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Alaska Department of Fish and Game


Bird Viewing
Alaska's Birders' Birds — Aleutian Tern


Aleutian Tern

Photo of an Aleutian tern The Aleutian tern (Onychoprion aleutica) frequently associates with the Arctic tern, which it closely resembles. While both species sport a black cap, the Aleutian tern may be distinguished by its white forehead (although juvenile Arctic terns also have white foreheads). During breeding season, the Arctic terns have bright red bills, feet, and legs while those of the Aleutian tern are black.

Feeding primarily on small fish, the Aleutian tern will locate them by sight and use one of three fishing techniques. It may swoop and pick from the surface of the water, hover and dive, or sit on the surface and dip. An excellent flyer, terns also snatch insects in mid-air.

The Aleutian tern breeds in wide ranging coastal colonies only in Alaska (from the Kasegaluk Lagoon along the northwest coast to Glacier Bay) and eastern Siberia. The largest colony (an estimated 1/3 of the population in Alaska) is believed to nest on the Yakutat Forelands in the Gulf of Alaska.

The winter range of the Aleutian tern is largely unknown. Although Alaskan and Siberian populations are not well monitored, both are thought to be in decline.

Possible Viewing Areas

  • Yakutat – nest on the Yakutat forelands at Black Sand Spit
  • Homer – nest at boggy area east of the base of Homer spit by end of airport runway
  • Kodiak – colonies found at the head of Womens, Middle, and Kalsin Bays
  • Nome – breed at Safety Lagoon
  • Izembek National Wildlife Refuge – Grant Point at Izembek Lagoon
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