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Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea)

Arctic terns, Magdalenefjord

Arc­tic terns in Mag­da­le­n­efjord.

Descrip­ti­on: The Arc­tic tern is the only tern that breeds in Spits­ber­gen, and it is thus unmistaka­ble. Fema­le and male look the same to human eyes. Being 35 cm long and weig­hing 100-125 g, the Arc­tic tern is a rela­tively small bird.

Arctic tern and Great skua

Arc­tic tern and Gre­at skua, Lief­defjord.

Dis­tri­bu­ti­on / Migra­ti­ons: The Arc­tic tern has a cir­cum­po­lar dis­tri­bu­ti­on in the sub- and high Arc­tic. It is the nort­hern­most bree­ding tern spe­ci­es and the bird with the lon­gest annu­al migra­ti­on: The bree­ding sites in the north and the win­te­ring sites as far south as coas­tal Ant­arc­ti­ca are up to 15,000 kilo­me­tres apart! Arc­tic terns return to their bree­ding sites in late May or ear­ly June and stay the­re until late August or ear­ly Sep­tem­ber.

They breed in the vicini­ty of sett­le­ments, such as near the cam­ping site and near the shore of Advent­fjord in Lon­gye­ar­by­en or insi­de Ny Åle­sund. If you come to Spits­ber­gen in the sum­mer, you should know what you have to expect near Arc­tic tern colo­nies (see below; Mis­cel­la­ne­ous).

Bio­lo­gy: Arc­tic terns breed in more or less den­se colo­nies on flat tun­dra, most­ly near the shore and on the beach or on small islands. They are often seen diving down onto the water sur­face to catch small fish, crustace­ans or insects.

Arctic terns on nest, Ny-Ålesund

Arc­tic terns on nest, Ny-Åle­sund.

They will start bree­ding as soon as the nes­ting are­as are free of snow, but may lose a who­le sea­son if the snow melt comes very late. The nest is in a litt­le depres­si­on direct­ly on the ground. Here, the fema­le lays two eggs (occa­sio­nal­ly one or three), which both par­ents sit on for about three weeks. The chick will lea­ve the nest after three days, stay ano­t­her three weeks with its par­ents and then beco­me inde­pen­dent.

Arctic tern with chick, Magdalenefjord

Arc­tic tern with chick, Mag­da­le­n­efjord.

As with other sea birds, Arc­tic terns have a low repro­duc­tion rate, but a high life expec­tancy. One indi­vi­du­al was seen 21 years after rin­ging and had obvious­ly chan­ged much less in appearan­ce than the bio­lo­gist who had rin­ged it.

Mis­cel­la­ne­ous: Arc­tic terns defend their colo­nies fier­ce­ly against any intru­ders: pre­da­ting birds, Arc­tic foxes, Polar bears and humans are all dive-bom­bed without hesi­ta­ti­on and occa­sio­nal­ly scrat­ched by the sharp beaks. This can annoy Polar bears to such a degree that they deci­de to retre­at. If you come under attack from Arc­tic terns, lea­ve the area quick­ly. Do not try to pho­to­graph the nest (same as with any other bird). The birds will attack the hig­hest part of you with a lot of noi­se. The easy solu­ti­on is to hold up your tri­pod, wal­king stick, shoo­ting iron, or part­ner calm­ly over your head – but never hit the­se small and vul­nerable birds; don’t even wave wha­te­ver you hold up, it is sim­ply not necessa­ry but may harm the birds. As Arc­tic terns defend their colo­nies so effec­tively, other birds such as Com­mon eider like to breed amongst them. If annoy­ed too much by per­sis­tent aggres­sors such as foxes or bears, the terns may try to find ano­t­her place in the next sea­son.

The total popu­la­ti­on num­bers around 10,000 bree­ding pairs (feels rather like 10,000,000,000 near aggres­si­ve colo­nies); the popu­la­ti­on trend is unknown.

Air strike on tourist in Ny-Ålesund

Air strike on tou­rist in Ny-Åle­sund.


By the way:

New book

my new book is in print and it can now be orde­red 🙂 it is a pho­to book with the tit­le “Nor­we­gens ark­ti­scher Nor­den (3): Die Bären­in­sel und Jan May­en”, with Ger­man text Click here for fur­ther details!


This and other publishing products of the Spitsbergen publishing house in the Spitsbergen-Shop.

last modification: 2019-02-17 · copyright: Rolf Stange