One Good Tern!…………Or is it?

Cayenne Tern at Siesta Key.

Cayenne Tern at Siesta Key.


This morning I birded Pine Lake Preserve in Bontia Beach. I had a great morning. I retuned home for lunch and casually checked the Florida Rare Bird alerts in Ebird. I found that an Elegant Tern had been found and well photographed on Siesta Key near Sarasota yesterday. I headed right out to try for the bird, two hours north of us. I arrived at Siesta Key Beach and began searching for the bird. I found three other birders searching as well. They hadn’t found the bird but informed me that photographers had seen and photographed it just two hours ago. We split up and searched the abundance of gulls, skimmers and terns. Only ten minutes later I found a “Tern”. I alerted the other birders which had increased by several and they came to see the bird. My problem with the bird was that the bill was yellow/green. The Elegant photographed yesterday had a bright orange bill. The number of birders continued to increase until there were well over a dozen birders watching the tern. I finally suggested that this was not an Elegant Tern. Though I had never seen one, this bird matched the ID of a CAYENNE TERN! There was considerable discussion about the identity of the bird. There were good points on all sides and I asked if anyone knew any of the birders who had found the bird and seen it well yesterday. One did, and she said one of them was on the way. A woman arrived who declared the bird the same as the bird they saw yesterday. I still couldn’t by it. I had studied the photos in depth and knew the bill color was all wrong. Many birders left, convinced they had seen the Elegant. They had indeed seen something special. I finally got back home, studied all my photos and checked the internet on both Elegant and Cayenne Terns. It was abundantly clear that this was a CAYENNE TERN! Here is the problem. The ABA/AOU currently don’t accept that the two birds are different species. Most of the rest of the world already separates them and they are considered two species. The stand of the ABA/AOU is that though they agree there are differences in the DNA, they don’t know If it is enough to declare them separate species. In my humble opinion, they should be split. You be the judge. Check out my photos and tell me if you think you are looking at a Sandwich Tern. Please let me know your thoughts.
Cayenne Tern

Cayenne Tern


Cayenne Tern, note the long yellow-green bill, shaggy black crest and darker hue and larger size than the Sandwich Terns.

Cayenne Tern, note the long yellow-green bill, shaggy black crest and darker hue and larger size than the Sandwich Terns.

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4 Responses to One Good Tern!…………Or is it?

  1. Margaret Haas says:

    Hi John, Right after you left Siesta Key those of us still there realized thanks to birder Laurie that most of us were looking at the Cayenne type Sandwich Tern. I didn’t know how to reach you to tell you this. I am so relieved to see you reached the same conclusion!!! Perhaps Laurie did see the Elegant too but the birder you and I and Scott saw was the Cayenne. Contact me about the SRQ bird list. Your surname namesake!

    • Margaret,
      Again, so nice to meet you! I really wish we could have seen the Elegant Tern, but this is also a very special bird. With any luck, the ABA will come to its senses and designate it a full species. I hope, since you are so close, that you will still get to see the Elegant Tern. Please let me know if you do! Best, John

  2. Ken says:

    I agree on Cayenne also John. I’ve never seen an Elegant Tern with a bill that was anything but brilliant orange, thin and downturned. The bill on this Tern does not fit what I have ever seen. Good attention to details(as usual!). Congrats !

  3. Thanks Ken! Unfortunately for me I was incorrect. Several tern experts have chimed in and all agree the bird is indeed an Elegant Tern. Shai Mitra explained to me in detail (minute details) why it is an Elegant vs. Cayanne. He does feel there is a good chance there is some hybridization in this bird with a Sandwich Tern. So far it is still under scrutiny. It was a great experience from the standpoint of figuring it all out, and getting to meet some really nice birders!

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