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Sandwich Tern

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Summer migrants arriving in April and leaving in September. Whilst here they can be seen patrolling the sea just off shore for sand eels.


Photograph by: 
Peter Orchard

Sandwich Tern: fishery patrol

Post date: Thursday, 30 April, 2015 - 00:00

In mid summer Brownsea Island is one of the best places in the country to see sandwich terns (Sterna sandvicensis). There are scattered colonies elsewhere in the British Isles but here in Dorset they nest right in front of the hides on the Brownsea Lagoon. 

Although yet another white sea bird with a black head the sandwich tern is much more streamlined than a gull. It is a fishing bird that dives in to the shallow sea for small fish (mainly sand eels) and is usually seen in flight patrolling the sea just off shore; you will never see one swimming on the water. At first they can be difficult to separate from the more numerous common tern but with practice you can tell they are a bit larger and have a black bill rather than red. When on the ground their untidy array of sticking out head feathers is also diagnostic. Along with common terns they can be seen around Poole Harbour and along the sandy beaches of Studland and Swanage. 

They are very noisy birds and quite bad tempered, quite readily squabbling amongst each other and using dreadful language! They nest close together on stony or sandy islands in shallow areas of water and the close proximity of their neighbours leads to these disputes. 

They are summer migrants arriving towards the end of April and setting off back south in September. 


The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Sites List Distribution Map Distribution Map Some Charts Some Photographs Original Tweets Relatives Guidance Notes
Common Name Sandwich Tern
Scientific Name Sterna sandvicensis
Status Local
Interest Level
Species Family Terns
  • 01 - January
  • 02 - February
  • 03 - March
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 10 - October
  • 11 - November
  • 12 - December
Preferred Environment
  • Harbours, estuaries and lagoons
  • Open sea
Look for Large fishing terns with black bills
Additional Identification Notes
  • Although migratory birds some individuals seem to stay around Poole and Portland Harbours all winter
  • Not a common British species but there is a good nesting colony on Brownsea Island lagoon
  • Larger than the common tern, with ruffled feathers on its head and a black bill and legs