Terns of North America: a photographic guide

By Cameron Cox

Princeton University Press, 2023

Pbk, 208pp; 325 colour photographs

ISBN 978-0-691-16187-7; £22.00

Long-time birders interested in tern identification will remember Olsen & Larsson’s Terns of Europe and North America (Bloomsbury, 1995); indeed, more recent birding converts are also likely to be familiar with the Olsen & Larsson book, given that no comparable identification guides have been published in the intervening 28 years. However, Cameron Cox has been working on plugging the gap – at least for North America.

The opening 17 pages of Terns of North America comprise introductory sections, which provide an overview of a variety of topics, such as taxonomy and migration. Species accounts follow, and form the bulk of the book, running to 179 pages. The focus is on identification and, although some information is given on other topics such as behaviour, this is generally limited to aspects that aid identification. Readers will struggle to find any photographs that are anything less than excellent, which might be expected for photographic guides published in the modern era, particularly for a species group such as the terns, which are attractive subjects and usually relatively straightforward to photograph. 

What does the North American scope of the book mean for Western Palearctic birders? Taxonomy follows the IOC List, with 19 species covered – 16 of which are on the British List, plus Black Skimmer Rynchops niger, Black Noddy Anous minutus and Brown Noddy A. stolidus. White-winged Black Tern Chlidonias leucopterus, a vagrant to North America, is included, but Greater Crested Tern Thalasseus bergii and Little Tern Sternula albifrons, which have both been recorded, are not.

It quickly became apparent that the book is aimed at those less experienced in tern identification, which is also made clear by the author in the opening paragraphs. By limiting the geographic scope to species recorded in North America, it generally avoids having to cover tricky Nearctic/Western Palearctic pairs of taxa, such as ‘American Black Tern’ C. niger surinamensis and ‘European Black Tern’ C. n. niger, Least Tern Sternula antillarum and Little Tern, and American Royal Tern T. maximus and African Royal Tern T. albididorsalis. For detailed coverage of these tricky taxa, birders will still need to consult Olsen & Larsson’s Terns of Europe and North America.

Additionally, the modified Humphrey–Parkes terminology used to describe moult and ageing may be unfamiliar to many European birders.

The book’s general approach reminded me of Rob Hume et al.’s Birds by Character (Macmillan, 1990), which preached identifying birds using their essential characters. For example, I learnt that American Royal Tern’s bill is nearly always pointed forwards in flight, whereas Caspian Tern’s Hydroprogne caspia is pointed downwards, something I had appreciated only subconsciously. The book also came across to me as a celebration of the beauty of terns, particularly given the admirative language peppered throughout. Some photographs are evidently chosen as much for their aesthetic appeal as for their ability to convey identification information.

The book has an attractive and modern feel, characteristic of Princeton books, and this will make it appealing to many. There is no information overload, which invites the reader to casually dip into the book and appreciate terns as a truly stunning group of birds. However, those European birders seeking detailed identification information for subtle tern taxa will need to look elsewhere.

Ross Ahmed

Issue 12
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