The restriction of the dark patch to the eye and the lack of a carpal patch both point to Forster’s. Decide which species you think these are, note the leg length on these birds, and read on. The Arctic Tern has a shorter bill and is completely blood-red in colour. 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. For me the folded wingtips are actually more reliable, with the Common Tern having black wingtips and the Forster’s Tern having grayish wingtips. 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 … These pictures seem to show long tail, greyish breast and darker primaries. 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). OK, you’re out birding and you see the excellent individual shown above. yet lacked the longer and more orange legs of a Forster's Tern. Later in the season this patch becomes much more visible as the overlying feather tips wear away. Common vs Forster's Terns. 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. Compare the photos of soaring birds below. 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. Forster’s Tern in fall. The Forster’s Tern frequents all types of wetlands where it breeds, such as freshwater lakes, inland and coastal marshes and salt-pond dykes. Note the different pattern in the face compared with the immature Forster’s Tern. Part of the reason is purely the additional experience, and partly its because now I’ve found identification points that work for me. It is more likely to be found in Tennessee than the similar appearing Common Tern. Forster’s Tern in flight. Those wingtips will wear away and become shorter as the season progresses and then becomes an unreliable indicator. 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. Unlock thousands of full-length species accounts and hundreds of bird family overviews when you subscribe to Birds of the World. Its long, light tail is deeply forked, and its undersides are all white. Today I will share some of my thoughts on distinguishing these two species in the hope that my experience might help some of you. Hovers above water before diving for prey. 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. The black eyepatch indicates that its a Forster’s. 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. Give it a try. Subscribe Now For Access. Conveniently, in juveniles and in non-breeding plumage, Common Terns also contain a black ‘carpal bar’ on their wings that Forster’s Terns lack. There are a few other identification points that can be helpful, but their use is more limited than the ones discussed above. This is a public group administered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, located in Sapsucker Woods, Ithaca, New York. 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. Wings are pale gray with paler primaries. It favours shallow water, between 30 cm and 1 metre depth. In fall, it is in the state generally from late July to early October. Well, this year I decided to do something about it and worked at trying develop confidence in identifying these species correctly. 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.. … 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. Good luck using these identification points. In spring, it usually arrives by late April and departs by mid-May. The dark ‘carpal patch’ is somewhat visible underneath some feathers. Note the partial black "hood" extending all the way around the back of its neck, and bold carpal bar. Forster’s also shows dark tips to the outer primaries but slightly paler gray with little or no translucence. 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. 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. In this bird the wingtips are gray, pointing towards Forster’s. Arctic Tern has very narrow dark tips to the outer primaries, much thinner and cleaner than Common or Forster’s. Common Tern has red legs in breeding plumage, but these darken to near black in non-breeding plumage. The lighter orange bill compared to the previous photo of the Common Tern confirms the conclusion. Drat. Finally, a note of caution: As with the gulls, the terns are variable and plumages change with age and season. Forster's Terns have a slightly heavier bill that in the breeding season is orange rather than Common Tern's red bill. Unlike Common Tern, Forster's regularly winters along our southern coasts. Compared to the Common Tern, the streamer-tailed Forster’s Tern nests more inland and farther south, and winters farther north. I know Forster's have longer tails, whiter breasts and whiter primaries. I'm having trouble discerning the differences between the two species. 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.. 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. Note the relative lack of any black at the tip of the upper wings. 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. Photo kindly provided by Karmela Moneta. 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. Another field mark of the Common Tern are the wings. Orange legs, feet. 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. At times this can also be surprisingly easy. ), or they were difficult to see (the edging on the tail feathers is seldom apparent even in good lighting, and only in flight). Your email address will not be published. If not, then read on. It has a black cap, commonly found in terns. That was frustrating to me because bird identification should be based on observation of specific features and shouldn’t feel like a coin toss. I was ready to wave the white flag and surrender. The ginger color on its body and wings is on the edge of its feathers. Note the black patch on the hindneck, not surrounding the eye, and the presence of the diagnostic carpal bar on the wing. Which tern is it? My guesses are as follows: 1 - Common Tern 2/3 - Common Tern 4/5 - Forster's Tern Forster's Tern looks so much like a Common Tern that it was largely overlooked by Audubon and other pioneer birders. But note the leg length; the Common Tern has shorter legs than the Forster’s, just like the field guides say. 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. Yes, its a tern, but which one? How about when they are in flight? Classic view of a Common Tern in flight. I know there are also common terns here right now and they look a lot like Forster's.
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