Black Tern

Range Map
Chlidonias niger

Black Terns breed in freshwater marshes across most of Canada, the northern United States and much of Europe and western Asia. Today’s taxonomists recognise two subspecies of Black Tern:

  • C. n. surinamensis: Some scientists believe this subspecies should be separated into its own species. These birds breed in North America and spend winters along the coasts of Central America and northern South America. 
  • C. n. niger breeds in Europe and Asia and spends winters in Africa.

I enjoyed meeting these birds on South Padre Island (Texas) in the spring of 2021, while they were headed north to raise the next generation of Black Terns. Capturing images of Black Terns in flight is a tricky proposition. Their movements are so airy and buoyant; they easily pop in and out of the frame. I spent some time learning this the hard way, while visiting them on their breeding grounds at Malheur NWR in southeastern Oregon. If observation is the only goal, it is exceptionally entertaining to watch these birds forage on the wing.

Studies show that since 1966 the population of Black Terns has declined by 2% a year, reducing the overall populations by 57% between that time and 2014. Factors such as loss of habitat (draining wetlands for agriculture) and pesticide runoff seem to be the likely causes of the decline.

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