Arctic Tern

Sterna paradisaea Order: Charadriiformes Family: Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)
Sterna paradisaea Order: Charadriiformes Family: Laridae (Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)

The Arctic Tern, which sees more daylight than any other species on earth, nests along the Arctic Ocean (a few breed as far south as Cape Cod, Massachusetts and off the coast of Maine) and winters on the ice pack around Antarctica. The long journeys twice a year aren’t any more arduous than the long flights this bird makes every day, searching for and plunge-diving to catch fish. During the breeding season, every time a parent catches a fish, it must carry it back to the nest to feed the young. This tern’s buoyant, dainty flight seems effortless and almost fairy-like; birders are often taken aback by its loud, strident, raspy calls, not at all in keeping with its appearance, at least as far as human expectations go.

Their singleminded ferocity in defending their nest is also an unexpected surprise to many birders–they hit hard enough to draw blood. This as well as the remoteness of most of their nesting areas explains why far less work has been done researching their nesting habits than on the related Common Tern. But when I was in the Nome area of Alaska and in the much more urbanized Anchorage area in June 2022, I got to enjoy more Arctic Terns, many at very close range, than I think I’ve seen Common Terns in my entire life.

This species has an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records:

Arctic Tern: Longest migration of a bird. The Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) migrates the greatest distance of any bird species, breeding north of the Arctic circle and then flying south to the Antarctic for the northern winter and back again, a round trip of approximately 80,467 km (50,000 miles).

Banded individuals haven’t been captured at both ends of their range, so the Common Tern right now holds the record for the greatest distance flown by a bird. The Arctic Tern would almost certainly hold that record if it were more studied on the far ends of its breeding and wintering ranges. Terns hug coastlines for long stretches of their migratory routes allowing them to rest and to feed as they travel, so no tern has a prayer of beating the Bar-tailed Godwit’s record for the longest non-stop migration by a bird.

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