Sandwich Tern

by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist

Adult Description: Medium – sized tern with long, thin black bill with a pale yellow tip. Body is white with a pale gray back. Black cap. When breeding, will have elongated feathers on the back of the head that make a shaggy crest. Legs black.

Immature Description: Juvenile is similar to non-breeding adult but with dark markings on its back. The crown is dusky and bill may lack a yellow tip.

Cool Facts

The male Sandwich Tern offers a fish to the female as part of the courtship display.
The Sandwich Tern is named after the town of Sandwich in County Kent, England, where this Tern was first discovered.

A day at the beach can yield a variety of discoveries on the land, in the sea and throughout the skies. A recent trip, where I actually remembered to bring my camera, provided for some great opportunities to capture images of the Sandwich Tern. This slim, graceful, long-billed Tern was abundant at the beach and is a year-round resident of beaches all around our great state of Florida.

The Sandwich Tern, which is distinctly smaller than its larger cousin, the Royal Tern, might be considered the Royal Tern’s sidekick due to the two often being seen together. Although I’ve photographed many Royal Terns on our beaches, the most recent trip provided for Sandwich Terns only.

It’s fun to watch these Terns! They feed by plunging headfirst into the water from flight, sometimes hovering, and emerging immediately with a fish held in its bill. I watched and photographed for well over an hour and never saw a miss. Amazing, every dive into relatively shallow water along the shoreline resulted in the catch of a small, shiny fish that was quickly gobbled up mid-air after the Tern leaped from the water and quickly took flight.

Of course, their diet is mostly smaller fish, but they will also feed on shrimp, squid, marine worms and a variety of insects.

The Sandwich Tern breeds in dense colonies on coasts and islands and nests along the coast as well as alongside freshwater lakes close to the coast. It nests in a ground scrape, laying one to three eggs. Unlike other Terns, it’s not aggressive toward potential predators, but will nest next to other terns that are much more aggressive, thus helping the nests of the Sandwich Tern to avoid predation.

The Sandwich Tern has an extensive global range and has an estimated population of over half a million individuals, making it a species of least concern.

So, next time you’re lounging around on one of Sanibel or Captiva’s great beaches and see a wide variety of different birds, see if you can pick out the Sandwich Tern or maybe even it’s larger cousin the Royal Tern. The Sandwich Terns feeding habit, bright white body and wings and its black bill with a yellow tip are quick identifiers of this elegant, small bird. If it’s there, sit back, relax and enjoy the show that this great fisher provides!

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