Identification of Common and Forster's Terns in Spring

By bjacobs October 23, 2019
Common Tern (Norway - Peter Prokosch)

Adult Common Tern, breeding plumage. (Courtesy Peter Prokosch, through GRIDArendal, at

Bill Rowe and Josh Uffman

This article was written on behalf of the Missouri eBird Team and the MBRC.

Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) is not common in Missouri.  It is easy to misidentify, especially in spring and because of plumage variability in the similar Forster’s Tern (Sterna forsteri), which is much more widespread and regular here. Due to frequent misidentifications, eBird has now set the filter for Common Tern at zero in spring, statewide; this means that all eBird submissions will need photos and/or clear written details in order to be validated. Here is an outline that we hope will help.

I. SPRING ADULTS IN FLIGHT: Breeding-plumage Forster’s is distinctive, with a full black cap, pure white underparts, long tail streamers, orange- to red-based bill, and primaries that are silvery-white above with no dark markings. At very close range, you may be able to see that the tail streamers are dark on the inner web, white on the outer web, and that the tail is pale gray, leaving a white rump area between the pale gray back and tail. (These features may be visible even when perched.)

Common Tern has a full black cap with light gray underparts that can be hard to discern in flight, especially at poor angles or in shadow. The outer primaries are somewhat grayer than on Forster’s, typically bordered by a dark streak or wedge that cuts across the wing at about mid-primaries; this wedge, however, may be hard to see in spring. At very close range, you may be able to see that the tail is white (not pale gray, thus no rump contrast) with dark outer webs (not inner) to the outer tail feathers.

II. SPRING ADULTS PERCHED: With a good look, perched birds can be easier (Fig. 1 and 2). (1) The gray underparts of a Common (vs. white in Forster’s) may be easier to discern. (2) The longer tail streamers of adult Forster’s usually project beyond the wingtips; those of Common do not. (3) The primaries of Forster’s, even when folded, still look very pale gray or whitish; those of Common tend to look darker gray, though not strikingly so. (4) The legs of Forster’s are notably longer than those of Common, a difference easily seen if the birds are close together and similarly posed. (If you see a tern that has really super-short legs, you may have the first state record of Arctic!).

III. NON-DIAGNOSTIC FEATURES: (1) On average, a Forster’s bill averages stouter than a Common’s, more orange in color, and with more black on the outer part (up to half). These are “soft” indicators, however, and should not be the only basis of identification. (2) The underwing pattern is pretty similar in both. (3) Forget about any differences in silhouette or flight behavior; they are too subtle to be helpful.

IV. EXPECTED DATES: Common Tern does not usually appear in Missouri until May, although there are a few late April records. Forster’s Tern sometimes arrives in March and is regular through both April and May. This distinction should be kept in mind.

V. ADDED COMPLICATIONS: The most troublesome problem is that sub-adult Forster’s look different from adults and can be more like Common.

(1) A first-summer (one-year-old) Forster’s will have dark outer primaries. Fortunately, these birds usually have the unique face pattern of immature and non-breeding adult Forster’s, with a white crown and nape and bold black cheek patch.

(2) BUT we also get second-summer (two-year-old) Forster’s that may still have the dark gray primaries along with a partial or full black cap and orange/red-based bill. Their tails may be shorter too.  These birds, we suspect, are the source of many Common Tern records. They can be separated by their white underparts, the absence of a dark wedge bordering the gray primaries in flight, their longer legs if perched, and, with close looks or photographs, their tail pattern (see I). See Figs. 3, 4, and 5, below.

(3) Note also that there is such a thing as a first-summer Common Tern, but this will resemble a fall bird, with a wrap-around dark “shawl” on the head, a dark shoulder bar, and a dark secondary bar. They have white underparts, while second-summer Common is more like the adult and is getting gray.

The points mentioned above for adults are covered well by several of the standard more-thorough field guides, like Sibley, National Geographic, and Stokes, but none of these illustrate the second-summer Forster’s that can be so annoyingly similar to Common. This is shown only in specialty guides like Terns of Europe and North America, by Olsen and Larsson.

The main takeaway? Look at terns very carefully, use multiple features in making your identification, take the best notes you can, with photos if possible, and use “Common/Forster’s” in eBird whenever you are uncertain.

If you wish, feel free to write us for our opinions — or guesses.

Fig. 1. Adult Forster’s Tern, breeding plumage. Note the pale silvery-gray to whitish primaries, the long tail streamers extending past the wingtips, the long legs, and the pure white underparts. Secondarily, note the rather stout-based bill, orange at the base, with the outer 40% or so black. (Courtesy of David Mundy)

Fig. 2. Adult Common Tern, breeding plumage. Note the darker gray primaries, tail streamers about equal to the wingtips, shorter legs, and pale gray breast (contrasting, on this bird, with the white cheek). Secondarily, note the slightly thinner, redder bill with a bit less black at the tip.Courtesy Peter Prokosch, through GRIDArendal, at

Fig. 3: Presumed second-summer (two-year-old) Forster’s Tern, 8 August, with full black cap of adult plumage but dark primaries, suggesting a possible Common Tern. However, note long legs and clean white underparts, and additionally the bill structure and color. Tail streamers are longer than wings in this bird, also indicating Forster’s, but that is not always the case with second-summers. The appearance of a dark bar at the shoulder, which might also suggest a Common Tern, is an illusion; it’s just the shadowing of the upper feathers on the lower ones. (Courtesy of Douglas Hommert)

Fig. 4: Another presumed second-summer Forster’s Tern in flight, 2 June. Tricky because shadowing of underparts suggests a light gray body color; in full sun, it would be all white. See Fig. 5. (Courtesy of Karen Davis)

Fig. 5: Same bird as Fig. 4. Closeup photo shows white outer webs and dark inner webs of outer tail feathers (streamers); thus it is Forster’s without doubt. These two photos show the value of getting multiple shots of a confusing bird, at different angles. (Courtesy of Karen Davis)