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Elegant tern

Thalasseus elegans

Photo: Elegant tern
State of endangerment
Animal description
The Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) is a captivating seabird, renowned for its slender frame, graceful flight, and distinctive appearance. This medium-sized tern is a member of the Laridae family, which encompasses gulls, terns, and skimmers. The species primarily breeds along the western coasts of the Americas, from the southern United States down through to Mexico, and has been known to wander widely, with sightings as far afield as Europe and Africa.

One of the most striking features of the Elegant Tern is its bill - a long, thin, and sharply pointed instrument, colored a vivid orange that can sometimes appear almost reddish, depending on the season and the bird's diet. This contrasts beautifully with its pale grey back and wings, and the stark white of its underparts. During the breeding season, the Elegant Tern sports a distinctive black cap that extends from the bill over the top of the head and down to the nape, highlighting its large, dark eyes. Outside of the breeding season, this cap becomes patchy, giving way to a more mottled appearance.

The Elegant Tern is slightly larger than its close relative, the Common Tern, with a body length typically ranging from 39 to 42 centimeters (15 to 16.5 inches) and a wingspan of about 76 to 84 centimeters (30 to 33 inches). Its tail is deeply forked, adding to its streamlined silhouette and aiding its agility in flight. This tern is adept at soaring and gliding over the ocean's surface, often hovering before plunging into the water to catch small fish, which constitutes the bulk of its diet.

Elegant Terns are highly social birds, especially during the breeding season when they form large, dense colonies on sandy beaches or islands. These gatherings are not only a spectacle but also a critical part of their life cycle, as the terns nest closely together for protection against predators. The female typically lays one to two eggs, which both parents then incubate and care for, demonstrating a strong pair bond and shared parenting duties that are characteristic of the species.

Communication among Elegant Terns involves a variety of calls and displays, which serve to strengthen pair bonds, signal alarm, and coordinate movements within the colony. Their vocalizations, a sharp, high-pitched "kerr" or "keer," are often heard during their acrobatic flight displays, which are a hallmark of tern courtship rituals.

Conservation efforts for the Elegant Tern are ongoing, as their breeding sites are vulnerable to human disturbance, predation, and the impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels and increased storm frequency. Protected areas and conservation measures are critical to ensuring the survival of this species, which, despite challenges, continues to grace the skies with its elegance and beauty.

In summary, the Elegant Tern is a remarkable bird, not only for its striking appearance and graceful flight but also for its complex social behavior and the challenges it faces in a changing world. Its presence along coastlines serves as a reminder of the delicate balance within ecosystems and the importance of conservation efforts to preserve the natural world.
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