From the Rarities Committee’s files: The Elegant Tern in Britain and Europe

Published on 06 February 2019 in Main articles

By Andy Stoddart and Chris Batty

Abstract Elegant Terns Thalasseus elegans have been occurring in Europe since 1974 and have reached Britain several times since 2002. Their identification has proved problematic: the species is virtually confined to the Pacific coast of the Americas; some of the birds recorded in Europe have shown potentially atypical characters; and the spectre of hybridisation has never been far away. However, DNA analysis of three of these European birds, which proved to be genetically pure Elegant Terns, has brought new clarity to their identification. This paper sets out the history of the British and European records and documents the long process of uncovering their true identity and admission to the British List.

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Britain’s first Elegant Tern, Dawlish, Devon, 18th May 2002. Note the larger size than the accompanying Sandwich Terns and the long, slightly decurved bill, orange for most of its length but a paler yellow-orange towards the tip. The crest is also longer and more shaggy or ‘spiky’ than those of the Sandwich Terns. The pre-alternate moult included five (inner) primaries. Paul Marshall