Terns and smaller gulls in summer

Visit the coast or an inland lake during the warmer months and you may well be rewarded by the sight of some of our more elegant seabirds. But can you name them?

Terns are the ballerinas of the oceans, elegant yet gutsy, and it’s well worth getting to know these captivating summer visitors. Once you know what you are looking at, not only will you be able to wonder at the extraordinary lifestyle they lead, but you may discover you have a real rarity in your midst!

Fairweather friends

One of the factors that can make gull and tern identification tricky is their feathers. Within each species, the bird’s plumage can change between summer and winter and as the bird ages. The black-headed gull, for example, only sports its distinctive dark-chocolate “hood” as an adult during summer. To keep it simple this article looks at identifying adult terns and two commonly confused gulls in summer.

Getting to know terns

All our terns are migratory birds and absent from the UK in winter. The nature writer Simon Barnes once described a common tern as a “gull that’s died and gone to heaven” and it is a description that speaks to the shimmering elegance and beauty that is shared by all terns. Although despite appearances, there is nothing celestial about their shrill and persistent calls!

More usefully for ID purposes, Barnes’s quip is a helpful reminder that terns tend to be daintier and some would say prettier than gulls. Another useful tip is to look at the tail: terns have deeply forked tails, unlike gulls where the tail is much blunter.


Top ID tips: gulls versus terns

  • Terns are more streamlined and daintier
  • Terns have shorter legs then gulls (best seen when the bird is perching)
  • Terns have deeply forked tails
  • Terns have a dark coloured “cap”, whereas black-headed and Mediterranean gulls have full “hoods”

Common terns

Common terns return from Africa to breed each summer, and their migratory habits together with their distinctive tail streamers have earned them the nickname “sea-swallows”. They are the most numerous and widespread of all the terns that breed in the UK, and the one that you are most likely to see inland.

Identification (summer plumage)

  • Silvery-grey wings, with a white breast and dark cap on head
  • Orange-red bill usually with a black tip
  • Shorter tail streamers than Arctic and roseate terns
  • When perched their tail streamers are held in line with their wing tips

Where to look

Common terns nest both on our coasts and inland on lakes and gravel pits. They are often noisy in company and breed in colonies. They will happily take advantage of tern rafts. Look out for common terns from April through to October.

Arctic terns

Arctic terns are the ultimate long-distance migrants and migrate between the Arctic summer and the Antarctic summer, with those that breed in the UK returning here in April and leaving from late July onwards. It’s an epic round trip of 35,000 km (22,000 miles) each year.

Identification (adult in summer plumage)

  • Silvery-grey wings, with a white breast and dark cap on head
  • Dark red bill. No black tip on top. Shorter bill than other terns
  • Long tail streamers
  • Very short legs

Where to look

Arctic terns nest in colonies and are most easily seen during the breeding season on islands such as the Farne Islands in Northumberland or on the Northern Isles of Scotland where they are most heavily concentrated. They also stop at inland lakes reservoirs and around the coast as they migrate, so it pays to watch out for them wherever you are.

Roseate terns

Roseate terns are one of our rarest seabirds, with Northumberland’s Coquet Island their only regular nest site. The word “roseate” means flushed with pink and refers to the delicate pink colouring that marks the birds’ chests during summer. Roseate terns have a distinctive way of diving that can help distinguish them. While most terns hover before plunging down for a fish, “rosies” typically use their wings to power into the water at an angle.

Identification (adult in summer plumage)

  • Silvery-grey wings, with a white breast and black cap on head
  • Light rosy pink undercarriage
  • Paler upper parts than other terns
  • Black bill or black with reddish base
  • Long tail streamers

Where to look

Roseate terns are strictly coastal birds and breed only in a few places in the UK such as Coquet Island. They are most likely to be seen in summer off the Northumberland coast, Anglesey and the Firth of Forth, but they can also be spotted along the East coast as the birds migrate back to Africa from late summer.

Helping terns

Coquet island is a haven for thousands of seabirds as well as being home to the only breeding colony of roseate terns in the UK. These 'Red-listed' birds are at very real risk of extinction from our shores without your help.

Gulls commonly mistaken for terns

There are two species of gull that, when in summer plumage, may be mistakenly identified as terns. These are the black-headed and Mediterranean gulls. Both gulls can be found inland as well as along the coast.

Black-headed gulls

Black-headed gulls are our most common small gull and are commonly found inland as well as on the coast. Typically found in flocks, these gulls often come shrieking when people feed the ducks at their local pond. In summer, adults are easily distinguished by their dark chocolate heads, that from a distance can look black.

Identification (adult in summer plumage)

  • Dark chocolate brown “hood”
  • Silvery grey wings
  • Dark dull red bill
  • Blunt tail
  • Dark red legs

Where to look

Black-headed gulls are found throughout the UK and breed in colonies on lakesides, marshes, moorland, wetlands and the coast. They can be seen inland following farmers’ tractors and in park ponds or lakes.

Mediterranean gulls

Until the 1950s Mediterranean gulls were a very rare visitor to the UK but they have become more widespread, particularly in the southern half of the UK. Unlike black-headed gulls, Mediterranean gulls have a truly black head.   

Identification (adult in summer plumage)

  • Jet black “hood”
  • Pale silver wings with no black markings
  • Bright red bill, shorter and thicker than black-headed gull
  • Blunt tail
  • Bright red legs
  • Larger and stockier than black-headed gull

Where to look

The Mediterranean gull is mainly found along the east and south coasts of England and most of the UK’s breeding population nest within black-headed gull colonies at these coastal wetlands. But they can also be found inland in small numbers wherever black-headed gulls gather. So wherever you see a black-headed gulls, it’s worth keeping an eye out for its rarer cousin!

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