Terns of Malaysia – Part 1

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Malaysia terns

As a birdwatcher, I can’t help but be awed by the terns of Malaysia whenever I see them. Their elegant, acrobatic flight is enthralling, while their aerodynamic profile recalls sleek jet fighters. Similarly, their plunge-dive fishing technique is reminiscent of WWII dive bombers. Combined with their striking white plumage, it’s easy to see why they’re beloved by birdwatchers worldwide. They’re undoubtedly one of my favourite birds to see and photograph. 

Before I became a birdwatcher, I’d never really associated terns with Malaysia. They seemed exotic, more at home in cooler, temperate waters. As I learned later, this was far from the truth, as many terns inhabit tropical waters, Malaysia included!

Throughout this article, kindly ignore the strikethroughs on the eBird links – the links are still working and clickable.

Terns of Malaysia 

Despite their undeniable appeal, I feel terns are still somewhat underappreciated in Malaysia, hence the inspiration for this article series. These articles aren’t meant to be a definitive guide to identifying the terns of Malaysia. Instead, it aims to:

  • Introduce readers to the terns of Malaysia. 
  • Provide basic information and identification tips.
  • Info on where to see them in Malaysia.

What is a Tern?

Scientifically, terns are classified in the family Laridae. Gulls are their closest relatives, also from the same family. They’re distant cousins of the shorebirds, being part of the order Charadriiformes. Terns are a cosmopolitan family, with species found throughout the world (poles included).

The basic body shapes of terns are quite similar. They’re sleek and aerodynamic, with long, pointed wings. Their plumage is predominantly a combination of white, grey and a variable amount of black. Notable exceptions are the Noddies and Inca Tern – these are dark-plumaged birds. The bills of terns are adapted for their mainly fishy diet and are red, orange, yellow, or black. Terns are typically associated with water, be it coasts, open seas or inland water bodies.

As mentioned earlier, terns are graceful and elegant birds with amazing aeronautical abilities. Many terns feed by plunge-diving into the water from low altitude, but some simply pick food from the water’s surface instead. 

In Malaysia, terns are also known by their Malay name – ‘Burung Camar’

How many species of terns are there in Malaysia?

Picture collage of Terns of Malaysia
Terns of Malaysia, that I have photos of!

Being surrounded by the sea, Malaysia is blessed with fourteen species. Some are common, such as the Whiskered and Little Tern. Conversely, others are rare, such as the Aleutian and Sooty Tern. Seeing them all is quite the challenge!

The list below shows the species of terns in Malaysia. Vagrants are omitted. Species marked with an asterisk = I’ve yet to see it! 

Coastal species

These species frequent coastlines and, occasionally, inland water bodies. Some species may be encountered out at sea (for example, Common and Great Crested Terns). The majority are migrants, with only the Little Tern breeding in Malaysia.

  1. Little Tern
  2. Gull-billed Tern
  3. Caspian Tern
  4. Whiskered Tern
  5. White-winged Tern
  6. Common Tern
  7. Lesser Crested Tern
  8. Great Crested Tern
Pelagic species

These terns roam the open seas and thus are less likely to be seen from the coast. Nevertheless, the Black-naped Tern is occasionally seen around coastal areas. Several pelagic species breed on small offshore islands in Malaysia.

  1. Brown Noddy*
  2. Sooty Tern*
  3. Bridled Tern
  4. Aleutian Tern* (IUCN classification – VU)
  5. Roseate Tern*
  6. Black-naped Tern

Introducing the Terns of Malaysia – Part 1

Part 1 of this article series will highlight three of Malaysia’s most impressive terns. These three species have one thing in common—they are eye-catching! 

Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia)

This impressive tern demands attention whenever it shows up. Deservedly so, as this is the largest tern in the world. Its common name and specific epithet refer to the Caspian Sea. 

Description:
  • Large size (48-56cm; roughly comparable to Large-billed Crow).
  • Light grey upperparts and white underparts. 
  • The bill is robust and bright red with a variable black tip.
  • Breeding plumage – the cap is solid black and extends to the bill.
  • Non-breeding plumage – the black around the head is less intense, becoming speckly.
  • More photos (including breeding plumages) and info are on the eBird profile page.
Malaysia Caspian Tern
Caspian Tern at Sungai Serdang mudflats. The robust, red bill with a black tip is evident from a distance.
Range:

Despite its name, this wide-ranging species is found throughout the world. Non-breeding visitor to Malaysia.

When to see them in Malaysia?

Northern winter (September until May)

Where to see Caspian Tern in Malaysia?

It is relatively uncommon in Malaysia. The mudflats around Jeram, Selangor, is a good location for it:

  • The Sungai Serdang mudflats are quite reliable, especially during the early morning.
  • They roost during high tide within Kapar Power station. Unfortunately, this location is inaccessible to the public.
  • Sporadic sightings elsewhere in the country. Check out its eBird distribution map.
Caspian Tern in Australia
I don’t have a perched photo of the Caspian Tern in Malaysia. This photo is from Sydney, Australia. The black on the head is reduced and speckly, indicating the non-breeding plumage. This photo illustrates the robust bill well. Also, note its size compared to the adjacent Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.

The Crested Terns of Malaysia

Two species of crested terns grace Malaysia’s waters.

Lesser Crested Tern (Thalasseus bengalensis)

Possibly one of the most beautiful terns in Malaysia, the tern is elegant and graceful in flight. Its orange bill and forked tail add to its ethereal beauty.

Flying Lesser Crested Tern Malaysia
Elegant and graceful, the Lesser Crested Tern is an attractive and photogenic bird.
Description:
  • Medium-sized (35-43cm; roughly comparable to House Crow).
  • Grey upperparts and white underparts.
  • It has a black, shaggy crest that’s often held flat.
  • The bill is orange and proportionately long and thin.
  • In-flight, the forked tail is visible.
  • Breeding plumage – The cap and crest are solid black, with the black extending to the bill.
  • Non-breeding plumage: The black on the head becomes streaky or speckly and retreats behind the eye, leaving a wide white forehead.
  • More photos (including breeding plumages) and info at its eBird profile page.
Lesser Crested Tern pair
A pair of Lesser Crested Terns. In this photo, the orange bill is obvious. The wide white forehead indicates that this is the non-breeding plumage.
Range:

Coastal areas from Africa to Australia. A non-breeding visitor to Malaysia. 

When to see them in Malaysia?

Northern winter (September until May)

Where to see Lesser Crested Terns in Malaysia?

Widespread along the coastal areas of the country. Generally uncommon; nevertheless, reliably seen along the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia:

  1. North Central Selangor Coast IBA
    • Sungai Janggut mudflats
    • Sungai Sembilang mudflats 
    • Boat trips off the Selangor Coast (for example, trips to the Sky Mirror)
  2. Teluk Air Tawar – Kuala Muda IBA in Penang
  3. Check its eBird distribution map in Malaysia.

These terns are often seen perched on wooden/concrete poles at sea or resting on mudflats. 

Great Crested Tern (Thalasseus bergii)

They are the chunky, larger cousin of the Lesser Crested. Although they are less elegant, they are still a handsome species. 

Description:
  • Large-sized tern (43-53cm), noticeably larger than the Lesser Crested. 
  • Upperparts dark grey, with white underparts.
  • The crest is black and shaggy.
  • The bill is long, robust and yellow in colour.
  • Forked tail visible in-flight
  • Breeding plumage – Develops a solid black cap that doesn’t reach the bill, leaving a white forehead.
  • Non-breeding plumage – The black cap recedes backwards and becomes streaky/speckly.
  • More photos and info at its eBird profile page.
Perched Great Crested Tern in Malaysia
Great Crested Tern perched on a concrete pillar. Note the robust, yellow-coloured bill. The crest is also visible, and the black on the head is reduced and streaky/speckly. This is the non-breeding plumage.
Great Crested Tern flying
In this photo, the black colour on the head is solid. There’s also a small gap between the black cap and the bill. This is the breeding plumage.
Range:

Coastal areas from Africa to Australia. Mostly a non-breeding migrant to Malaysia. However, they breed on Pulau Layang-Layang (Spratly Islands), within Malaysian waters. 

When to see it in Malaysia?

It is best during northern winter (September until May) but is present year-round.

Where to see Great Crested Terns in Malaysia?

Reasonably common throughout coastal Malaysia. Locations include:

  • Boat trips off Teluk Air Tawar – Kuala Muda IBA in Penang. 
  • Mersing, Johor.
  • Tanjung Penyabong, Johor. Also pelagic boat trips off this locale.
  • Boat trips off Kuching, Sarawak. For example, off Santubong and Bako NP.
  • Kuala Baram near Miri, Sarawak
  • Kota Kinabalu area. For example, Tanjung Aru beach, boat trips to the Kota Kinabalu Islands.
  • For other locations, check the Great Crested Tern’s distribution map in Malaysia, via eBird.

These terns are often seen perched on wooden/concrete poles sticking out of the sea.

Great Crested vs Lesser Crested Tern

These two species are similar and often seen together. Therefore, there’s a potential for confusion.

  • SIZE: The Great Crested is noticeably larger. This becomes obvious if they’re seen together.
  • BILL: Great Crested has a  robust yellow bill, rather than the proportionally thinner and longer orange bill of the Lesser Crested.
  • NON-BREEDING PLUMAGE: The nape and back of the head is more black in the Lesser Crested Tern
  • BREEDING PLUMAGE: The black cap of the Great Crested doesn’t reach the bill. The Lesser Crested has a full black cap, reaching the bill.
  • Making your diagnosis based on multiple features rather than just one is best.
  • Check out the comparison photo below. Note the bill size/shape and colour and the amount of black on the head.
Crested terns in Malaysia comparison
Comparison between the two crested terns. The differences seem subtle but become more apparent the more often you see them. The bill of the Great Crested seems rather orangey here, probably due to the lighting/white balance.

Conclusion

Few birds epitomise grace and elegance like the terns of Malaysia. Several species are quite eye-catching, and none more so than the Caspian, Great Crested and Lesser Crested Terns. These are superlative seabirds, and they’re absolutely worth seeking out! 

Check out the second part of this series at the link below:

 


REFERENCES

Phillipps, Q. & Phillipps, K. (2014). Phillips’ Field Guide To The Birds of Borneo. Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan (Third edition). John Beaufoy Publishing, Oxford, England.

Puan, C.L., Davison, G. & Lim, K.C. (2020). Birds of Malaysia. Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Robson, C. (2005). New Holland Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia (Concise Edition). New Holland Publishers, London, England.

MNS Bird Conservation Council. (2021). A Checklist of the Birds of Malaysia. 2020 Edition. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Nature Society. (MNS Conservation Publication No. 22)

 

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