One North American tern species resides solely in Alaska: the Aleutian Tern, Onychophrion aleuticus.


Two Aleutian Terns resting on the beach.

Terns have always been one of my favorite photography subjects and upon reaching the Seward Peninsula of northwest Alaska to study Gyrfalcons, I was excited to have the opportunity to photograph and learn about Aleutian Terns.

ALTE Copulation-1332

Aleutian Tern copulation.

Aleutian Terns are coastal, colonial nesting seabirds often associating with the much more familiar and common Arctic Tern. This Alaskan specialty can be distinguished in the field from Arctic Terns by their white forehead, black bill, darker mantle (top-side), and dark tips on their secondary flight feathers.


Note the dark tips on the secondary feathers (the inner trailing edge of the wing).

The Aleutian Tern also breeds in eastern Siberia, but little information is known on their migration and overwintering distribution. They are thought to winter in the South Pacific near Australia, but this is supported by a limited number of sightings.


Given how much we know about other tern species, I was surprised to learn that the Aleutian Tern is the most understudied tern in North America. This elegant species seems ripe for additional research, especially concerning information on breeding site fidelity and wintering distribution.


For some reason I seem to gravitate towards species that are less well-known and understudied, and the Aleutian Tern certainly fits this mold. While I may work mainly with raptors, I look forward to spending future summers in Alaska learning more about the Aleutian Tern, a true Alaskan speciality.

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