Common tern Sterna hirundo

The common tern is a medium-sized tern and the one you are most likely to see away from known breeding colonies. Common terns and Arctic terns can be very difficult to tell apart. The common tern is whiter below, has shorter tail streamers and a longer bill which is orangey-red with a black tip. Common terns are silvery-grey above with a large, black cap and short, red legs.


Common terns are noisy in their colonies and, like most terns, will attack intruders threatening their nests. They breed on sandy coasts, in dunes and on islands but also breed inland on gravelly banks of lakes and rivers. They plunge-dive to catch their fish-prey.


  • Length: 31-35cm
  • Wingspan: 88cm
  • Weight: 130g
  • Average Lifespan: 12 years


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


A summer visitor, nesting on gravelly beaches and islands around the coast and inland on gravel pits and reservoirs.

When to see

April – September


The tail streamers of the common tern have earned it the nickname ‘sea swallow’.

Common name

Common tern

Species name

Sterna hirundo

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.

Stay up to date with the Scottish Wildlife Trust by subscribing to our mailing list Subscribe now

Back to top