A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Elegant Tern is a fairly common summer visitor to Sonoma County, best seen at Bodega Bay. Birds may arrive as early as late June but more commonly start showing up at the beginning of July and usually stay until around the end of October. Although adults can sometimes be seen feeding immature birds shortly after their arrival here, Elegant Tern does not breed in the county. Older sources will list this bird as Sterna elegans rather than Thalasseus elegans.

Fairly easily recognized by its shaggy black crest; long, slender, slightly drooping, yellow-orange bill; and moderate size (being considerably smaller than Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia). In winter (non-breeding plumage) the crown becomes white, but the shaggy back of the black crest is retained, making the bird look like a balding man with long, uncut hair at the back (the bird at right above is nearly finished molting into breeding plumage, with just a few white feathers left on the crown. This bird also has an unusually long, lush crest). Juveniles, have a speckled crown, but show the shaggy look at the back of the head. Juveniles have slightly paler, somewhat more yellow (rather than orange) bills than adults, and, perhaps most obvious, they are mottled with black on the back and wings (photos above and below).    

Sometimes confused with Caspian Tern or Forster's Tern, but a good look is all that's required to tell the birds apart. Actually closest in appearance to Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximis), but that bird does not occur in Sonoma County. Compared with Caspian Tern, Elegant Tern is a smaller bird (about 17 inches or 43cm), with a much more slender orange bill, a white forehead in winter plumage, and a distinctive shaggy crested look. Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri), also a markedly smaller bird than Caspian Tern (at about 15 inches or 38cm) has a deeply forked tail; a black cap in breeding plumage that lacks the shaggy look; a lighter, more slender bill than Elegant or Caspian Tern; and red feet rather than black feet. In winter plumage, Forster's Tern is easy to pick out because it loses its black cap almost entirely while retaining black only around the eye, making it look like it has a "black eye." Note that Forster's Tern is the only tern normally present in Sonoma County during the winter months.   

Finally, a note of caution: As with the gulls, the terns can be variable and plumages change with age and season. While I believe the general points above to be accurate and useful, terns can be quite confusing, not least because they are often seen at a distance and on the wing, or at a distance and hunkered down on the ground. No one field mark is wholly reliable. If you're serious about learning terns, I recommend the detailed discussions in the Kaufman guides listed below. (That said, Caspian Tern and Elegant tern are usually not big identification problems among the terns in Sonoma County. The biggest mistake is probably assuming that all summer (breeding plumage) terns here that look like a Forster's Tern actually are Forster's Terns without really taking a good look to see if you might have a Common Tern, or less probably, an Arctic Tern. While chances are good that it is a Forster's Tern, it's worth looking to be sure.) 

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 64 (as Sterna elegans)

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 138

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 218

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 244

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 279-280

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 188 (as Sterna elegans)

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 184 (as Sterna elegans)

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 201

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 90

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 150-152 (as Sterna elegans)

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 272-284 (notes on identifying terns generally); 278, 281, 284

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 136-137, 138

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 37

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 190

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 104 (as Sterna elegans)

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 203 (as Sterna elegans)

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 356

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 433

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Elegant Tern



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


For comparison: Caspian Tern--Note heavy, dark red bill; black at the tips of the undersides of the wings. Even in flight, Elegant Tern's slimmer, orange bill should be visible. Elegant Tern lacks the dark on the underside of the primaries seen here. Elegant Tern also has a much more deeply forked tail.

Size comparison: Elegant Tern in the foreground, Caspian Tern a few feet behind. In addition to its greater size, note Caspian Tern's large, squarish head; heavy, red bill.

For comparison: Forster's Tern (winter plumage). Note shorter, lighter bill (black in in non-breeding, winter plumage); mostly white head with black around the eye; red feet

Juvenile at left, adult nearly fully molted into breeding plumage to the right

Bodega Bay, July, 6, 2011

Juvenile Elegant Tern, Bodega Bay, July 6, 2011

Note: Speckled back and wings; speckled cap; bill somewhat more yellow than that of adult;

Elegant tern

Thalasseus elegans

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated May 31, 2013

Reported occurrence in Sonoma County