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Arctic Tern Facts: Bird with the World’s Longest Migratory Route!

6 min read

Where do Arctic terns live?

Polar travelers, especially birders, frequently ask where do Arctic terns live? While the species does “live” in specific regions of the Arctic, they actually spend a significant part of the year on the move. Arctic Tern migration patterns are among the most impressive in nature.

The Arctic tern, despite its name, can be said to live in Antarctica, as well.

Arctic tern fact: While they breed in the Arctic in the summer months, they’re internally programmed to leave their northern breeding grounds and fly all the way to Antarctica each year. They take advantage of both the Arctic summer and the Antarctic summer, which are at opposite times of the year.

Arctic tern fact: If birds were to earn frequent flyer points, Arctic terns would earn more air mileage credits than any other creature.

Arctic terns rest on a chunk of ice near Lilliehook Glacier, Svalbard, which is visited on multi-destination voyages that include both Iceland and Greenland.
Arctic terns are often seen along the coastal areas of the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.   Photo: Acacia Johnson

So where do Arctic terns live in regions you’re likely to visit on a polar expedition? Arctic terns are common along the coasts of Svalbard. In fact, Arctic terns are the only species of terns that nests in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, the largest island of which is Spitsbergen, which is known for an abundance of wildlife, including birds.

Arctic tern fact:  Arctic terns frequently breed on islands—especially where there are no Arctic foxes to prey on the them. They also nest on beaches and deltas where they lay their eggs in small hollows in the ground, digging into the gravel-like surfaces. 

And where do Arctic terns live in other Arctic regions? Arctic terns have been observed on the Greenland ice sheet, which guests of Quark Expeditions visit on  Greenland Adventure: Explore by Sea, Land and Air voyage. Greenland’s Kitsissunnguit archipelago, located in the south of Disko Bay, is a known breeding ground for Arctic terns.

The UK population breeds mostly on the north and west coasts, particularly Ireland and Scotland.

And where do Arctic terns live in more southern regions? Perhaps it’s not so much a question of “live” but where Arctic terns can be seen during their migratory route. Arctic terns are frequently seen on the eastern coast of South American, western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and on the Pacific Islands. 

Arctic tern fact: And, of course, you can also see Arctic terns in Antarctica, where they spend the summer feeding on fish and krill. 

How far does the Arctic tern migrate?

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, Arctic tern migration is one of the longest migrations of any bird species on the planet. Arctic terns mate for life, and they breed in arctic breeding grounds and certain locations in the United Kingdom during summer months, and travel all the way to Antarctica in the winter.

So, how far does the Arctic tern migrate in that annual feat? Estimates vary.

Arctic tern fact:  Some scientists state the yearly migration can range from 44,000 miles to 59,000 miles. An Arctic tern, in its lifespan, typically flies a distance equivalent to three round trips to the moon.

rctic terns' annual migratory route ranges from 44,000 to 59,000 miles . Their migration is the longest of any bird species on the planet.
The Arctic terns' annual migratory route is the longest of any bird species on the planet.  Photo: David Merron

It’s not always a question of how far does the Arctic tern migrate— but how are they capable of doing so? Arctic terns don’t necessarily fly in a straight line.

Arctic tern fact: Luckily, they’re built for long flights. Ornithologists explain that Arctic terns like to glide in the air. They’re lightweight, weighing 3.2-4.2 oz (90-120 g), which means the ocean-driven wind can carry them for long distances which requires little effort on the part of the bird.

So, clearly, weight and design should be factored in when exploring how far does the Arctic tern migrate?

Arctic tern fact: Arctic terns can sleep and eat while gliding, and they’re able to hover in midair much like hummingbirds. 
For information on other birds that thrive in the Arctic, listen to ornithologist Noah Strycker, author of “Birds Without Birders,” in this webinar titled, “How Birds Survive the Arctic.”

So, why do Arctic terns migrate to Antarctica? 

With a migratory route that’s between 44,000 miles and 59,000 miles, it’s only fair to ask why do Arctic terns migrate to Antarctica? Why go from one pole to the other? 
The short answer: they seek out the warmth when they can! Arctic terns migrate to follow the summer sun. During winter, the northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, making for cooler temperatures in the Arctic. However, the Southern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun at that time, producing summer temperatures in Antarctica.

One simple explanation to the eternal question of why do Arctic terns migrate to Antarctica is to think of Arctic terns as behaving like those perpetual sun worshippers who arrange their travel plans to “follow the sun.”

Arctic tern fact: Arctic terns birds are programed to migrate in search of summer sunlight—which is also thought to illuminate the the ground and the surface of the ocean, enabling them to more easily see food (fish or insects).

It’s been suggested that the Arctic tern, going from Arctic summer to Antarctic summer, gets more daylight than any other animal. So, in summary, why do Arctic terns migrate to Antarctica? Answer: sunshine.

rctic terns' annual migratory route ranges from 44,000 to 59,000 miles . Their migration is the longest of any bird species on the planet.
Arctic terns often next in gravel-like terrain—preferably away from Arctic foxes. Photo: Michelle Sole

Are Arctic terns endangered?

Are Arctic terns endangered? No, the Arctic tern is not on the endangered species list. It is, however, on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. It falls under the category of “Least Concern,” primarily because the Arctic tern population is not believed to be “sufficiently rapid to the approach of thresholds for Vulnerable.” 

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the Arctic tern population appears to be stable, though population trends are challenging to observe because of the Arctic tern’s remote range.

As with many species, climate change may pose a threat because Arctic terns depend on stable Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems to survey, and, as we all know, those are changing so, are Arctic terns endangered? No, not endangered, but vulnerable to being threatened.

Where can I satisfy my passion for bird-watching in Antarctica?

So, you know that Arctic terns spend part of the year eating and taking in the sun in Antarctica. But there are plenty of other bird species to observe through Antarctica.

Noah Strycker, the ornithologist mentioned above, writes about the variety of birds he’s seen in Antarctica in his blog Polar Bird-watching with record-setting ornithologist Noah Strycker. In addition, passionate birder and seasoned expedition guide Acacia Johnson makes note of some of the interesting birds she’s photographed during her Antarctica journeys, such as the black-browed albatross, king penguins and long-tailed meadowlarks.

If you’re keen to go bird-watching in Antarctica, consider one of Quark Expeditions’ itineraries that focuses specifically on our winged friends, such as South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula: Penguin Safari.  In the Arctic, guests on our 15-day Three Arctic Islands: Iceland, Greenland, Spitsbergen could see not only Arctic terns, but skuas, long-tailed ducks, kittiwakes and ivory gulls. 

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