Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Black Tern - Chlidonias niger
LARIDAE Members:
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General Comments This is one of the few tern species in the state that is just a migrant, without a breeding or wintering population. Black Terns nest far inland in North America at freshwater marshes and lake shores. Because many such marshes, especially prairie "potholes", have been lost to farming, development, and possibly drought, global numbers of Black Terns have declined in recent decades, and this decline has been also evident in North Carolina. Though it does migrate across all parts of the state, it is seen mainly along the coast, and (for reasons seemingly unknown) a moderate population actually migrates to and from the breeding grounds far out to sea! The bulk of the spring migration seems to be directed northward through the middle of the continent, as the species is clearly less numerous in spring in the state than in fall. Along the coast and inland, Black Terns usually forage at ponds and impoundments, though they often forage in brackish water and occasionally at salt water at the coast.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G4G5
Coastal Plain Transient, though small numbers can be seen coastally during summer. Along the coast -- formerly fairly common to common in fall, but currently fairly common (and declining) in fall, and mostly uncommon to occasionally fairly common in spring. Tidewater -- mostly uncommon in migration; farther inland, rare to uncommon in migration at lakes and larger ponds (including sewage ponds), more numerous in fall than in spring; can be briefly and locally common after hurricanes. Mainly late Apr to early Jun, and mid-Jul to mid-Sep (departing early in fall), but many records in Jun and Jul. A few records to early Nov, but no conclusive records from Dec through Mar, though Pearson et al. (1959) mention several such winter reports. Peak counts: 650, Fort Fisher (New Hanover), 6 Sep 2017; 510, Kitty Hawk, 19 Aug 2009; 400, Wright Brothers Memorial, Kill Devil Hills, 1 Sep 2006 (after Tropical Storm Ernesto); 125, Goldsboro, 12 Sep 1996. Spring peak counts: 80 on a pelagic trip off Hatteras, 5 May 2023.
Piedmont Transient. Very rare in spring and uncommon in fall, mainly at lakes/reservoirs; casual to very rare elsewhere. Can be briefly fairly common to common after a hurricane. Mostly late Apr to mid-May, and mid-Jul to late Sep; a few records in mid-Jun, and as late as 28 Oct. Peak counts: 75, Falls Lake, 6-7 Sep 1996 (after Hurricane Fran); 41, Jordan Lake, 20 Jul 1988.
Mountains Transient. Accidental/casual in spring, with the only records being one along the New River at Piney Creek (Alleghany), 9 May 1998; and one in breeding plumage at Hooper Lane (Henderson) on 10 Jun 2013. Very rare to rare in fall, in the southern mountains; and accidental elsewhere in fall. Mainly late Jul to mid-Sep. Peak counts: 12, Lake Julian (Buncombe), 19 Aug 2009; 9, Lake Junaluska (Haywood), 8 Sep 2004 (likely storm-related); 8, Lake Julian, 31 Aug 2021; 8, near Brevard (Transylvania), 5 Sep 2022; 5, Jeffress Road in Henderson, also on 8 Sep 2004.
Finding Tips Formerly, swarms of Black Terns could be seen by the dozens hawking insects over the marshes and impoundments at Pea Island in fall. Nowadays, counts in the single digits or teens are more typical for a day of birding along the coast from Jul into Sep. They are still regularly seen around most coastal impoundments in this period. A few often rest with other terns on flats and pond margins. It is one of the more often seen terns on inland lakes, but even so, no tern species inland rates higher than "uncommon" status, and terns are usually not seen on a typical visit.
Attribution LeGrand[2023-08-10], LeGrand[2023-03-18], LeGrand[2023-03-14]
NC Map
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