tern nests only in a scrape in the sand; other species, like the Forster's and Black Terns, build a substantial nest of vegetation. One to two pinkish eggs are laid, and incubation lasts about 20 days.

Diet: They eat primarily small fish, which they catch by diving from the the air.

Predators: Gulls and possibly coyotes eat the eggs.

Conservation Status

The Elegant Tern has a remarkably restricted distribution. Only five recently active colonies are known: Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California (with around 22,500 pairs, 90% or more of the known population), Isla Montague in the Colorado delta, San Diego Bay, Bolsa Chica in Orange County, and Los Angeles harbor. The last is a new colony founded in 1998 probably by birds relocating from San Diego Bay and/or Bolsa Chica.

Explore More

Focus on the Royal and Elegant Terns—this article from the Summer 2000 issue of Wrenderings, the quarterly newsletter for San Diego County Bird Atlas volunteers, compares and contrasts the appearance and breeding ranges of these two very similar birds.

Text by Linda West in consultation with Phil Unitt
Photo from Ocean Oasis

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