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White-fronted Tern - BirdForum Opus

Nominate S. s. striata
Photo © by janha
Kaikoura, New Zealand, 5 October 2004
Sterna striata


39–42 cm. (15⅓"-16½")
It has a long black bill and short black legs. The head is capped in black to below the eye, leaving a white area above the bill. The upperparts and upperwings are a pearly grey/white, and the neck, underparts and underwings are white.

Adult feeding young
Photo © by Bruce Winslade
Maori Bay, Muriwai, near Auckland, North Island, New Zealand, 31 December 2005

Similar species

The whole group of "comic terns" can cause problems for identifying this species. In Australian waters, that group consists of Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Antarctic Tern, White-fronted Tern, Roseate Tern and Kerguelen Tern. At least for the birds occurring in that area, Common Tern can be identified by having a "hook" pattern on its primaries[2].


The White-fronted Tern is the most common tern in New Zealand. It breeds along the coast of the New Zealand mainland, also Auckland and Chatham Islands. Visits other subantarctic islands. Many birds, including most juveniles, will winter in Australian waters.


Photo © by craigwilson
Blueskin Bay, Waitati, New Zealand, November 2018


Three recognized subspecies[1]:


Coastal waters and harbours. Roosts on sandspits and shellbanks and is rarely seen inland. Large flocks will form over shoaling fish, mainly in the summer and autumn.



Breeding is between October and January in large colonies on rocky cliffs and offshore islands


White-fronted Terns feed in large flocks by plunge diving on shoals of smelt and pilchards which have been driven to the surface by larger fish and are easily caught. Like all terns they fly with their heads and bills pointing down to see their prey.


Common call is a high pitched siet.


  1. Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2018. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2018. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
  2. Birdforum thread discussing identification of this species from Common Tern including the hook pattern on the primaries of Common Tern (see post #10 and later).
  3. Gochfeld, M. & Burger, J. (2017). White-fronted Tern (Sterna striata). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/54022 on 7 February 2017).
  4. Higgins, P.J. & Davies, S.J.J.F. (editors) 1996. Handbook of Australian , New Zealand & Antarctic Birds. Volume 3, Snipe to pigeons. Melbourne, Oxford University Press. [Vol. 2, pages 648-649] Vol. 3, pages 384-385, 573-576, 632-644; plates 37 & 38.
  5. Mills, J.A. 2013. White-fronted tern. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. http://www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
  6. Shirihai, H. 2008. Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife: Birds and Marine Mammals of the Antarctic Continent and the Southern Ocean. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0691136660

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