Sterna paradisaea (Arctic tern) 

Arktiese sterretjie [Afrikaans]; Unothenteza (also applied to Common tern) [Xhosa]; Noordse stern [Dutch]; Sterne arctique [French]; Küstenseeschwalbe [German]; Gaivina-árctica [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Charadriiformes > Family: Laridae > Genus: Sterna

Sterna paradisaea (Arctic tern)   

Arctic tern in non-breeding plumage, Pelagic trip off of Cape Town, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ©]


Distribution and habitat

Breeds from North America to the White Sea of Russia, heading south in the non-breeding season to the Southern Ocean and adjacent cold sea in the Humboldt Current passing South America and the Benguela Current passing southern Africa. Within southern Africa it is uncommon off the west coast, while more scarce further out to sea and off the southern and eastern coast of the region.

Distribution of Arctic tern in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Movements and migrations

Migratory, with some performing of the longest migrations of any bird; it is mainly passage migrant through southern African waters, occurring from September-January.


Mainly eats small fish, doing most of its foraging by rapidly flying over the sea, hovering once it spots prey before plunge-diving into the water.


Not threatened.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town. 



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