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Aleutian tern

Onychoprion aleuticus

Photo: Aleutian tern
State of endangerment
Animal description
The Aleutian tern (Onychoprion aleuticus) is a captivating and relatively elusive seabird that belongs to the family Laridae, which includes gulls, terns, and skimmers. This species is particularly noted for its remarkable long-distance migratory behavior and its unique breeding range, primarily concentrated in the coastal areas of Alaska and Siberia, with some colonies found in the Aleutian Islands, from which it derives its name.

Physically, the Aleutian tern possesses a graceful and slender build typical of terns, with a body length ranging from approximately 33 to 36 centimeters (13 to 14 inches) and a wingspan that spans about 76 to 78 centimeters (30 to 31 inches). The bird is distinguished by its sharp, pointed wings and deeply forked tail, which aids in its agile flight and maneuverability over coastal waters in search of food. The plumage of the Aleutian tern is predominantly a delicate shade of grey on the back and wings, with a strikingly white underside. Its head is adorned with a black cap during the breeding season, which contrasts beautifully with its white forehead and cheeks. One of the most notable features of this bird is its bill, which is slender, sharp, and colored a vibrant red, adding a splash of color to its otherwise muted appearance.

Aleutian terns are known for their long and perilous migratory journeys, which can span thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean. They breed in the northern parts of their range during the summer months, where they form colonies on sandy or gravel beaches and islands. These colonies are often shared with other tern species, where they construct shallow nests on the ground to lay their eggs. The Aleutian tern demonstrates a strong fidelity to its breeding sites, returning to the same locations year after year to nest and raise its young.

Diet-wise, Aleutian terns are piscivorous, primarily feeding on small fish and marine invertebrates, which they skillfully catch by diving into the water from flight. Their hunting technique is a spectacular display of precision and agility, as they hover over the water to spot their prey before plunging in to capture it with their sharp beaks.

Despite their beauty and fascinating behaviors, Aleutian terns face several threats that have led to a decline in their populations. Habitat loss due to human activity, predation by introduced species on breeding islands, and climate change are among the significant challenges they encounter. These factors have contributed to making the Aleutian tern a species of concern for conservationists, who are actively studying their populations and migratory patterns to develop strategies for their protection.

The Aleutian tern remains a symbol of the wild and pristine environments of the North Pacific, captivating birdwatchers and researchers alike with its elegance, mysterious migratory journeys, and the resilience it displays in the face of changing environmental conditions.
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