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Amazing Arctic Terns

Arctic Tern Arctic Tern Credits: Gillian Day

The Arctic tern is a seabird which visits the shores of the UK each summer to breed.  It is a stunning looking bird with a sleek black head, a bright red beak and a long forked tail like a swallow, in fact some people call it the 'sea swallow' because of its similarity to this bird.  

Record Breaker

The Arctic tern is famous for its amazing ability to migrate from one end of the globe to the other each year.  In summer it flies to the most northern parts of the world, including the Arctic and some northern parts of the UK, where it breeds, and then, as summer here draws to a close, it migrates all the way to Antarctica, in the Southern Hemisphere where summer is just beginning.  In fact it holds the record for the longest recorded migration of any creature on the planet.  Scientists have discovered that it is not unusual for Arctic terns to fly 45,000 miles each year!  This means that in its lifetime an Arctic tern could fly 1.5 million miles!  Wow!


Flying all that way seems like a lot of effort, so why does it do it?  Well maybe it just loves summer!  By avoiding winter, and instead opting for two summers it benefits from long days and very few hours of darkness (or no darkness at the poles) all year round.  This means it can feed and hunt for food all day and night, which increases its chances of survival and makes it easier to keep its chicks topped up with tasty snacks.  This habit of following the sun also means that the Arctic tern sees more hours of daylight every year than any other creature on the planet. 


Pecking Power

If you think that all this sunshine would make the Arctic tern laid back and chilled out, you would be wrong.  The Arctic tern is also famous for fiercely defending its territory.  These birds will dive bomb anything that gets too close to their nest, and that includes you!  Visitors to Arctic tern colonies often take along umbrellas and hats to protect themselves from attacks from the Arctic terns.  Although the birds cannot seriously hurt a person, their beaks can draw blood if they manage to peck your head.  So if you are lucky enough to visit an Arctic tern colony maybe you could follow in the footsteps of one of the wardens at a colony who many years ago, rather ingeniously, re-enforced his bobble hat with half of a football for protection.  Stylish!