Whiskered Terns were once known as ‘Marsh Terns’, and this gives a clue to where they can usually be seen: they inhabit various freshwater and brackish wetlands in inland and coastal regions. They usually forage by flying between 5 and 10 metres above the water, patrolling back and forth over the wetland, periodically dipping down to the water’s surface where they snatch small insects and other invertebrates, or hawking for insects over the wetland vegetation; they sometimes even plunge-dive into water to catch small fish.
The Whiskered Tern is a small, tubby marsh tern with a slightly forked tail. The Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage has a black crown and white cheeks and sides of neck. The upperparts, upperwings and tail are medium grey, the underparts dark grey to slate grey and the undertail is white with the underwings mainly white. The eye is brown and the bill and legs are red. The sexes are similar. Non-breeding Whiskered Terns are similar to breeding adults except the underparts are white, the forehead is white and the dark crown is streaked white. The lores (area between bill and eyes) and ear coverts are black while the bill and legs are also blackish. Young birds have a pale grey back, rump and upper wings, heavily mottled medium-brownish grey, especially along leading edge of inner wing, and the tail is pale grey, edged black.
Varied; long hoarse ‘kerch’, ‘kerrrk’ or abrupt ‘kittitt’. Bird call recorded by: Stanislas Wroza
In Australia, the Whiskered Tern is scattered in most regions of the mainland except for the arid zones. This species breeds in highly disjunct (separated) populations across southern Europe and Asia, in south-eastern Africa and Madagascar. In Australia, it is migratory with birds moving north in winter to northern Australia and parts of New Guinea and Indonesia.
Marine, Salt Lake, Wetland
The Whiskered Tern prefers shallow terrestrial freshwater wetlands, freshwater swamps, brackish and saline lakes, floodwaters, sewage farms, irrigated croplands and large dams.
A whole colony of Whiskered Terns will quickly fly to mob or attack a predator or intruder, including humans. Other waterbirds often take advantage of this protection by nesting within the colony, particularly Hoary-headed Grebes. The terns however have been known to prey on the chicks of small grebes.
Whiskered Terns eat mainly small fish, amphibians, crustaceans, insects and their larvae. There are three main methods of feeding, plunging, dipping and hawking. Plunging involves a hover then dive, with wings raised, from 2 m – 4 m above water. They may also hover and dive to take insects in paddocks. Dipping means that they fly low over water, skimming the surface to take insects from on or just below it. Hawking is taking insects (up to 40mm long) on the wing; Whiskered Terns may hawk over dry plains.
The breeding season of the Whiskered Tern is erratic. They breed in loose colonies in large, often temporary, inland swamps and marshes. The nest is a rough raft of vegetation, either floating or moored. The sexes share nest-building, incubation and care of the young. A single brood is usually raised in a season.
Marine, Salt Lake, Wetland