When the birds are resting on a beach or mudflat, I now focus on two features: the color of the folded wingtips and the bill color. If you find yourself by a large tern flock, watch for begging youngsters, which should be readily identifiable based on the black eye or neck patches, and see if you can identify the parents when they arrive to feed the young. I usually go by call notes which are very different, but the common shows more gray on the back that blends well with a gray belly… they usually will show some black in their primaires vs the Forster’s which are white.. there bill is very red vs the orange bill of the Forsters… Here is a composite photo of the two species I took today… Top on is the Common and the bottom photo is a Forster’s. The restriction of the dark patch to the eye and the lack of a carpal patch both point to Forster’s. apparently the Common Tern Sterna hirundo, commonly called Sterne, but also of the "Hirundo marirui or sca-swallowe, a bird much larger than a Swallow Hirundo rustica, neat, white and fork-tailed. Several of the terns are very similar in appearance. Later in the season this patch becomes much more visible as the overlying feather tips wear away. However, to repeat, Common Tern is unusual here, unusual enough that local bird watchers get excited if a Common Tern shows up. Forster's Terns have a slightly heavier bill that in the breeding season is orange rather than Common Tern's red bill. These pictures seem to show long tail, greyish breast and darker primaries. How about when they are in flight? Common Terns are usually found out on the larger bodies of water like Lk St. Clair or the Great Lakes… Forster’s Terns are usually found inland in marshy areas… They can be difficult to ID in flight.. So what do the field guides tell us to look for on these terns? All four tern species regularly found in Wisconsin, Forster’s tern, black tern, common tern, and Caspian tern are listed as state endangered. 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. Subscribe Now For Access. Common Tern shows broad dark tips to the outer primaries which contrast with a very pale inner primary triangle. Note the partial black "hood" extending all the way around the back of its neck, and bold carpal bar. Pictures 2 and 3 are the same bird, and 4 and 5 are the same bird. Decide which species you think these are, note the leg length on these birds, and read on. Then look at the leg length. 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. OK, to start us off, let’s admit that distinguishing Common and Forster’s Terns is one of the more challenging bird pair identifications. Obviously, this isn't a solid rule, but certainly is a good place to start. Common vs Forster's Terns. Both species will have juvenile plumage that has additional touches of brown or ginger when they are extremely young in early summer, but the diagnostic black facial patches are present throughout their first year. Poronto's Birding Macomb Township and Beyond. That was frustrating to me because bird identification should be based on observation of specific features and shouldn’t feel like a coin toss. Can anyone tell me what I have here. It feeds further out to sea than the common tern. It favours shallow water, between 30 cm and 1 metre depth. Forster’s Terns are sometimes referred to as “Marsh Tern” because they utilize this particular habitat type for breeding and foraging. Does one of the birds have longer legs than the other? But note the leg length; the Common Tern has shorter legs than the Forster’s, just like the field guides say. It has a black cap, commonly found in terns. 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. Conveniently, in juveniles and in non-breeding plumage, Common Terns also contain a black ‘carpal bar’ on their wings that Forster’s Terns lack. Forster’s also shows dark tips to the outer primaries but slightly paler gray with little or no translucence. Start with the folded wingtips. 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. 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. Forster’s Terns molt a little earlier in the season than Common Tern, so birds that are losing their black cap in July are likely to be Forster’s, whereas those retaining their full black caps in late August are more likely to be Common. This is a public group administered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, located in Sapsucker Woods, Ithaca, New York. 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. Its long, light tail is deeply forked, and its undersides are all white. The outer primaries are somewhat grayer than on Forster’s, typically bordered by a dark streak or wedge that cuts across the wing at about mid-primaries; this wedge, however, may be hard to see in spring. There is also a smaller patch of black on the outermost upper wing tips. 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. 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. I used to look at the undersides of the bird…the body and wings, whereas now I focus on the upper surface of the wings. Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment. Bill is orange, black tip. Compared to the Common Tern, the streamer-tailed Forster’s Tern nests more inland and farther south, and winters farther north. Can you identify it with confidence? Forster's Terns are generally the most common of the black-capped, gray-backed, white bodied terns found in the state. 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 … Wings are pale gray with paler primaries. Hovers above water before diving for prey. 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. 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. Breeding Forster's usually have a white breast, unlike Common Tern's gray breast. Tail is pale gray, deeply forked with dark inner edge, white outer edge. Of course, it helps that in these photos the birds are in nearly perfect lighting and in the textbook profile pose, but we have to start somewhere. I'm having trouble discerning the differences between the two species. If not, then read on. Common Tern in fall. At very close range, you may be able to see that the tail is white … Like many birders, I struggled with these terns for a long, long time. This bird was among 100 Common Terns but Dave tells us that this one was obviously much thicker-billed, paler-billed (and longer-billed?) Orange legs, feet. For me the bill color is somewhat debatable, but the wingtips aren’t, and using the combination of both leads to a much more reliable conclusion. Forster’s Terns have a dark patch that is limited to the area immediately surrounding the eye, making them look like they just lost a boxing match, while Common Terns have a black patch that extends from the rear of the eye to the hind neck. This can vary between individuals, but can be fun to follow. Many hours were spent scouring images on Google, studying Sibley, etc. Look at the two terns in the photo below and decide what you think they are. During the mid-to-late summer, the presence of these juvenile birds greatly helps to identify the adults. 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. Wisconsin DNR and other groups have developed innovative ways to assist these species, and particular progress has been made with Forster’s terns. Nesting habitat is in fresh, brackish or saltwater marshes on high areas, usually within clumps of vegetation. OK, you’re out birding and you see the excellent individual shown above. Note the different pattern in the face compared with the immature Forster’s Tern. The dark ‘carpal patch’ is somewhat visible underneath some feathers. The Arctic Tern has a shorter bill and is completely blood-red in colour. The lighter orange bill compared to the previous photo of the Common Tern confirms the conclusion. 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. Although all of those points are indeed true, for me they were either difficult to distinguish in the field (Is that bill light orange or deep orange? Drat. The wings appear very light, silvery gray in flight. 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. 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. Leg length is hard to judge when they are not closely juxtaposed like this, but can be another supporting feature to look for in mixed flocks. In this bird the wingtips are gray, pointing towards Forster’s. In spring, it usually arrives by late April and departs by mid-May. But which is it? The Common Tern is most similar to the Roseate, Arctic, and Forster's Terns. Photo by Daryl Christensen . I haven't seen enough terns to appreciate the differences between Forster's and Common tern. Classic view of a Common Tern in flight. Finally, a note of caution: As with the gulls, the terns are variable and plumages change with age and season. The Common Tern has a black eye patch that continues across the nape. Forster’s Tern in fall. Yes, its a tern, but which one? Where Common breeds on outer beaches and barrier islands, Forster’s nests farther inland, on edges of freshwater marshes and saltmarshes. The Forster's tern has a distinctive black eye patch except in the breeding season. Forster’s Tern in flight. The ginger color on its body and wings is on the edge of its feathers. Good luck using these identification points. 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. Today I will share some of my thoughts on distinguishing these two species in the hope that my experience might help some of you. Your email address will not be published. There are a few other identification points that can be helpful, but their use is more limited than the ones discussed above. It is the only medium-sized tern species found in the United States mainland in winter. Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution* In the early 1900s, Roberts described the Forster’s Tern as a common summer resident on prairie sloughs and marshes across the state’s western grasslands.Confirmed nesting records were available only from Heron Lake in Jackson County and from King Lake in Meeker County, but his account also noted breeding colonies in Kittson and Renville … So instead of trying to determine if the wings are light gray or dark grey (are they kidding? I know there are also common terns here right now and they look a lot like Forster's. In this, the fifth in our series of identification videos, we look at how to tell Common and Arctic Tern apart. Your email address will not be published. Adult Common Tern (Hyères, France, 8 June 2013). As you mentioned, I have seen them at larger reservoirs, especially in the south. The red really popped when I looked at these birds. Far too often my decision changed depending on the lighting conditions; a bird would look like it had a gray body in flight, having me lean toward Common, and then it banked toward the sun and miraculously it was transformed into a white-bodied Forster’s. I usually go by call notes which are very different, but the common shows more gray on the back that blends well with a gray belly… they usually will show some black in their primaires vs the Forster’s which are white.. … Common and Arctic terns have dark outer edges of the tail and white inner edges; just the opposite of the Forster's. Common Tern has a full black cap with light gray underparts that can be hard to discern in flight, especially at poor angles or in shadow. Unlike Common Tern, Forster's regularly winters along our southern coasts. 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). Note that the upper wing is uniformly gray both before and after the ‘elbow’. However, Forster's is more of a marsh bird at most seasons, especially in summer, when it often nests on top of muskrat houses. The threat call used in defensive attack is a low harsh zaar. 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. Common Terns have long orange-red bills with a dark tip and it can appear long, and slightly de-curved. Look at the terns in the photos below and decide purely on the wingtips and you should come to the correct conclusion. 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. Well, this year I decided to do something about it and worked at trying develop confidence in identifying these species correctly. ), try to determine if the gray is uniform or two-toned. By clicking any of the links in the table below, a map will be pulled up on your screen. There is also a fairly extensive black wedge at the wing tips. So that’s what I focus on with resting birds. The Forster's Tern has a broad, blurry trailing edge to the primaries where it is thin and crisp in the Arctic and very restricted in the Roseate. ), or they were difficult to see (the edging on the tail feathers is seldom apparent even in good lighting, and only in flight). Overall this can give an impression of Arctics having a small round-looking head; Adult Common Terns can look rather dusky grey compared to the more uniformly pale grey of adult Arctic Terns. My guesses are as follows: 1 - Common Tern 2/3 - Common Tern 4/5 - Forster's Tern Compare the photos of soaring birds below. Note the black patch on the hindneck, not surrounding the eye, and the presence of the diagnostic carpal bar on the wing. The upper wings of Forster’s Terns, on the other hand, are two-toned or three-toned, with the distal half of the wing (furthest from the body) being distinctly whiter than the half that is closest to the body, which is gray. 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. Which tern is it? Common Tern has red legs in breeding plumage, but these darken to near black in non-breeding plumage. Required fields are marked *. Don’t expect it to be entirely clear, especially when starting out. In breeding plumage, it has a light gray mantle with silvery-white primaries. Ormond Beach, Port Hueneme, CA. The same thing happened when trying to decide how orange the bill was; a well-lit bill could look light orange (perfect for a textbook Forster’s), and then when the head turned and the bill became shaded, it was suddenly the deep orange bill of a Common Tern. This flying bird shows the typical features of Common Tern – a long-looking head, long red bill with a prominent dark tip and relatively short tail streamers. The common call of the Forster's tern is a descending kerr. But look at the wingtips…they are jet black, unmistakably characteristic of Common Tern. The confusion with gulls continued for many years; indeed, it still does. Birders struggle with tern identification...it is a source of Fear and Loathing for beginner and veteran alike. This is what I've come to expect elsewhere in North America, where Forster's Tern is more of a marsh bird and Common Tern is more of a large water body bird. A succession of kerrs is used by the female as a begging call during courtship. The Forster’s Tern frequents all types of wetlands where it breeds, such as freshwater lakes, inland and coastal marshes and salt-pond dykes. Also, Unlike Common or Forster’s, Arctic shows primaries appearing translucent … A final identification point that can be helpful. Another field mark of the Common Tern are the wings. 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. I often see wrong Ebird reports of Common Terns in places they should not be… example… small inland marshes… Common Terns are usually found out on the larger bodies of water like Lk St. Clair or the Great Lakes… Forster’s Terns are usually found inland in marshy areas… They can be difficult to ID in flight.. Here’s a juvenile Forster’s Tern. Arctic Tern has very narrow dark tips to the outer primaries, much thinner and cleaner than Common or Forster’s. Unlock thousands of full-length species accounts and hundreds of bird family overviews when you subscribe to Birds of the World. The undersurface of the primaries is a useful feature for separating the Forster's Tern from Arctic and Roseate terns. This is usually difficult to see but is fun to look for. (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.) For me the folded wingtips are actually more reliable, with the Common Tern having black wingtips and the Forster’s Tern having grayish wingtips. Those wingtips will wear away and become shorter as the season progresses and then becomes an unreliable indicator. It is more likely to be found in Tennessee than the similar appearing Common Tern. For FAR too long, I felt like I was just guessing when I saw a medium-sized tern, hoping that the habitat would push the odds in my favor (Forster’s Terns prefer marshes, while Common Terns prefer beaches). ps…in case you haven’t figured it out, the bird in the uppermost photo at the beginning of this post is a Common Tern. © Steve Tucker | Macaulay Library California, May 06, 2017 I know Forster's have longer tails, whiter breasts and whiter primaries. The Forster's Tern is similar looking to the Common Tern, but found in slightly different habitat. It is rarely found on sand, mud or rocky islets, the most suitable breeding habitat being dense mats of floating and emergent vegetation. For far too many birders, this is a tough call. Common Terns have reddish-orange bills while Forster’s Terns have a straight-up orange color. I was ready to wave the white flag and surrender. Which means I am lost. Those ginger tips will eventually wear off, leaving the silvery pattern that we saw above. Here is an immature Common Tern in late July for comparison. And then we can start working on shorebirds! Common Terns (Left & Rright) with Sandwich Terns (Middle) - 7 Aug 2015 - Back Bay NWR, Virginia Beach, VA. Common Terns with Royal Terns - 7 Aug 2015 - Back Bay NWR, Virginia Beach, VA. Sightings in Virginia Beach. When identifying terns, it is safest to rely upon a combination of field marks. At times this can also be surprisingly easy. Then watch the parents when they leave to see if you could identify them in flight. With practice, you will find that you often can distinguish these two species at a surprising distance by focusing on the upper wing surface. The outer tail feathers of Common Tern are partially black whereas in Forster’s they are all white. The black eyepatch indicates that its a Forster’s. Note the relative lack of any black at the tip of the upper wings. In fall, it is in the state generally from late July to early October. Photo kindly provided by Karmela Moneta. I found this kind of conformation and reinforcement to be extremely valuable. Numerous Forster’s terns mingle in native vegetation in a wetland. The upperwings are more often well-lit, thereby allowing for more reliable views. The Forster’s tern’s bill is proportionately long and large, though still within a range that would be termed medium, and black most of the year. Give it a try. Status in Tennessee: Forster's Tern is fairly common during spring and fall migration, and rare at other times of the year. yet lacked the longer and more orange legs of a Forster's Tern. 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 Tern looks so much like a Common Tern that it was largely overlooked by Audubon and other pioneer birders. Please read the Group Rules before joining. A Common Tern gives itself a shakedown. Ugh. It's legs were red like those of Common Tern and Dave thinks its bill was maybe not orange enough for a typical Forster's Tern. Tern identification: Common and Forster’s Terns, Yellow-rumped Warblers and yellow-rumped warblers. Forster's Tern: Medium tern, pale gray upperparts, black cap, white underparts. The key feature to note, however, is the underwing pattern which comprises a broad diffuse dark trailing edge to the non-translucent primaries (Aurélien Audevard). Part of the reason is purely the additional experience, and partly its because now I’ve found identification points that work for me. Is that body gray or does it just look gray because it is shaded from the sun?
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