Volume 50, No. 2

Search by author or title:

At-sea movements of the White Tern Gygis alba in waters off eastern Australia




CARLILE, N. & O'DWYER T. 2022. At-sea movements of the White Tern Gygis alba in waters off eastern Australia. Marine Ornithology 50: 151 - 158

Received 17 November 2021, accepted 31 May 2022

Date Published: 2022/10/15
Date Online: 2022/09/22
Key words: White Terns, GLS tracking, post-breeding migration


We present the first tracked movements of the medium-sized tropical White Tern Gygis alba, using Global Location Sensors (GLS), from a breeding colony on Lord Howe Island, South Pacific, Australia. The tracking period encompassed pre-breeding in 2018 to potential chick provisioning in the following season. Terns remained near Lord Howe Island during breeding, with some pre-egg laying and post-nest failure trips 1 000 km distant. The average departure date from Lord Howe Island was 08 April (range: 21 March-22 April). The tern's migration route was northwest towards the east Australian coast, skirting the Great Barrier Reef. Terns then spent the non-breeding period (50% utilisation distribution) in the northwestern Coral Sea bounded by the New Guinea archipelago to the north and North Queensland, Australia, to the west. The mean transit time to the core non-breeding areas was five days (standard deviation ± 2.5 d). The core non-breeding area was 2 200 km from Lord Howe Island. The mean time spent in the core non-breeding area was 93 d (± 10 d). The return passage completed a clockwise journey with a mean passage time of 12 d (± 3.8 d) and an average arrival on Lord Howe Island of 18 August (range: 08 August-02 September). Over 51% of their core foraging and non-breeding areas were within dedicated marine park networks. We documented the day visits to the island and approximate incubation shifts and nest attendance from changes in light levels of GLS devices. We determined, using saltwater immersion data, that the species exhibited almost no contact with the sea surface during darkness. Peak activity during daylight hours commenced at 12h00, probably indicating resting after foraging at sea. From the limited samples, instrumenting of the terns did not appear to impede breeding attempts during the 14 mo of attachment.


BECKER, P.H., SCHMALJOHANN, H., RIECHERT, J., WAGENKNECHT, G., ZAJOVÁ, Z. & GONZÁLEZ-SOLÍS, J. 2016. Common Terns on the East Atlantic Flyway: temporal- spatial distribution during the non-breeding period. Journal of Ornithology 157: 927-940.

BENKWITT, C.E., CARR, P., WILSON, S.K. & GRAHAM, N.A.J. 2022. Seabird diversity and biomass enhance cross-ecosystem nutrient subsidies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 289: 20220195. doi:10.1098/rspb.2022.0195

BIRDLIFE INTERNATIONAL. 2019. Sternula lorata (amended version of 2018 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2019: e.T22694685A155621597. Cambridge, UK: Birdlife International. [Accessed online at on 27 August 2021.]

BURGER, J. 1982. The role of reproductive success in colony-site selection and abandonment in black skimmers (Rynchops niger). The Auk 99: 109-115.

CALENGE, C. 2006. The package 'adehabitat' for the R software: a tool for the analysis of space and habitat use by animals. Ecological Modelling 197: 516-519.

CARLILE, N. & PRIDDEL, D. 2015. Establishment and growth of the White Tern Gygis alba population on Lord Howe Island, Australia. Marine Ornithology 43: 113-118.

CECCARELLI, D.M., McKINNON, A.D., ANDRÉFOUËT, S. ET AL. 2013. The Coral Sea: physical Environment, ecosystem status and biodiversity assets. Advances in Marine Biology 66: 213-290.

COOPER, W.T, FORSHAW, J.M. & FULLAGER, P.J. 1977. White Terns recorded from eastern Australia. Australian Bird Watcher 7: 11-12.

CROXALL, J.P., SILK, J.R.D., PHILLIPS, R.A., AFANASYEV, V. & BRIGGS, D.R. 2005. Global circumnavigations: tracking year-round ranges of non-breeding albatrosses. Science 307: 249-250.

DELANY, S.N. & SCOTT, D.A. 2006. Wetlands International's Flyway Atlas series: establishing the geographical limits of waterbird populations. In: BOERE, G.C., GALBRAITH, C.A. & STROUD, D.A. (Eds.) Waterbirds Around the World. Edinburgh, UK: The Stationery Office.

DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL PARKS. 2018. Temperate East Marine Parks Network Management Plan 2018. Canberra, Australia: Director of National Parks, Government of Australia.

DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE CHANGE (NSW). 2007. Lord Howe Island Biodiversity Management Plan. Sydney, Australia: Department of Environment and Climate Change (NSW).

DORWARD, D.F. 1963. The Fairy Tern Gygis alba on Ascension Island. Ibis 103b: 365-378.

FRANCESIAZ, C., FARINE, D., LAFORGE, C., BÉCHET, A., SADOUL, N. & BESNARD, A. 2017. Familiarity drives social philopatry in an obligate colonial breeder with weak interannual breeding-site fidelity. Animal Behaviour 124: 125-133.

GIBSON-HILL, C.A. 1950. Notes on the Birds of the Cocos-Keeling Islands. Bulletin of the Raffles Museum 22: 212-269.

GONZÁLEZ-SOLÍS, J., WENDELN, H. & BECKER, P.H. 1999. Within and between season nest-site and mate fidelity in Common Terns (Sterna hirundo). Journal of Ornithology 140: 491-498.

GRAHAM, N.A.J., WILSON, S.K., CARR, P., HOEY, A.S., JENNINGS, S. & MACNEIL, M.A. 2018. Seabirds enhance coral reef productivity and functioning in the absence of invasive rats. Nature 559: 250-253

HALPIN, L.R., ROSS, J.D., RAMOS, R. ET AL. 2021. Double-tagging scores of seabirds reveals that light-level geolocator accuracy is limited by species idiosyncrasies and equatorial solar profiles. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 12: 2243-2255. doi: 10.1111/2041-210X.13698

HARRISON, P., PERROW, M.R. & LARSSON, H. 2021. Seabirds. The New Identification Guide. Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions.

HIGGINS, P.J. & DAVIES, S.J.J.F. 1996. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds, Volume 3, Snipes to Pigeons. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

HILL, R.D. 1994. Theory of geolocation by light levels. In: LE BOEUF, B.J. & LAWS, R.M. (Eds.) Elephant seals: Population ecology, behavior, and physiology (pp. 227-236). Berkeley CA: University of California Press.

HOGAN, F.E., CAMPBELL, C., HARRISON, K.A., MILLEDGE, D. & COOKE, R. 2013. Molecular data contradicts historical records and cautions translocation of the Lord Howe Island masked owl. Biological Conservation 159: 313-320.

JAEGER, A., FEARE, C. J., SUMMERS, R.W., LEBARBENCHON, C., LAROSE, C.S. & LE CORRE, M. 2017. Geolocation reveals year-round at-sea distribution and activity of a superabundant tropical seabird, the Sooty Tern Onychoprion fuscatus. Frontiers in Marine Science 4: 394. doi:10.3389/fmars.2017.00394

KLEIN, C.J., BROWN, C.J., HALPERN, B.S. ET AL. 2015. Shortfalls in the global protected area network at representing marine biodiversity. Scientific Reports 5: 1-7.

KING, W.B. 1967. Seabirds of the tropical Pacific Ocean. Washington, USA: Smithsonian Institution.

MARKS, J.S. & HENDRICKS, P. 1989. On the flushing behavior of incubating white terns. The Condor 91: 997-998.

MAXWELL, S.M., CONNERS, M.G., SISSON, N.B. & DAWSON, T.M. 2016. Potential benefits and shortcomings of Marine Protected Areas for small seabirds revealed using miniature tags. Frontiers in Marine Science 3: 264. doi:10.3389/FMARS.2016.00264

MILES, D.H. 1986. White Terns breeding on Oahu, Hawaii. ʻElepaio 46: 171-175.

MOSTELLO, C.S., NISBET, I.C., OSWALD, S.A. & FOX, J.W. 2014. Nonbreeding season movements of North American Roseate Terns Sterna dougallii tracked with geolocators. Seabird 27: 1-21.

NAVES, L.C., MONNAT, J.Y. & CAM, E. 2006. Breeding performance, mate fidelity, and nest site fidelity in a long-lived seabird: behaving against the current? Oikos 115: 263-276.

NIETHAMMER, K.R. & PATRICK, L.B. 2020. White Tern (Gygis alba), version 1.0. In: BILLERMAN, S.M. (Ed). Birds of the World. Ithaca, USA: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. doi:10.2173/bow.whiter

NISBET, I.C., MOSTELLO, C.S., VEIT, R.R., FOX, J.W. & AFANASYER, V. 2011. Migrations and Winter Quarters of Five Common Terns Tracked using Geolocators. Waterbirds 34: 32-39.

ORO, D. 2014. Seabirds and climate: knowledge, pitfalls, and opportunities. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 2: 79.

R CORE TEAM 2020. R: A language and environment for statistical computing. Vienna, Austria: The R Foundation for Statistical Computing. [Accessed at on 17 August 2021.]

REDFERN, C.P.F., KINCHIN-SMITH, D., NEWTOWN, S., MORRISON, P., BOLTON, M. & PIEC, D. 2021. Upwelling systems in the migration ecology of Roseate Terns (Sterna dougallii) breeding in northwest Europe. Ibis 163: 549-565.

REID, T.A., HINDELL, M.A., EADES, D.W. & NEWMAN, M. 2002. Seabird Atlas of South-eastern Australian Waters Birds Australia Monograph 4. Melbourne, Australia: Birds Australia.

SEGAL, R.D., WHITSED, R., CARLILE, N. & MASSARO, M. 2022. Effects of an island-wide rodent eradication on two threatened bird species. Pacific Conservation Biology doi:10.1071/PC21068

SHAFFER, S.A., TREMBLAY, Y., AWKERMAN, J.A. ET AL. 2005. Comparison of light-and SST-based geolocation with satellite telemetry in free-ranging albatrosses. Marine Biology 147: 833-843. doi:10.1007/s0022 7-005-1631-8

SHEPHARD, J.M., DUNLOP, J.N. & BOUTEN, W. 2019. Foraging movements of common noddies in the East Indian Ocean are dependent on breeding stage: implications for marine reserve design. Pacific Conservation Biology 25: 164-173. doi:10.1071/PC18033

SOANES , L.M., BRIGHT, J.A., BRODIN, G., MUKHIDA, F. & GREEN, J.A. 2015. Tracking a small seabird: First records of foraging behaviour in the Sooty Tern Onychoprion fuscatus. Marine Ornithology 43: 235-239.

SPEAR, L.B., AINLEY, D.G. & WALKER, W.A. 2007. Foraging dynamics of seabirds in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Studies in Avian Biology No. 35. Ephrata, Pennsylvania: The Cooper Ornithological Society.

STOKES, T. & CORBEN, C. 1985. A survey of pelagic birds in the western Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reef. Corella 9: 25-29.

SURMAN, C.A., NICHOLSON, L.W. & AYLING, S. 2017. Foraging behaviour of the Lesser Noddy Anous tenuirostris melanops from the eastern Indian Ocean: insights from micro-geologging. Marine Ornithology 45: 123-128.

SURMAN, C.A., NICHOLSON, L.W. & PHILLIPS, R.A. 2018. Distribution and patterns of migration of a tropical seabird community in the Eastern Indian Ocean. Journal of Ornithology 159: 867-877.

THIEBOT, J-B., NAKAMURA, N., TOGUCHI, Y., TOMITA, N. & OZAKI, K. 2020. Migration of black‑naped terns in contrasted cyclonic conditions. Marine Biology 167: 83. doi:10.1007/s00227-020-03691-0

VAN DER LINDEN, W.J.M. 1970. Morphology of the Tasman sea floor. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 13: 282-291.

VANDERWERF, E.A. 2003. Distribution, abundance, and breeding biology of White Terns on Oahu, Hawaii. The Wilson Bulletin 115: 258-262.

VANDERWERF, E.A. & DOWNS, R.E. 2018. Current distribution, abundance, and breeding biology of White Terns (Gygis alba) on Oahu, Hawaii. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 130: 297-304.

WAITE, M. 2008. White Tern: WhatBird.Com. Sausalito, USA: Mitch Waite Group. [Accessed at on 01 September 2021.]

WOTHERSPOON, S., SUMNER, M. & LISOVSKI, S. 2016. TwGeos: Basic data processing for light-645 level geolocation archival tags, version 0.0, 1. Vienna, Austria: The R Foundation for Statistical Computing. [Accessed at on 17 August 2021.]

YOUNG, H.S., MAXWELL, S.M., CONNERS, M.G. & SHAFFER, S.A. 2015. Pelagic marine protected areas protect foraging habitat for multiple breeding seabirds in the central Pacific. Biological Conservation 181: 226-235.

Search by author or title:

Browse previous volumes: