Arctic tern Sterna paradisaea

The Arctic tern is a medium-sized tern which nests in colonies on sand and shingle beaches along the coast. Common terns and Arctic terns can be very difficult to tell apart. The Arctic tern is greyer below, has very long tail streamers and a shorter bill which is blood-red with no black tip. Arctic terns are silvery-grey above and white below, with a black cap and tiny red legs.


Arctic terns are noisy in their colonies and, like most terns, will attack intruders threatening their nests, often ‘dive-bombing’ them with their sharp bills at the ready. Famed for their long migrations, they return to this country in April to breed and leave again in September.


  • Length: 33-35cm
  • Wingspan: 80cm
  • Weight: 110g
  • Average Lifespan: 13 years


Classified in the UK as an Amber List species under the Birds of Conservation Concern review.


A summer visitor, nesting on islands around the north of England and Scotland. Can be seen around most of our coasts and on large lakes and reservoirs during migration.

When to see

April – September


  • Arctic terns have one of the longest migrations of any bird: summer visitors to the UK, they travel all the way to the Antarctic to spend the winter. Some birds will even travel from breeding grounds in the Arctic all the way to the Antarctic.

Common name

Arctic tern

Species name

Sterna paradisaea

IUCN Red List status

Least Concern

When to see in Scotland

April – September

Where to see in Scotland

Scottish Wildlife Trust reserves such as Montrose Basin or Handa Island.

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