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10

Whiskered Tern

(Chlidonias hybridus)
Alternate name(s): "Marsh Tern"
Size: 24-28 cm; wing span: 57-63 cm
Weight: 60-110 g

Similar
species

Description     Classification     Distribution     Sightings     Photos     Breeding     Nest     Eggs     Behaviour     Food     Call/s

Physical description

Click here for a physical description

Taxonomy, classification

See Whiskered Tern at Wikipedia .

Range, habitat, finding this species

Click here for information on habitat and range

Sightings

Click here for sighting information

Photos

Race "javanicus"

ADULT

BREEDING

Sex unknown

Frontal view of Whiskered Terns in breeding plumage; click on image to see, for comparison, Australian Pelicans
(photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Atkinson Dam, near Lowood, QLD, October 2019]

Whiskered Terns in breeding plumage, frontal view on the left (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Atkinson Dam, near Lowood, QLD, October 2019]

Near-lateral view of a Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage on the shore of an ephemeral lake; click on image to see it as part of a small flock
[Goran Lake, NSW, January 2022]

Lateral/near-dorsal view of Whiskered Terns in breeding plumage resting on the shore of an ephemeral lake
[Goran Lake, NSW, February 2012]

Lateral/near-dorsal view of Whiskered Terns on the shore of an ephemeral lake, one with its wings stretched; in the background, for comparison, a Red-necked Avocet
[Goran Lake, NSW, February 2012]

Lateral view of two Whiskered Terns in breeding plumage, one perched, the other in flight (photo courtesy of V. Collins)
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2021]

Dorsal view of Whiskered Terns at an irrigation farm dam (photo courtesy of C. Hayne)
[Near Moree, NSW, 2012]

Frontal view of a Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage in flight, hovering just before dipping towards the surface of a fresh water lake
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, September 2010]

Frontal view of a Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage in flight, banking at an extreme angle
[Goran Lake, NSW, January 2022]

Near-frontal view of a hovering Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage (photo courtesy of J. Greaves)
[Marlgu Billabong, Wyndham, WA, January 2016]

Lateral view of a Whiskered Tern in flight, wings up
[Burren Junction Bore Bath, NSW, December 2015]

Lateral view of a Whiskered Tern in flight, wings down
[Goran Lake, NSW, February 2012]

Lateral view of a Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage in flight in a coastal habitat (photo courtesy of B. Hensen)
[Lee Point, Darwin, NT, June 2019]

Lateral view of Whiskered Terns in flight; two in breeding plumage, one in eclipse (photo courtesy of V. Collins)
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2021]

Near-dorsal view of a Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage in flight (photo courtesy of V. Collins)
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2021]

NON-BREEDING

Sex unknown

Whiskered Terns in non-breeding plumages (photo courtesy of P. Brown)
[McMinns Lagoon, near Darwin, NT, September 2018]

Whiskered Terns in various plumages (photo courtesy of P. Brown)
[McMinns Lagoon, near Darwin, NT, September 2018]

Lateral view of a Whiskered Tern in non-breeding plumage in flight (photo courtesy of V. Collins)
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2021]

Dorsal/ventral view of a Whiskered Tern in non-breeding plumage in flight
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2010]

Dorsal view of a soaring Whiskered Tern in non-breeding plumage
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2010]

IMMATURE/JUVENILE

Lateral view of an adult Whiskered Tern in non-breeding plumage (right), with an immature bird; note the adult bird's reddish legs
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2010]

Lateral view of an adult Whiskered Tern in non-breeding plumage (centre) with two immature birds
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2010]

Lateral view of an adult Whiskered Tern in non-breeding plumage (centre) with two immature birds, now hovering in flight
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2010]

Lateral view of a juvenile Whiskered Tern stretching its wings (photo courtesy of R. Plumtree)
[Lake Omeo, Benambra, East Gippsland, VIC, February 2017]

Lateral view of a juvenile Whiskered Tern begging for food (photo courtesy of R. Plumtree)
[Lake Omeo, Benambra, East Gippsland, VIC, February 2017]

Lateral view of a juvenile Whiskered Tern; in comparison with other young birds shown above, still begging for food from their parents, this bird's plumage indicates that it is much younger - yet it was found on its own, resting for many hours without any food intake
[Yarrie Lake, near Wee Waa, NSW, December 2022]

Lateral view of a preening juvenile Whiskered Tern
[Yarrie Lake, near Wee Waa, NSW, December 2022]

Lateral view of a snoozing juvenile Whiskered Tern
[Yarrie Lake, near Wee Waa, NSW, December 2022]

Near-dorsal view of a juvenile Whiskered Tern
[Yarrie Lake, near Wee Waa, NSW, December 2022]

Juvenile Whiskered Terns resting near a breeding colony on the edge of an ephemeral lake
[Goran Lake, NSW, January 2022]

3 different Whiskered Tern plumages: breeding (right), non-breeding (left) and juvenile
[Goran Lake, NSW, January 2022]

Lateral view onto the upperparts of a juvenile Whiskered Tern in flight (photo courtesy of P. Brown)
[Leanyer Swamp, Darwin, NT, October 2019]

Lateral view of a juvenile Whiskered Tern in flight (photo courtesy of P. Brown)
[Leanyer Swamp, Darwin, NT, October 2019]

Lateral/ventral view of a soaring juvenile Whiskered Tern
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2010]

Close-up near-dorsal/ventral view of a juvenile Whiskered Tern with its wings angled, just before going into a dive
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2010]

Lateral view onto the upperparts of a recently fledged Whiskered Tern banking in flight
[40 km S of Mungindi, NSW, January 2023]

Whiskered Tern chick resting in reeds (photo courtesy of R. Plumtree)
[Lake Omeo, Benambra, East Gippsland, VIC, February 2017]

Whiskered Tern feeding a chick "on the wing" (photo courtesy of R. Plumtree)
[Lake Omeo, Benambra, East Gippsland, VIC, February 2017]

Whiskered Tern feeding a chick (photo courtesy of R. Plumtree)
[Lake Omeo, Benambra, East Gippsland, VIC, February 2017]

Two Whiskered Tern chicks begging to be fed (photo courtesy of R. Plumtree)
[Lake Omeo, Benambra, East Gippsland, VIC, February 2017]

Dorsal view of a Whiskered Tern chick (photo courtesy of R. Plumtree)
[Lake Omeo, Benambra, East Gippsland, VIC, February 2017]

Whiskered Tern chick begging to be fed (photo courtesy of R. Plumtree)
[Lake Omeo, Benambra, East Gippsland, VIC, February 2017]

Race "hybridus"

Photos of Whiskered Terns, nominate race "hybridus", were taken by us in Europe.

Breeding information

Breeding season: Sep - Jan Eggs: 2 - 3 Incubation period: 18 - 20 days Fledging age: ca. 21(?) days

The breeding season depends on geographic latitude and on weather conditions. Given the right circumstances, e.g. after substantial inland rainfall, Whiskered Terns can, in principle, breed at any time of the year. In the tropical North the main breeding season is around February-April.

Nest building: Female & male Incubation: Female & male Dependent care: Female & male

Nest

"bungobittah", "lar", "malunna", "jindi" [bundjalung] = nest [Aboriginal]

Type: Basket Material: Grass stems, dry aquatic plants Height above ground: N/A

Whiskered Tern nest with 3 eggs inside (photo courtesy of D. Johnston)
[Near Baradine, NSW, 1980ies]

Distant view of a Whiskered Tern breeding colony on the edge of an ephemeral lake
[Goran Lake, NSW, January 2022]

Eggs

"boyanga", "booyanga", "derinya", "dirandil", "koomura", "mirk", "ngampu", "nooluk", "pateena", "pum-pum" = Egg; "dirundirri" = eggs [Aboriginal]; "gawu" = eggs [gamilaraay]

Size: 37 x 27 mm Colour: Off-white, with dark-brown speckles Shape: Tapered oval

The pattern and density of speckles can vary significantly.

Closer look at 3 Whiskered Tern eggs (photo courtesy of D. Johnston)
[Near Baradine, NSW, 1980ies]

Behaviour

Juvenile Whiskered Terns normally remain in the area where they have hatched (usually in inland freshwater wetlands) until they have moulted out of juvenile plumage into adult plumage. Only then they leave the area. This explains why one tends not to find juveniles in coastal areas.

Surprise detection of a juvenile Whiskered Tern (the small tern at the centre with the scalloped dark back), surrounded by two adults in non-breeding plumage and 3 other tern species, on a beach, away from where it must have hatched
(photo courtesy of B. Hensen)
[Lee Point, Darwin, NT, July 2018]

Whiskered Terns can congregate into substantial flocks of up to several hundred birds.

Flock of Whiskered Terns in breeding plumage resting on the shore of an ephemeral lake
[Goran Lake, NSW, December 2012]

Mob of Whiskered Terns resting on aquatic plants in a lake (photo courtesy of V. Collins)
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2021]

Small flock of Whiskered Terns in breeding plumage preening and resting collectively
[Goran Lake, NSW, January 2022]

Part of a flock of Whiskered Terns above an irrigation dam (photo courtesy of C. Hayne)
[Near Moree, NSW, October 2010]

Food, Diet

Like all terns, Whiskered Terns feed on fish, which they catch with their bills just under the surface of inland waters in a steep high-speed dive from considerable height. Seen by us to also take large insects, such as e.g. dragonflies.

Lateral view of a Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage with its catch, a fish
[Goran Lake, NSW, January 2022]

Lateral view of a Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage that has picked up small prey from wheat chaff by the shore of an ephemeral lake
[Goran Lake, NSW, February 2022]

Near-dorsal view of a Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage with its catch, a fish
[Goran Lake, NSW, January 2022]

Lateral view of two Whiskered Terns in breeding plumage, one perched, the other delivering a small fish
(photo courtesy of V. Collins)
[Narrabri Lake, NSW, November 2021]

Near-dorsal view of an adult Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage, top, having just delivered a fish to its dependent young on the water
[Goran Lake, NSW, February 2022]

Whiskered Tern picking prey off mud on the wing (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Gold Scrub Lane, Lake Samsonvale, QLD, December 2019]

Whiskered Tern taking off with its prey (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Gold Scrub Lane, Lake Samsonvale, QLD, December 2019]

Slightly blurred near-dorsal view of a Whiskered Tern that has just caught a dragonfly; the hunting technique used to catch the insect was identical to that employed for catching fish

Call(s)/Song

For this species we have recorded the following call(s)/song. The interpretation of their meaning is our own; comments and suggestions for improvement are welcome.

whstern_20220116_4.m4a javanicus
(NW NSW)
Contact call? © MD
whstern_20220116_3.m4a javanicus
(NW NSW)
Contact calls? © MD
whstern_20220116_2.m4a javanicus
(NW NSW)
Contact calls? (Q&A) © MD
whstern_vc_20220130.m4a javanicus
(NW NSW)
Contact calls? (Q&A; in-flight) © VC
whstern_20220116.m4a javanicus
(NW NSW)
Contact calls? (Q&A; mob) © MD
whstern_vc_20211110_2.m4a javanicus
(NW NSW)
Various (hunting & feeding) © VC
whstern_20220130.m4a javanicus
(NW NSW)
Various (juveniles? in-flight) © MD

More Whiskered Tern sound recordings are available at xeno-canto.org .

These pages are largely based on our own observations and those of our contributors. The structure of these bird pages is explained HERE. For more salient facts on any bird species please refer to a field guide.

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If interested, please CLICK HERE. Credits to contributors are given HERE.