Sandwich Tern

Thalasseus sandvicensis (Latham, 1787) TE SANTE 6110
Family: Charadriiformes > Laridae

A summer visitor to the UK, this shaggy-crested tern breeds exclusively on the coast in colonies, from the Isles of Scilly to Orkney.

A few Sandwich Terns can be seen in British and Irish waters during the winter months but most leave during autumn for the coast of West Africa.

Around 2,000 Sandwich Terns are ringed at their British and Irish breeding colonies each year; the BTO Online Ringing Report records several individuals reaching ages in their late twenties and covering distances on migration in excess of 4,000 km to their wintering locations.


Sandwich Tern identification is often straightforward. The following article may help when identifying Sandwich Tern.


Listen to example recordings of the main vocalisations of Sandwich Tern, provided by xeno-canto contributors.

Flight call


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Status and Trends

Population size and trends and patterns of distribution based on BTO surveys and atlases with data collected by BTO volunteers.


This species can be found on the following statutory and conservation listings and schedules.



The Sandwich Tern population has remained relatively stable over the period covered by seabird censuses, with a moderate increase of 33% between 1969–70 and 1985–88 being followed by a shallow decrease of 15% up to the Seabird 2000 Census (1998–2002) (Ratcliffe et al. 2000). Results are not yet available from the most recent Census (Seabirds Count 2015–2021), but annual monitoring by the Seabird Monitoring Programme suggests that the relative stability of the population has continued to at least 2019 (JNCC 2022).


Sandwich Terns breed in a relatively small number of large colonies scattered around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Sandwich Tern is a regular wintering species, albeit it in very small numbers, along the North Sea coast southwards from the Firth of Forth and more regularly along the English south coast and around the Channel Islands. In Ireland records were clustered around Strangford Lough in the northeast and inner Galway Bay in the west.

Occupied 10-km squares in UK

European Distribution Map

European Breeding Bird Atlas 2


Colonies can move annually in response to changing conditions. Consequently, the distribution change map is marked by a mix of gains and losses, although overall a 22% range contraction is apparent since the 1968–72 Breeding Atlas.

Change in occupied 10-km squares in the UK


Sandwich Terns are mostly summer visitors and passage migrants in spring and autumn, although small numbers winter on the south coast.

Weekly occurence of Sandwich Tern from BirdTrack
Weekly occurrence patterns (shaded cells) and reporting rates (vertical bars) based on BirdTrack data. Reporting rates give the likelihood of encountering the species each week.


Information about movement and migration based on online bird portals (e.g. BirdTrack), Ringing schemes and tracking studies.

An overview of year-round movements for the whole of Europe can be seen on the EuroBirdPortal viewer.


View a summary of recoveries in the Online Ringing Report.

Foreign locations of birds ringed or recovered in Britain & Ireland

Foreign locations of Sandwich Tern ringed or recovered in Britain & Ireland
Encountered in: Winter (Nov-Feb); Spring (Mar-Apr); Summer (May-Jul); Autumn (Aug-Oct)


Lifecycle and body size information about Sandwich Tern, including statistics on nesting, eggs and lifespan based on BTO ringing and nest recording data.



View number ringed each year in the Online Ringing Report


Feather measurements and photos on featherbase


For information in another language (where available) click on a linked name

Gaelic: Steàrnag-mhòr
Welsh: Môr-wennol Bigddu
Catalan: xatrac becllarg
Czech: rybák severní
Danish: Splitterne
Dutch: Grote Stern
Estonian: tutt-tiir
Finnish: riuttatiira
French: Sterne caugek
German: Brandseeschwalbe
Hungarian: kenti csér
Icelandic: Þaraþerna
Irish: Geabhróg Scothdhubh
Italian: Beccapesci
Latvian: cekulzirinš
Lithuanian: margasnape žuvedra
Norwegian: Splitterne
Polish: rybitwa czubata
Portuguese: garajau
Slovak: rybár sivý
Slovenian: kricava cigra
Spanish: Charrán patinegro
Swedish: kentsk tärna


Interpretation and scientific publications about Sandwich Tern from BTO scientists.


Causes of change

Although the population has remained relatively stable, annual productivity is highly variable (JNCC 2022) and predation by foxes may be a major driver affecting productivity and causing abandonment of some colonies (Ratcliffe et al. 2000)


Peer-reviewed papers
Sandwich Tern. Dennis Atherton / BTO

Relative roles of static and dynamic abiotic conditions as drivers of foraging behaviour in breeding Sandwich Terns

2022 | Fijn, R.C. Thaxter, C.B., Geert Aarts, G., Adema, J., Middelveld, R.P. & van Bemmelen, R.S.A. Marine Ecology Press

Links to more information from

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