Migration

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) Kop van Noord-Holland, The Netherlands. May.

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) Kop van Noord-Holland, The Netherlands. May.

The Arctic Tern (above) is the long distance champion of migration among all animals. It breeds in Greenland during the long summer days, flies south to Antarctica in the fall, and back to Greenland in time for spring. This is a round trip of about 50,000 miles (80,467 km).

Migration allows birds to nest in an environment that may not be hospitable for year-round living. The drivers for migration are usually better availability of food and good nesting habitat.

Migration can be a short trip from mountain lakes in summer to the coast in winter or it can be a challenging voyage of thousands of miles guided by the stars, land features, and perhaps by sensing the Earth’s magnetic field.

Arctic Tern migration routes: southbound in yellow, northbound in white. Courtesy of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

Arctic Tern migration routes: southbound in yellow, northbound in white.
Courtesy of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

The image above shows the route taken by 11 Arctic Terns tracked with geolocators by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

Two routes were used on the southbound trip (yellow lines) skirting the coasts of Africa and South America. All birds followed a similar return route (white), making the trip in less than half the time of the outbound journey (40 vs. 93 days).

In a 30-year lifetime, arctic terns travel a distance equivalent of going to the Moon and back 3 times.

LEARN MORE ABOUT TERNS

KIDS QUESTION: In the museum exhibit, we asked: What do terns and gulls have in common?

The answer is: They are in the same family
Terns are in the same family as gulls and skimmers. This family is called Laridae. Terns are generally smaller than gulls and dive for their food whereas gulls generally feed at the surface.