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Tern, White-winged

Identify and index birds in Southern Africa
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Johan van Rensburg
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Tern, White-winged

Unread post by Johan van Rensburg » Sat Jan 05, 2013 11:55 am

White-winged Terns, Chlidonias leucopterus, are migrant birds that fly south to Africa during Europe's winter months. By the time we get to see them in South Africa they are mostly out of their breeding colours at which stage their bodies and heads are mostly matt black. In South Africa one usually finds them mixed in with Wiskered Terns on inland wetlands. Most birds arrive in southern Africa from August-November from their breeding grounds in central Asia. In February they begin to gather in flocks on the highveld before leaving the region by April.

This shot below shows a White-winged Tern with some remnants of its breeding colours remaining, having just arrived after its long-distance migration.


It mainly eats invertebrates and small fish, doing most of its foraging in flocks, flying upwind to catch flying insects before letting the wind carry it back so that it can repeat the process. It also regularly plunge dives for prey.

It can be confused with the Wiskered terns when Whiskered terns are in non-breeding colours. Whiskered terns breed in South Africa and the period where confusion is possible is quite brief. Perhaps the best field mark to distinguish the two from each other is the shape of the black band on the head. In the White-winged Tern it forms a vertical hoop over the crown of the head; in the Whiskered Tern it forms a horizontal hoop around the nape and the crown is white. The photo below shows this "earmuff". There are also differences in the patterns of the upper wing. In the White-winged the dark leading edge (visible in the first photo) and the whitish rump gives the bird a patchier appearance than that of the more homogeneously coloured Whiskered tern.

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