Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Arctic Tern - Sterna paradisaea
LARIDAE Members:
Search Common:                 Search Scientific:
General Comments To see this species in North Carolina, one must take a pelagic trip in late spring, or less likely in fall. Though the Arctic Tern nests very commonly across the Arctic region, and it winters over 10-12,000 miles away in waters off southern South America, its passage to and from the breeding and wintering grounds takes it far off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. There are only a handful of records along the immediate coast, most probably birds that were exhausted or sick; however, there are actually ten far inland records. Unlike with the Roseate Tern, the Arctic Tern is not a rare bird offshore, but it is often missed nonetheless, especially in fall. Arctics often migrate with small flocks of Common Terns, and, on a rocking boat, separation of the two can be difficult unless seen and photographed at close range.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Transient, essentially offshore. Offshore -- uncommon in spring, and rare in fall; status in fall was somewhat unsettled until recent years. Essentially seen well offshore, beyond the sight of land; most records are off Oregon and Hatteras inlets, as most trips originate from these locations. Seldom reported off the southern coast, which is farther to the west of the main north-south migration route. Very rare to rare along the immediate coast, mostly in spring. Two well inland records: an adult photographed at Lake Waccamaw (Columbus) on 12 May 2015* [Chat 79:135 link] [Chat 80:13 link], a few days after the passage of Tropical Storm Ana; and one at Buckhorn Reservoir (Wilson), 15 Sep 2018 (after Hurricane Florence). Main occurrence is mid-May to early Jun, with a peak in the last 10 days of May; and mid-Aug to early Oct, with a peak in early Sep (perhaps owing to a concentration of trips around the Labor Day holiday). There are several records into mid-Oct. One seen on a pelagic trip off Cape Lookout on 13 Apr 1993 [Chat 58:64 link] is remarkably early, and another photographed on the beach at Fort Macon SP (Carteret) on 25 Apr 2018 is rather early. Peak counts: 33, off Hatteras Inlet (Dare), 3 Jun 2000; 30, offshore, 10 Sep 1979; 27 on two dates. Peak counts from shore: 13 in eastbound flight from Cape Hatteras Point, 13 May 2022; 6 in eastbound flight from Cape Hatteras Point, 25 May 2021.
Piedmont Very rare storm-carried visitor. Eight records: one at a parking lot in Shelby on 22 Sep 1989 (after Hurricane Hugo) [Chat 54:76 link]; one at Roanoke Rapids Lake on 19 Sep 2003 (after Hurricane Isabel) [Chat 68:52 link]; one at Falls Lake (Wake) on 25-26 May 2017 [Chat 81:89 link], [Chat 82:56 link]; one at Harris Lake (Wake), 15 Sep 2018 (after Hurricane Florence); one at Falls Lake (Wake), 18 Sep 2018 (after Hurricane Florence); one photographed at Oak Hollow Lake (Guilford), 21 May 2020 (after Tropical Storm Arthur); one photographed at Lake Norman (Mecklenburg), 20 Jun 2020; and one photographed at Lake Crabtree (Wake) on the unusually late date of 31 Oct 2023.
Mountains No records.
Finding Tips Your best bet, by far, is to take a pelagic trip out of Oregon or Hatteras inlets in the latter half of May. Arctics are missed more often than seen, but there are usually one to several seen each spring on the trips.
* to **
Attribution LeGrand[2024-02-10], LeGrand[2023-03-14], LeGrand[2022-09-12]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.