Whiskered Tern

Did you know?

A whole colony of Whiskered Terns will quickly fly to mob or attack a predator or intruder, including humans. Other waterbirds often take advantage of this protection by nesting within the colony, particularly Hoary-headed Grebes. The terns however have been known to prey on the chicks of small grebes.

Varied; long hoarse 'kerch', 'kerrrk' or abrupt 'kittitt'.
Facts and Figures
Research Species: 
Minimum Size: 
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Breeding season: 
September to December, but varies.
Clutch Size: 
Two to three.
20 days
Nestling Period: 
23 days
Conservation Status
Associated Plants
Basic Information
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What does it look like?

The Whiskered Tern is a small, tubby marsh tern with a slightly forked tail. The Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage has a black crown and white cheeks and sides of neck. The upperparts, upperwings and tail are medium grey, the underparts dark grey to slate grey and the undertail is white with the underwings mainly white. The eye is brown and the bill and legs are red. The sexes are similar. Non-breeding Whiskered Terns are similar to breeding adults except the underparts are white, the forehead is white and the dark crown is streaked white. The lores (area between bill and eyes) and ear coverts are black while the bill and legs are also blackish. Young birds have a pale grey back, rump and upper wings, heavily mottled medium-brownish grey, especially along leading edge of inner wing, and the tail is pale grey, edged black. The Whiskered Tern is also known as the Marsh Tern or Black-fronted Tern

Similar species: 

The Whiskered Tern in non-breeding and juvenile plumage can be confused with the non-breeding and juvenile forms of the White-winged Black Tern, C. leucopterus, which is slightly smaller, slimmer and more compact. The Whiskered Tern has a slightly forked tail, appearing square-cut at the tip.

Where does it live?

In Australia, the Whiskered Tern is scattered in most regions of the mainland except for the arid zones.This species breeds in highly disjunct (separated) populations across southern Europe and Asia, in south-eastern Africa and Madagascar, and in Australia. It occurs as a migrant, vagrant or winter visitor throughout Europe, Africa and Australia.


The Whiskered Tern prefers shallow terrestrial freshwater wetlands, freshwater swamps, brackish and saline lakes, floodwaters, sewage farms, irrigated croplands and large dams.

Seasonal movements: 

Whiskered Terns are migratory and nomadic. In Australia generally, they are found on the coast and the interior, but are only vagrant in Tasmania. Breeding is mainly south of 25° S, being most numerous in the south-east interior. They are widely distributed throughout the mainland when not breeding. Large numbers of Australian birds migrate into Indonesia and South-East Asia, mainly via the Top End.

What does it do?

Whiskered Terns eat mainly small fish, amphibians, crustaceans, insects and their larvae. There are three main methods of feeding, plunging, dipping and hawking. Plunging involves a hover then dive, with wings raised, from 2 m - 4 m above water. They may also hover and dive to take insects in paddocks. Dipping means that they fly low over water, skimming the surface to take insects from on or just below it. Hawking is taking insects (up to 40mm long) on the wing; Whiskered Terns may hawk over dry plains.


The breeding season of the Whiskered Tern is erratic. They breed in loose colonies in large, often temporary, inland swamps and marshes. The nest is a rough raft of vegetation, either floating or moored. The sexes share nest-building, incubation and care of the young. A single brood is usually raised in a season.

Living with us

A whole colony of Whiskered Terns will quickly fly to mob or attack a predator or intruder. The clamour of their cries and the whirling white wings as they swoop down again and again can be a disconcerting experience, and Whiskered Terns will actually strike a person's head with their sharp beaks.

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