Black Tern Migration Underway

Summer is still here, but black tern migration is already underway.

Jill Staake

Fellow blogger Rob pointed out a few weeks back that some birds begin their fall migration while summer is still going strong. Many of these are shorebirds, and so when we heard recently that Black Tern migration had already reached our local beaches, we were eager to see if we could track them down. Fortunately, it was very easy. We used eBird to find the large migrating flocks, mixed with other terns and shorebirds on the shore here in Tampa Bay.

Black Tern Migration

Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) spend the summer breeding in Canada and the northern U.S. Their migration territory includes most of the rest of the United States, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. They end up along the northern coast of South America, where they spend the winter. (See range map here.) They rest along the way, often as part of large mixed flocks, on shorelines and in marshlands.

Black Tern Migration

Look closely and you’ll see a few Black Terns still in breeding plumage mixed into this flock.

Their breeding plumage is very striking, a soft black coloration of the head and chest and gray wings. By the time they begin to head south, their plumage has become more mottled, and many juveniles haven’t yet attained those colors, so when identifying them at this time of the year, you can look for the black spot behind the eye, as seen on the birds to the far left in the photo below.

Black Tern Migration

Here in Tampa Bay, these are birds that are only seen during migration, so there are only a few weeks each year to track them down. That’s why I love eBird’s Range and Point maps, which allow you to follow the progress of specific birds and check to see when they’re reported in your area. Learn more about eBird’s maps here, and get ready to enjoy fall migration season.


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