Sterna sandvicensis (Sandwich tern) 

Grootsterretjie [Afrikaans]; Amerikaanse grote stern [Dutch]; Sterne caugek [French]; Brandseeschwalbe [German]; Garajau [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 sandvicensis (Sandwich tern) Sterna sandvicensis (Sandwich tern) 
Sandwich tern, Kleinmond, Western Cape, South Africa. [photo H. robertson, Iziko ] Sandwich tern, Strandfontein Sewage Works, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ]

Distribution and habitat

Breeds from western Europe to the Caspian Sea and North America, heading south in the non-breeding season to South America, the Arabian Sea and the coast of Africa. It is common along the coastline of southern Africa, especially in Namibia and western South Africa, generally preferring mixed sandy and rocky shores.

Distribution of Sandwich 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

Palearctic breeding migrant, travelling down the west coast of Africa, getting to the Western Cape in September, after which it travels east, reaching Mozambique in December. It departs the earliest in the east, in late January and early February, while it leaves Namibia in April.


It mainly eats pelagic fish, crustaceans and molluscs, foraging by flying over the sea with its head pointed downwards; if prey is spotted, it momentarily hovers before plunge-diving from 5-10 metres above the water.


Technically southern Africa forms part of its non-breeding grounds, however in 2002 birds in the Western Cape were reported performing courtship displays, such as synchronised flying, calling in flight and allo-feeding, in the period from February-May at Koeberg, Dassen Island and Shaapen Island. At Robben Island a pair were reported to feed a chick; all this suggests that Sandwich tern either bred or attempted to breed in southern Africa in 2002.


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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