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Bird Gallery

Royal Tern

Royal Terns
Royal Terns (breeding and non-breeding plumages)

© David McDonald

Sterna maxima

Family: (Laridae) Gulls and Terns

Preferred Habitat: Beaches and coastal marshes.

Seasonal Occurrence: Common winter through spring; abundant in summer and fall. Nest in our area.

Notes: One of our largest terns, the Royal Tern is mostly white all over with a pale gray mantle and a long, slender orange bill. There is a narrow, shaggy, black band around the back of the head and the forehead is white. In breeding plumage, the forehead becomes black giving the bird a complete black cap.
Juvenile birds resemble nonbreeding adult birds, but their bill is smaller and yellowish and their backs have variable amounts of dark spotting.

Royal Terns are colonial nesters that prefer to nest on islands. They build their nests directly on the beach, scooping out a shallow depression. Female Royal Terns typically lay a single egg amidst a tightly packed colony of a thousand nests or more. Parents share incubation duties for 28-35 days. Within 2-3 days after hatching, the young leaves the nest and joins others in group called a crèche. Though a crèche may have thousands of chicks, the
parents and offspring are able to recognize each other by voice, so that adults feed only their own young. Royal Terns nest in our area and make regular use of North Deer Island.

Abundant in summer, the Royal Tern is commonly spotted on our coastal beaches. Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, Sea Rim State Park, and Galveston Island are good places to observe Royal Terns.
-- Vicki Stittleburg