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Black-fronted tern

Status: Nationally Endangered

Black-fronted tern nesting
Black-fronted tern nesting

The black-fronted tern is seen from the southern tip of the North Island, and along much of the eastern South Island from Marlborough to Southland and to Stewart Island. There is an outlying population along the Buller and upper Motueka Rivers in southern Nelson. The breeding range is restricted to the South Island. While most terns are seabirds, the black-fronted tern lives and breeds inland along riverbanks and can forage out to 10 km at sea in the non-breeding season in autumn and winter (distribution map).


The black-fronted tern (Chlidonias albostriatus) also known as the riverbed tern or tarapiroe (Māori), is a medium to small tern endemic (unique) to New Zealand, measuring 28-29cm and weighing 95grams. It is unique amongst terns in that it is the only one to breed exclusively inland. They nest in colonies on open shingle or small islands in the river.

Predominantly grey plumage over most of the body with black cap extending down over the eyes to the bright red-orange beak. During the non-breeding season the black cap recedes from the bill and becomes flecked with white. The underparts and rump are white, and there is a thin white streak running along the cheeks underneath the cap. The legs are orange.


Population trends

Conservation efforts

Black-fronted gulls evolved to breed on weed-free shingle islands and banks on braided rivers. Their numbers have been declining rapidly for reasonably well-understood reasons outlined here.

Several field research projects have been carried out to determine the genetics of different colonies around the South Island, the optimal conditions for creating suitable habitats and specific predators on different rivers, and ways of potentially attracting terns to managed areas.

You can help us help them by reporting sightings of nesting terns on rivers.

Image: Colin O'Donnell ( DOC).
Image: Colin O’Donnell ( DOC).
Trapping work in areas such as the Upper Rangitata River is now underway.

Clarence River: Over five years more than $500,000 was spent around the three breeding colonies of black-fronted terns on conservation land neighbouring Molesworth Station between Jacks Pass and the Acheron River

More information


Research and references