Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Arctic Tern - Sterna paradisaea
LARIDAE Members:
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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 few records along the immediate coast, most probably birds that were exhausted or sick; there are actually three 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 at close range.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
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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 along the immediate coast, mostly in spring. One well inland record: 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. 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). One seen on a pelagic trip off Cape Lookout on 13 Apr 1993 [Chat 58:64 link] is remarkably early, and there are several records into mid-Oct. Peak counts: 33, off Hatteras Inlet, 3 Jun 2000; 30, offshore, 10 Sep 1979; 27 on two dates.
Piedmont Accidental to casual storm-carried visitor. Three 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]; and one at Falls Lake (Wake) on 25-26 May 2017 [Chat 81:89 link].
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.
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Attribution LeGrand[2017-12-07], LeGrand[2016-06-01], LeGrand[2015-12-24]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
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NA Maps
(source NatureServe)

View NatureServe distribution maps for Sterna paradisaea