My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Black Tern, Chlidonias niger

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Black Tern, Chlidonias niger


The black tern (Chlidonias niger or Chlidonias nigra) is a small tern generally found in or near inland water in Europe and North America. As its name suggests, it has predominantly dark plumage. In some lights it can appear blue in the breeding season, hence the old English name “blue darr”.

Adults are 25 cm (9.8 in) long, with a wingspan 61 cm (24 in), and weigh 62 g (2.2 oz). They have short dark legs and a short, weak-looking black bill, measuring 27 mm (1.1 in), nearly as long as the head. The bill is long, slender, and looks slightly decurved. They have a dark grey back, with a white forewing, black head, neck (occasionally suffused with grey in the adult) and belly, black or blackish-brown cap (which unites in color with the ear coverts, forming an almost complete hood), and a light brownish-grey, ‘square’ tail. The face is white. There is a big dark triangular patch in front of the eye, and a broadish white collar in juveniles. There are greyish-brown smudges on the ides of the white breast, a downwards extension of the plumage of the upperparts. These marks vary in size and are not conspicuous. In non-breeding plumage, most of the black, apart from the cap, is replaced by grey. The plumage of the upperparts is drab, with pale feather-edgings. The rump is brownish-grey.

The North American race, C. n. surinamensis, is distinguishable from the European form in all plumages, and is considered by some to be a separate species.

In flight, the build appears slim. The wing-beats are full and dynamic, and flight is often erratic as it dives to the surface for food; similar to other tern species.

Its call has been described as a high-pitched “kik”; the sound of a large flock has been called “deafening”.

Their breeding habitat is freshwater marshes across most of Canada, the northern United States and much of Europe and western Asia. They usually nest either on floating material in a marsh or on the ground very close to water, laying 2–4 eggs.

In England the black tern was abundant in the eastern fens, especially in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, until the early nineteenth century. The English naturalist Thomas Pennant in 1769 referred to “vast flocks” of black terns “whose calls are almost deafening”. Extensive drainage of its breeding grounds wiped out the English population by about 1840. Intermittent attempts by the species to recolonise England have proved unsuccessful, with only a handful of English breeding records, and one in Ireland, in the second half of the twentieth century.

North American black terns migrate to the coasts of northern South America, some to the open ocean. Old World birds winter in Africa.

Unlike the “white” Sterna terns, these birds do not dive for fish, but forage on the wing picking up items at or near the water’s surface or catching insects in flight. They mainly eat insects and fish as well as amphibians.

On to my photos:

These photos were shot at the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary over the past few years during my vacations to the area in May of each year. Unfortunately, due to a number of circumstances, all my photos of this species are when they are in flight and the light was not that good.

Black tern in flight

Black tern in flight


Black tern in flight

Black tern in flight


Black tern in flight

Black tern in flight


Black tern in flight

Black tern in flight


Black terns in flight

Black terns in flight


Black tern in flight

Black tern in flight


Black tern in flight

Black tern in flight

This is number 199 in my photo life list, only 151 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!



12 responses

  1. These photos are quite good, considering the circumstances. If you had used the 100-400 II and the 7D II, they would have come out better perhaps.

    December 15, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    • Thank you very much Hien! The problem is always that the terns fly over the open water of the marshes there, and there’s no way for me to get close to have the light right.

      December 15, 2016 at 11:57 pm

  2. If those birds are as fast as they look you’re probably lucky that you got any photos of them.

    December 15, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! You’re right, the terns fly like giant swallows as they collect insects on the fly, they’re very hard to track.

      December 15, 2016 at 11:58 pm

  3. I have never seen Black terns before. They must be amazing to watch in flight.

    December 15, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    • Thank you very much Maria! The terns fly like giant swallows, so they are amazing to watch.

      December 15, 2016 at 11:59 pm

  4. Amazing how you captured such swings and swoops- such elegant fliers!

    December 16, 2016 at 11:49 am

    • Thank you very much Marianne!

      December 16, 2016 at 3:12 pm

  5. They are beautiful, Jerry. The photos may not be perfect by your standards, but they are fast fliers, and you have open water and bright sky. They are quite good! I still enjoyed them.

    December 17, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    • Thank you very much Lavinia!

      December 18, 2016 at 2:50 am

  6. Well done for spotting these lovely birds!

    December 17, 2016 at 9:25 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare!

      December 18, 2016 at 2:50 am