By clicking any of the links in the table below, a map will be pulled up on your screen. In spring, it usually arrives by late April and departs by mid-May. Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment. Although differing from the common tern in several details and in its habits, the Forster's tern so closely resembles it in general appearance that it is not to be wondered at that the species remained so long unrecognized, and that, even after its discovery,' its distribution and habits were so little understood. Your email address will not be published. This is a place for people to post, share, and discuss pictures of birds, whether you have ID questions, you're documenting plumages, you saw something rare, or just like how your bird photo turned out. Common Terns have upper wing surfaces that are almost uniformly gray, with a fairly large wedge of black that encompasses at least the five outermost primary wing tips. Those wingtips will wear away and become shorter as the season progresses and then becomes an unreliable indicator. Common Tern shows broad dark tips to the outer primaries which contrast with a very pale inner primary triangle. ), try to determine if the gray is uniform or two-toned. Photo kindly provided by Karmela Moneta. Your email address will not be published. These terns take at least two years to mature, resulting in fully mature birds mixing with first-year birds, they have complex molt patterns, and the brightness of the plumage can change during the year depending on feather wear. I know Forster's have longer tails, whiter breasts and whiter primaries. If not, then read on. The distal half of the wings beyond the ‘elbow’ are typically whiter than the proximal half, but its not so obvious in this slightly overexposed view. Then look at the leg length. But note the leg length; the Common Tern has shorter legs than the Forster’s, just like the field guides say. Finally, the tail can extend considerably further than the folded wingtips of Forster’s Terns, but this is most easily seen early in the year. It is the only medium-sized tern species found in the United States mainland in winter. In this, the sixth in our series of identification videos, we look at how to tell Common and Arctic Tern apart, focusing on the ID features on perched birds and how to separate them in flight. These medium-sized white terns are often confused with the similar Common Tern, but Forster’s Terns have a longer tail and, in nonbreeding plumage, a distinctive black eye patch. Look at the two terns in the photo below and decide what you think they are. It feeds further out to sea than the common tern. The black eyepatch indicates that its a Forster’s. Common Terns have reddish-orange bills while Forster’s Terns have a straight-up orange color. Compared to the Common Tern, the streamer-tailed Forster’s Tern nests more inland and farther south, and winters farther north. This is usually difficult to see but is fun to look for. The ginger color on its body and wings is on the edge of its feathers. Common Tern has red legs in breeding plumage, but these darken to near black in non-breeding plumage. If we start with the bill color, I would have a hard time deciding if this is a Forster’s or Common Tern, perhaps leaning slightly and uncomfortably towards the darker bill of a Common Tern. Drat. When they are side-by-side like this, things get easier; the bird on the left has a deep orange bill and black wingtips (= Common Tern), and the one on the right has a lighter orange bill and gray wingtips (= Forster’s Tern). One of the interesting things about Common and Forster’s Terns is that (unlike many other species) they are actually easier to identify when they are juveniles or are in non-breeding plumage. © Steve Tucker | Macaulay Library California, May 06, 2017 The Forster's Tern is similar looking to the Common Tern, but found in slightly different habitat. I was ready to wave the white flag and surrender. Start with the folded wingtips. In breeding plumage, it has a light gray mantle with silvery-white primaries. Unlock thousands of full-length species accounts and hundreds of bird family overviews when you subscribe to Birds of the World. Audubon’s climate model predicts a significantly shifting climate space for this species, especially in summer, with only 19% remaining stable and a large northward and even farther inland movement. Forster's Terns are generally the most common of the black-capped, gray-backed, white bodied terns found in the state. Which means I am lost. Many birders will be able to recognize this bird as one of the medium-sized terns, which here in the eastern US narrows down to Forster’s or Common Tern. Those ginger tips will eventually wear off, leaving the silvery pattern that we saw above. Well, Forster’s Tern is supposed to have a light orange bill, whiter body and wings, a tail that extends beyond the folded wingtips, and longer legs, while Common Tern sports a deeper orange bill, gray body and darker wings, a tail extending the same length as the wingtips, and with black on its outermost tail feathers. So what do the field guides tell us to look for on these terns? The Forster’s Tern frequents all types of wetlands where it breeds, such as freshwater lakes, inland and coastal marshes and salt-pond dykes. Well, this year I decided to do something about it and worked at trying develop confidence in identifying these species correctly. I found this kind of conformation and reinforcement to be extremely valuable. Required fields are marked *. Forster's Terns have a slightly heavier bill that in the breeding season is orange rather than Common Tern's red bill. For me, looking at the lower wing surface or body was frustrating because it was so dependent upon lighting, and with the sun being above, these areas alternated between sun and shade during flight, turning identification into a guessing game. The common call of the Forster's tern is a descending kerr. Nesting habitat is in fresh, brackish or saltwater marshes on high areas, usually within clumps of vegetation. Obviously, this isn't a solid rule, but certainly is a good place to start. Part of the reason is purely the additional experience, and partly its because now I’ve found identification points that work for me. There are a few other identification points that can be helpful, but their use is more limited than the ones discussed above. In breeding season, it’s black tipped, like the common tern’s, but the colorful base is much more orange and less red than is the common’s. Now after observing several hundreds of these birds this summer, often in locations where both species are found intermixed, I feel like I’ve finally broken through. My guesses are as follows: 1 - Common Tern 2/3 - Common Tern 4/5 - Forster's Tern Compare the photos of soaring birds below. yet lacked the longer and more orange legs of a Forster's Tern. The Forster's tern has a distinctive black eye patch except in the breeding season. Give it a try. Forster's Tern: Medium tern, pale gray upperparts, black cap, white underparts. Is that body gray or does it just look gray because it is shaded from the sun? For far too many birders, this is a tough call. At times this can also be surprisingly easy. A succession of kerrs is used by the female as a begging call during courtship. Today I will share some of my thoughts on distinguishing these two species in the hope that my experience might help some of you. To put further icing on the cake, when both species are present together, the comparisons are easier and allow us to introduce one more feature: leg length. But which is it? Many hours were spent scouring images on Google, studying Sibley, etc. (Actually, although I say that I worked at it, that’s not completely true, since this minor quest became an utter pleasure and was the furthest thing from work.) Where Common breeds on outer beaches and barrier islands, Forster’s nests farther inland, on edges of freshwater marshes and saltmarshes. Now that you’ve read this far, I want to point out that despite having all of these identification points, distinguishing these two species still can be difficult. The red really popped when I looked at these birds. Can you identify it with confidence? The restriction of the dark patch to the eye and the lack of a carpal patch both point to Forster’s. But look at the wingtips…they are jet black, unmistakably characteristic of Common Tern. In North America, the Forster's tern in breeding plumage is obviously larger than the common, with relatively short wings, a heavy head and thick bill, and long, strong legs; in all non-breeding plumages, its white head … There is also a smaller patch of black on the outermost upper wing tips. As you mentioned, I have seen them at larger reservoirs, especially in the south. The Common Tern is most similar to the Roseate, Arctic, and Forster's Terns. The brown or ginger portions of the wing and body plumage wear away by late summer, leaving the mostly silvery late fall plumage shown above. The outer tail feathers of Common Tern are partially black whereas in Forster’s they are all white. Common Terns have long orange-red bills with a dark tip and it can appear long, and slightly de-curved. 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