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Lesser Crested Tern - BirdForum Opus

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T. b. bengalensis
Photo © by Howard King
Busaiteen, Maharraq, Bahrain, July 2009
Thalasseus bengalensis

Sterna bengalensis


Length 35-43 cm (13¾-17 in), wingspan 88-105 cm, weight 185-242 g

  • Black cap (with mottled white forehead in winter)
  • Upperparts uniform grey, including rump and upper tail
  • Underparts white
  • Black legs
  • Long sharp orange bill, may have light yellow tip

Similar Species

T. b. bengalensis in flight
Photo © by AJDH
Jarim Islands, Bahrain, June 2009

Sandwich Tern: black bill with yellow tip
Elegant Tern: bill longer and slightly downcurved; mantle slightly paler; rump white
Chinese Crested Tern: bill yellower, with black tip
Royal Tern: Larger. Plumage is paler overall and rump and upper-tail white. Bill thicker than Lesser Crested, with dagger shape. Lesser Crested's bill is thinner and rapier-shaped.
Great Crested Tern: Larger. Plumage darker above; forehead always white, even in the courtship and breeding seasons. Bill yellow to greenish-yellow, and thicker, with dagger shape. Picture of Lesser Crested and Great Crested Tern together.


Northern and eastern Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia, and Australasia; a rare visitor (has bred) in western and southern Europe.
Europe: records from Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, Italy, and Greece
Northern Africa: breeds Libya; on passage off Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia
Western Africa: passage and winter visitor to Mauritania, The Gambia, Guinea
Eastern Africa: breeds Egypt (Red Sea coast), Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti Somalia; passage and winter on coasts of Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania, Mozambique
Southern Africa: winters South Africa (KwaZulu-Natal)
African Islands: winters Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, Mauritius Island
Middle East: breeds Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Iran; on passage off Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Socotra; vagrant to Turkey, Lebanon, Israel
South Asia: breeds Pakistan, India (Laccadive Islands), Maldives; on passage and wintering India, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh
Southeast Asia: breeds Sulawesi, Lesser Sundas, Bali, Timor, Moluccas; wintering Indochina, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Malay Peninsula, Brunei, Singapore, Borneo, Indonesia, Greater Sundas, Sumatra, Java
Australasia: breeds New Guinea, Papua New Guinea, Australia (Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia); on passage in Melanesia


T. b. torresii, non-breeding plumage
Photo © by Ken Doy
Wellington Point, Queensland, Australia, September 2016

Like the other Thalasseus terns, this species is was formerly often placed in the genus Sterna. Hybrids with Sandwich Tern have been recorded on several occasions.


Three subspecies are recognised[1], differing mainly in the tone of grey on the mantle and wings, and slightly in size.

  • T. b. emigratus:
  • Palest and largest subspecies, mantle light grey, barely any darker than Sandwich Tern or Elegant Tern.
  • T. b. bengalensis:
  • Eastern Africa and southern Asia from the Red Sea, Pakistan, Laccadives and Maldives; winters south to South Africa and east to southeast Asia.
  • Medium grey.
  • T. b. torresii:
  • Darkest grey, nearly as dark as Great Crested Tern.

Birds from the Persian Gulf are of disputed placement, having been cited variously as either T. b. emigratus ([2]) or T. b. torresii ([3]), despite their being enclosed within the range of T. b. bengalensis.

T. b. bengalensis, non-breeding adult in flight
Photo © by SeeToh
Straits of Singapore, April 2017


Breeds on coasts and islands.



Colonial. It nests in a ground scrape and lays 1-2 eggs.


Diet includes fish shrimp (prawn) and small crustaceans.


  1. Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2017. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2017, with updates to August 2017. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
  2. Gill, F and D Donsker (Eds). 2016. IOC World Bird Names (version 6.3). Available at http://www.worldbirdnames.org/.
  3. Del Hoyo, J, A Elliot, and J Sargatal, eds. 1996. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. ISBN 978-8487334207
  4. Scarton, F. et al. (2000). New breeding site of Lesser Crested Tern in Italy. Brit. Birds 93 (9):448-451.
  5. Avibase
  6. Wikipedia
  7. Collins Field Guide 5th Edition
  8. Collins Bird Guide ISBN 0 00 219728 6

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