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The return of the terns to San Diego

A Caspian tern is one of the many species of terns that live in San Diego during the summer.
A Caspian tern is one of the many species of terns that live in San Diego during the summer.
Photo by David McNew

Various species of terns have begun to reappear throughout San Diego after wintering away from the area. Several species of terns live in San Diego in the summer and most of those species breed here. Some species have representatives in San Diego all year-around on the coast, but spread out to inland areas as more individuals return to the area. Here are a few things to look out for when you go to watch terns this summer.

Most tern species don’t begin to arrive until mid to late April and peak in June and July. Some species, such as Forster’s terns and royal terns can be seen during the winter. Forster’s terns are generally in very low numbers during the winter and royals are mostly plentiful. In the summer, a close cousin of the royal tern, the elegant tern, returns to breed while the royals exit. Another species that returns about this time is the California least tern and their possible chick predator, the gull-billed tern.

One can usually find gull-billed terns in the South Bay and least terns both in the South Bay and Mission Bay. Gull-billed terns suffered a disaster, last year, where most of the population suddenly died off. Most of the chicks that were being raised perished with the parents. It is unknown how many adults will return to the nesting area this year. Already, several gull-billed terns have been sighted in their usual areas.

Last year, the endangered California least tern had a better than average breeding season. Least terns are almost strictly seen on the coast and sometimes off shore. However, they can be seen more inland at the start of the fall migration season. Terns begin to migrate starting in late July or early August, but most species can be seen in smaller numbers until October.

The best place to see all species of terns is close to the ocean where the most species congregate. Good tern watching includes the South Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, Mission Bay, and San Elijo Lagoon. Some species can be seen near lakes and places with open water such as Lake Murray or Sweetwater Reservoir.