Common Terns feeding on flying insects

Towards dusk on Tuesday 30th June in the company of a group of NWT members I was admiring a cluster of bee orchids growing by the public footpath between Sparham Pools NR and Lenwade when my attention was drawn to a small flock of Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) flying above oak trees nearby. On closer inspection it was obvious that the birds were feeding on the flying insects that were leaving the upper foliage of the trees. Along with others present I had never experienced this behaviour by Common Terns before and wondered if it was an unusual occurrence.

Later I consulted my bird literature to find out if there was any reference to this feeding habit. My research revealed that Common Terns are opportunistic feeders, switching rapidly between prey types and feeding methods as circumstances change. Although their main prey items are marine or freshwater fish captured by plunging, one of their other feeding habits is the aerial pursuit of insects. In Norfolk the stomach contents of 48 adult birds were analysed and revealed that 14.7% consisted of insects, mostly cockchafers. Other insect prey items taken include water beetle larvae, moths, butterflies occasionally, flies, caddisflies, ants, bees, grasshoppers, crickets, mayflies, and dragonflies.

The terns’ behaviour was not unusual after all but was still interesting to witness.

Alwyn Jackson

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