White-fronted Tern

Did you know?

Striata is from the Modern Latin word striatus for streaked or striped. The scientific name for the White-fronted Tern comes from the barred upperparts of the juveniles' plumage.

White-fronted Terns have several calls, from the short 'krek' noise while in the nesting colony that makes the colony very noisy, to the 'rasping yawn' of the alarm call such as when a predator attacks the colony.
Facts and Figures
Research Species: 
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Breeding season: 
October to February.
Clutch Size: 
One to two.
26 days
Nestling Period: 
33 days
Conservation Status
Basic Information
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What does it look like?

The White-fronted Tern has grey back and wings with white everywhere else except a black cap. When in breeding plumage, the black cap extends from the crown down to a line parallel with the bottom of the eye but not all the way to the top of the beak, and down the back of the neck. In non-breeding plumage, the cap does not extend so far leaving the forehead white. The tail is grey and deeply forked, extending past the wing tips. In non-breeding plumage, the White-fronted Tern's beak is black as are the legs and feet. In breeding plumage, the legs and feet are a deep red or mottled red and black. The juvenile has strong barring on the wings.

Similar species: 

The Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii) is similar when in non-breeding plumage but it is a bit smaller and there is only a small overlap in the ranges of the two species. The Common and Arctic Terns (Sterna hirundo and S. paradisea) in their non-breeding plumage are also very similar but they have shorter bills and greyer upper parts.

Where does it live?

The White-fronted Tern is distributed along the south-east coast of Australia, and in New Zealand. They can occur as far north as Bribie, Moreton and Stradbroke Islands in Qld, and all around the coast to the Coorong and the south coast of Kangaroo Island in SA. In Tasmania they are widespread from the Furneaux Group down the east coast to Boat Harbour and Cockle Creek. The White-fronted Tern is the most widespread tern in New Zealand.


The White-fronted Tern occurs in coastal seas and exposed rocky costs. They can be found also in sandy beaches of sheltered coasts such as bays, harbours, estuaries and lagoons (this is less frequent in Australia than New Zealand).

Seasonal movements: 

Most White-fronted Terns breed in New Zealand and then disperse after the breeding season (October to February), with some migrating to Australia for the winter. The movements of the terns that breed in Tasmania are not known.

What does it do?

White-fronted Terns forage mostly on fish on, or just below, the surface of the water, preferring turbulent water in or just beyond the surf zone, or near rocks and reefs. They dive from 6-10 m above the surface and can submerge to about 50 cm.


White-fronted Terns build their nests in colonies that may contain several hundred or thousand breeding pairs, and frequently in association with other species. Colonies can be on islets, reefs, cliffs, sand dunes and beaches or shingle bars. The nest is usually a scrape in the sand or soil, with no nesting material so the one or two eggs are laid directly on the surface. Both sexes incubate and all the sitting birds will face the same direction - into the wind. It is thought that White-fronted Terns mate for several years and possibly even for life.

Living with us

Nesting colonies of White-fronted Terns can be disturbed by human activity, and even vandals in some cases.

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