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#ABARare – Elegant Tern – New Jersey

On September 2, Tom Boyle discovered an apparent Elegant Tern at the Sandy Hook Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area, known more widely as Sandy Hook, in Monmouth County, New Jersey.  Pending acceptance, this is a first state record for New Jersey. 


photos by Sam Galick, used with permission

Sandy Hook is about an hour south of New York City, off of Exit 117 on the Garden State Turnpike (toll road).  Take NJ-36 east all the way to the entrance of the park. 

The bird was initially found at the end of Fisherman's Trail, past the tidal cut with a large flock of Common Terns.  As of today (9/3) it has been seen in the vicinity of the "false hook", a tidal shoal at the tip of the peninsula.   

When looking for the bird, please be aware of the string-line fences blocking off the tern-skimmer colony on the point.  The bird can be seen well from the publicly accessible parts of the beach.

Elegant Tern has a breeding range restricted to southern California and the Baja states of Mexico, in fact 90% of the worldwide population nests on Isla Rasa in the Gulf of California.  It has a strong history of vagrancy though, particularly in the last 20 years, and is considered an irregular fall vagrant on the Pacific coast with exceptional records as far north as British Columbia.

Reports in the Atlantic are fewer, and mostly concentrated in the last 10 years.  Prior to 2001 there were only two records, in Texas (1889) and Virginia (1985), but the last decade has seen at least 5 confirmed records – most from Florida – including one from Chatham, Massachussetts in 2002, along with a small handful of possible reports and hybrids (with Sandwich Tern). 

In addition to these reports, Elegant Tern has been recorded several times in the Old World in France, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Ireland, and one amazing record from South Africa.  

More information on Elegant Tern vagrancy is available here.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

Latest posts by Nate Swick (see all)

  • What about the numerous records of presumed Elegant Terns from the UK, including one from my old patch, Stanpit Marsh – ?

  • I didn’t mention those because I couldn’t find any confirmed records, but I can edit to include. Am I wrong in thinking there are no current Elegant Tern records in the UK? Seems like it’s just a matter of time!

  • You know, this bird looks unusual for an Elegant Tern. The bill is thick and does not narrow in the typical way that Elegant Tern bills do. The face pattern appears odd as well, with such a big indent of white below the eye. The crest is also not as shaggy as typical. In every way that this bird is unlike a typical Elegant, it is more Royal Tern like. I think it would be worthwhile for the committee and birders watching it to assess whether it may be a hybrid Royal x something. In fact some Atlantic Elegants have been quite typical, but many are odd looking and suggest that they are in fact hybrids of some type. The other unusual thing is that from what I recall, that few if any Elegant Terns have the classic rose coloration on their underparts. Right now Elegants are nice and rosy, so why are the vagrants not rosy? It all strikes me as unusual, but keep in mind that any overexposure and you lose the rose color in a photo.

  • Tony Leukering

    Actually, I don’t have any problem with the bird. When I first saw the pix, I thought that the bill was on the thick-based end for the species and wondered about Elegant x Royal. However, having studied the bird for an hour in a great variety of lighting conditions and from many angles, I got over any qualms about it. First, because though subtle, nearly the entire bird’s underparts were washed with a peachy-salmon color. My experience has shown that digital (at least) photography often does a poor job at capturing such subtle coloration (I know that my sunset pix rarely come out as nice as the actual sunset, missing the subtle pinks more than anything else). Additionally, not every Elegant Tern has what we think of as the classic Elegant Tern bill shape, as amply evidenced by (at least) figures 60 and 62 in the Olsen and Larsson terns guide (Terns of Europe and North America).

    My take is that the New Jersey bird, which is a first-cycle (and more pictures of which can be seen here [ and almost certainly a male.

  • The bird is still on Sandy Hook. I took these pics yesterday 09/09/12:

    more here:

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