Roseate tern Sterna dougallii

Identification Tips:

Adult alternate:

Adult basic:



Similar species:

When identifying terns it is safest to use a combination of field marks. The Roseate Tern breeds at scattered coastal locations in the eastern United States. It migrates over the ocean and is rarely encountered except at the breeding colonies. It is most similar to the Arctic, Common, and Forster's terns. During the breeding season, May and June, it can told from the other species by its mostly black bill (red in Arctic, half orange/red in Forster's and Common), pinkish-white underparts (gray in Common and Arctic and white in Forster's), and paler gray upperparts. Later in the summer, the bill can become half pink or pinkish-red with a dark tip similar to the bills of Common and Forster's terns. At any time of year the wing pattern is a helpful field mark. The underwing pattern of the Roseate Tern lacks the dark trailing edge of the other species with only the outermost primaries having dark areas near the tips. The upperwing of the Roseate Tern lacks the dark wedge of the Common Tern. At rest, the tail of the Roseate projects farther beyond the wings than the Common Tern. The tail is all white in the Roseate Tern and lacks the black inner or outer webs of the other species. Juvenile Roseate Terns can be told from the other species by the dark forehead (white in the other species), black legs (orange to brown in the other species), and scaly black markings on the back (brown wash in Common and Forster's and fainter dark markings in Arctic). Immature Roseate Terns are trickier to identify but the long tail and wing pattern are helpful. The larger Sterna terns (Royal, Elegant, Caspian) have orange or red bills, much larger bodies, broader wings, shorter tails, black legs, and ragged crests at rear of head. The Sandwich Tern is larger and has a yellow tip to the bill.