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Terns: An Overview

Terns are small seabirds related to gulls. In contrast to the languid gull, terns contend for the title of most superb aerialists in the avian realm. Terns are capable of hovering in the air like a hummingbird, flipping over backwards, and then slicing down into the water like a pelican. Although they may scavenge occasionally, terns prefer to hunt small fish which they spot from the air and plunge into the water to catch.


Nate Catterson

Alaska is just one stop on the long journey for terns, but it is an important one.  Terns come to Alaska to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. They nest on the ground on beaches, gravel bars, and lake shores, laying their eggs in shallow depressions called scrapes. The eggs are camouflaged to look like little rocks and are hard to see.

Terns breed in several areas around Yakutat, primarily in mixed Arctic and Aleutian Tern colonies, including the largest known colonies on Black Sand Spit and near the Italio river. The Aleutian tern colony on Black Sand Spit on the Yakutat Forelands is one of the largest in the world, historically supporting up to 3,000 Aleutian Terns; current population estimates are less than 1,000, but continue to represent a significant portion of the global population.  Aleutian terns were documented on the Spit as far back as 1923, and the colony appears to be stable despite apparent declining populations elsewhere within Alaska.  In part because of the large population of Aleutian Terns found there, Black Sand Spit is identified an Audubon Important Bird Area.

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