Elegant Tern, Thalasseus elegans


Elegant Tern
Elegant Terns breed in a few scattered locations in Baja California and Southern California, with more than 90% of the species nesting on a single island off the west coast of Baja, making the species vulnerable to extinction. In summer after nesting they disperse northward to the west coast of North America; all these photographs were taken, during dispersal, on the Central California coast. After post-breeding dispersal the birds then migrate again to the Pacific Coast of Mexico and Central and South America for the winter, returning to their breeding grounds in February and March.

They are one of six species making up the recently recognized genus Thalasseus, the crested terns, which includes two other tern species found in North America, the Sandwich and Royal Tern. Of these two, only the Royal is likely to be confused with the Elegant; it can be distinguished by its thicker and relatively shorter bill, and its overall larger size. The Sandwich has a yellow-tipped black bill.  All three of these species have the shaggy crest characteristic of the genus, which is most prominent with the Elegant Tern.


Elegant Term
Adult Elegants in flight, above and below, are distinguished from first-cycle birds by pure white tail feathers. The bird below is further along in its molt to non-breeding plumage, characterized by a white forehead and crown; the bird above is in the middle of this molt with white feathers replacing the black ones of breeding plumage.

Elegant Tern

Elegant Terns
A group of adult Elegant Terns arrived in Central California in early July, showing the range of molt stages in the extent to which white feathers have replaced black ones on the forehead and crown.


Elegant Tern
Above and below, first-cycle Elegant terns, their age indicated by dark-tipped tail feathers and a bill that is shorter and less decurved than that of the adult. Bill color in Elegants varies from yellow to dark orange; young birds tend to lighter shades, but this is not a reliable indicator of age.

Elegant Tern

Elegant Terns
Above, a flock of Elegants in flight; short bills indicate first-cycle birds. Solid dark crown means bird is adult, but many adults in late July have fully or partly molted to white forehead and crown of non-breeding plumage. Below, an adult bird still in breeding plumage carrying a fish while flying over this same flock, seeking its hatch-year offspring to which it will feed the fish, as in the pictures further below.

Elegant Terns

Elegant Terns
Above and below, adults feeding their hatch-year offspring, also in same flock as shown in photos above. Note variations in bill color; in both cases, the young birds have bills lighter in color than their parents, but the bill of the young bird in the family shown above is redder than that of the adult below.

Elegant Tern