In Scope: Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern Drawing


And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly and swarm with living creatures, and let birds fly over the earth in the open expanse of the heavens. ~ Genesis 1:20


    Raucous noises emanate from a colony of seabirds on a sandy coastline.  Look a little closer at this boisterous sounding group and you'll find some beautifully graceful aerialists that hold the title for the birds with the longest migration of any animal on record.  If you guessed the Arctic Tern, you're right !

    If you've been privileged enough to see these birds, you've observed one of the most fantastic marvels of God's creation.  These amazing flyers are some of the most interesting of all Arctic birds I think.  Although, because of their long migration leads them to their winter home in Antarctica, they are also residents of the South Pole as well.

    This month we'll be exploring all there is to know about the Arctic Tern to wrap up our study of the Arctic.  Let's learn some amazing facts about these species.



Seagulls Ocean  


   This time In Scope, I'm featuring the well beloved American Robin not just as a spring bird, but as a year round friend.  Its my hope that all of us will be able to get to know these faithful friends just a little bit better, through all the seasons....

Amazing Facts

    Did you know....


  • Arctic Terns are residents at both poles, both in the Arctic and Antarctic.  They spend the spring and summer in the Northern Hemisphere, traveling south in our autumn to the Southern Hemisphere to spend the rest of the year there.  Since the seasons are opposite ours in the Southern Hemisphere, when we are experiencing fall and winter and shorter days, the Southern Hemisphere is experiencing spring and summer and longer days.  Because of this fact, the Arctic Tern experiences a 'second summer' in Antarctica(although the weather is very cold at the poles) and sees the most daylight hours of any living creature.


  • Young Arctic Terns make the long migration journey from the Arctic to the Antarctic soon after fledging.  Once they reach the Antarctic for the first time, the youngsters usually spend two years there before traveling back to the Arctic.


  • Arctic Terns are long-lived creatures.  The oldest recorded Arctic Tern lived to be 34 years old.


  • At hatching, Arctic Tern young are covered in either brown or grey down.  Chicks within the same brood may be either color.


  • Although Arctic Terns spend most of their lives in flight, some of them do become almost flightless during the annual molt of their wing feathers in the winter.  The molt happens very quickly, so they don't stay flightless for long.

  • One of the most remarkable things about the flight of the Arctic Tern is their ability to hover.  Hummingbirds are the only other species of bird that can do this.

Where to see an Arctic Tern?

    Arctic Terns are mainly seafaring birds and aerialists, so you won't see this species visiting your backyard or nearby park, unless your backyard is their Arctic habitat !  I've never had the privilege of seeing these beautiful birds in real life.  I can only imagine what an experience it is for those who have !  Arctic Terns spend most of their time at sea.  They do come on shore for breeding, nesting and raising their young.  If you want to try to see Arctic Terns, your best chance at viewing them near Washington State would be from a boat in an offshore area (in the ocean) during migration.


Zoom In: Species Profile

Arctic Tern Drawing 


      The scientific name of the Arctic Tern is Sterna paradisaea.  This medium sized bird is around 14 to 17 inches long.  The male and female of the species look alike.  Both are primarily gray and white with a black cap.  In the winter, their appearance does change slightly, with their orange-red bill and feet turning a dark charcoal black and their black cap becoming white on the front of their heads, while retaining the rest of their black cap.  Arctic Terns also have forked tails.

    The voice of the Arctic Tern is a high pitched, harsh call that some say sounds like 'tee-ar' or 'kip-kip-kip-tee-ar'.

    The preferred habitat of the Arctic Tern is on the Arctic tundra during the summer season, also beaches and coastlines, especially islands.  They are a sea-going tern, spending most of their time out at sea.

    The diet of the Arctic Tern consists mainly of fish, but they also eat shrimp, krill, small invertebrates and insects.

The nest of the Arctic Tern is a shallow indent on the ground, sometimes in the sand, with grasses, other plant material, shell fragments and even small rocks used as a lining.  Arctic Terns may also nest on bare rock.  Arctic Terns are colony nesters, and large groups of them may nest on an island or on a sandy spit.  The female lays 2 speckled greenish-tan eggs.  Both male and female help in the incubation process by taking turns sitting on the eggs.

    Arctic Terns spend the spring and summer in the Arctic region including the Aleutian Islands and Northern Alaska.  They spend the breeding season in Northern Canada, British Colombia, Manitoba and Quebec.  Arctic Terns spend the spring and summer in Maine and even Massachusetts.  During migration, Arctic Terns migrate at sea along the coasts of North and South America.  In our fall and winter, they spent their days in the Antarctic, where they experience a second summer.  Their epic migrations have been the object of much study.  Most people agree that Arctic Terns travel about 22,000 to 25,000 miles (one way) to reach their destination.  During migration time, it is possible to observe Arctic Terns off the Washington coast.


    This month's activity is an Arctic Tern coloring page, available in a free PDF.  To download, simply
click here, then print and enjoy !


   Imagine a group of Arctic Terns out at sea.  They fly to and fro over the frothy white-capped waves.  Diving down in the air to grab fish off the surface of the water, their toes barely touch the water before they back in the air again with lunch in their bill.  The ocean deep ~ the magnificent terns, the wind that blows hard against their lightweight feathery bodies ~ all of these things remind me of the majesty and beauty of God.  I am reminded of how great He is when I look at the vast oceans that He created.  I see His handiwork in the intricate detail of a bird's feather or the iridescent scales of a fish.  Imagining sniffing in the welcome scent of the salt air, I start to think about the many scriptures in the Bible about the ocean and the sea.  A few in particular come to mind. 

Habakkuk 2:14 Amplified says,

    "But [the time is coming when] the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."

Psalm 36:6 Amplified

    Your righteousness is like the mountains of God, Your judgements are like the great deep, O Lord, You preserve man and beast.

Seashells Drawing


   I also think about God's great love for us.  He is the Supreme Ruler, the Great Creator God, The Righteous, Holy One, the Lord Almighty; but He is also our Heavenly Father and Jesus is the Savior of the world.  How great it is to be so loved by Someone so Powerful and yet so Loving as the Lord Himself.  I'll close this month's In Scope with one of my favorite hymns.  Probably many of you know it, but I write it here anyway for you and I to contemplate.  Its called The Love of God by Frederick M. Lehman and it goes like this:

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled
And pardoned from his sin.

Refrain: O love of God, how rich and pure!

How measureless and strong !

It shall forevermore endure-The saints and angels' song.

When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall;
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call;
God’s love, so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam's race
The saints and angels song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

beach shells waves


    Join me next month when we feature another one of God's amazing birds In Scope !

    By, Jessi Wasell