Familiar friends and a mini-mystery

The bird in the image below has me somewhat confounded.

It’s clearly a tern, but which species?

I spotted it late yesterday afternoon on the Moolort Plains. As I quietly watched a distant feeding Brolga, it must have passed directly over my head, observed briefly in fading light as it headed north.

Whiskered Terns are the most commonly observed birds from this sub-family (related to the gulls) and can be seen in wet years on freshwater wetlands and regularly on Cairn Curran, along with the much larger Caspian Terns.

It was a fleeting glimpse but this individual looked intriguingly like a Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica, a reasonably common species in northern and southern Victoria, but one that I’ve never observed locally. The overall appearance was of a bulkier bird than a Whiskered Tern, with less buoyant flight. Adult breeding Whiskered Terns have a black cap and nape, as do Gull-billed Terns, but have a red bill, not black and their underparts typically are sooty. The upper parts of the Gull-billed tern are almost white, rather than grey. Another clear difference is the bill shape – slender, with a less pronounced ‘gull’ conformation than the G.nilotica.

I’ll put this observation in the maybe category for now and would be interested in any reader thoughts. Sadly, the image below is the best one I have!


A mystery tern … maybe?










Nankeen Kestrel (female)


Brown Falcon

Postscript: The view from a number of expert birders is that the tern is in fact a Gull-billed Tern, a rare visitor to central Victoria. One was reported at Lake Eppalock (near Bendigo) on the 9th September.

9 responses to “Familiar friends and a mini-mystery

  1. Hi Geoff Not sure but could your “Whiskered Tern” be a Caspian Tern? Again it has a red/orange beak…maybe? My reference is MUSEUM VICTORIA…FIELD GUIDE TO VICTORIAN FAUNA. They have a website. Good luck with the identification. Sandy McCormick

    Sent from my iPad


    • Hi Lesley/Sandy – thanks for your note. No chance it was a Caspian – way too small and yes, red bill in breeding and non-breeding plumage. Cheers, geoff

  2. I have been looking through a couple of my bird books, Geoff, and I think it could well be a Gull-billed Tern except for the tail, though that could well be twisted in flight. Simpson and Day describe the tail as being ‘slightly forked’, but still, the description describes the bird as a ‘chunky tern’. the map shows that they can range all over Australia, but I gather they are mainly seen in the North. The black cap suggests that is in breeding plumage.

    • Hi Rita – none of my shots showed a clear view of the tail shape. The reason I’m a little wary of claiming a GBT is that the bill colour is not 100% black … so could still a chance that is a Whiskered Tern. I’m very familiar with this species – they are smaller with a more liquid flight … hopefully I’ll get a chance for a better shot as Cairn Curran becomes tern friendly in coming weeks. Cheers, geoff

  3. I notice there was a Gull-billed Tern recorded at Eppalock the other day.


  4. Mel M Mitchell (DELWP)

    Hi Geoff,
    You are correct – It is a Gull-billed tern in your photo and there was a recent nearby report at Lake Eppalock on 9 Sept so it could be the same bird/s.

    I hope you are well and enjoying some new freedoms with the easing of COVID restrictions in regional Vic.

    We are stuck for a few more weeks at least in Melbourne – there are so many holiday booking and trips scuttled by this latest Delta outbreak ☹ another winter in Melbourne and im sure my vitamin D is at an all time low level!





  5. What a lovely sight and images of the brolga

  6. mgrantskymeshcomau

    Hi Geoff, not a water bird question, but couldn’t work out where else on your blog to ask it. Been a while since I have been on here. I am at Clydesdale, just south of the Rise and Shine, and yesterday saw new birds just outside the window. Pair of honey eaters, which I thought might be black honeyeaters( Pizzey), but the feathers on top of the head of the nearest one were deep irridescent blue. I was gobsmacked. Any thoughts on what they might be please? Couldn’t see anything similar online.

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