information on the biology of species and the ecology of habitats found around the coasts and seas of the British Isles

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.
Only coastal and marine records shown



Sterna sandvicensis is the largest tern found regularly in the UK, with a body length of up to 43 cm and a wing span of 90 cm. The rump, underparts and back of the neck are mostly white, and the upperparts are pale grey. In breeding adults the forehead is black and the lores are white with a small black spot in front of the eye and black streaks underneath the eye. Dark outer primary feathers form a wedge on the upper wing. Black feathers at the back of the crown are elongated and raised, forming a shaggy crest which is raised when excited. The bill is black with a yellow tip. In summer the forehead, lores and crown are jet black. Juveniles have a dusky head, barred upperparts and black bill without the yellow tip.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

Colonies of Sterna sandvicensis are scattered all around the British coast.

Global distribution



The Sandwich tern is a summer resident of the British Isles, breeding colonially on sandy beaches and low-lying or rocky islands near salt or brackish water.

Depth range


Identifying features

  • Shaggy black crest at back of crown.
  • Forehead black in breeding adults, mottled white in winter.
  • Yellow tipped black bill.
  • Grey upperparts, white underparts.
  • Forked tail.

Additional information

Terns feed by hovering over the surface of the water before plunge diving, mainly for fish but their diet may also include molluscs. Please note that distribution maps are compiled using records for both breeding and wintering populations. For more specific distribution and abundance records please refer to maps compiled by The British Trust for Ornithology, available at

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    This review can be cited as:

    Sweet, N. A. 2008. Sterna sandvicensis Sandwich tern. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. (eds) Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews, [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 17-08-2018]. Available from:

    Last Updated: 13/10/2008