Royal Tern

Thalasseus maximus
Range Map

In San Diego, we will often find Royal Terns nesting in Elegant Tern colonies at the Saltworks (part of South San Diego Bay NWR). Royal Terns will feed only their own young, and given the crowded locations where they share space with large colonies of Elegant Terns (and others), this is a remarkable skill. When returning from foraging expeditions, every hungry chick within sight does its best to convince the parent bird it deserves to be fed.

Globally, there are but two subspecies of Royal Terns:

  • T. m. albididorsalis we find on the west coast of Africa.
  • T. m. maximus lives in North and South America.

Unless driven by powerful storms, these birds are seldom found far from oceanic coastlines. They usually feed in estuaries and shallow lakes near the ocean, but Royal Terns sometimes feed as far as fifty miles out to sea.

When I’ve taken part in nesting tern surveys, by far, most of the birds have been Elegant Terns. Probably because there is safety in numbers, a few Royal Terns find their way into the crowds. They stand out because of their larger size and their heavier orange bill. Another trait that sets them apart is the white skull top, giving them a “Bozo-the-Clown” appearance among the black-topped Elegant Terns in their breeding finery.

When I visited the Texas Gulf Coast in 2020 and 2021, I enjoyed meeting these birds too, but there were no Elegant Tern companions. Instead, they kept company with Sandwich Terns.

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