Species Profile and Threats Database

For information to assist proponents in referral, environmental assessments and compliance issues, refer to the Policy Statements and Guidelines (where available), the Conservation Advice (where available) or the Listing Advice (where available).
In addition, proponents and land managers should refer to the Recovery Plan (where available) or the Conservation Advice (where available) for recovery, mitigation and conservation information.

EPBC Act Listing Status Listed as Endangered
This taxon may be listed under the EPBC Act at the species level, see Sterna vittata [25546].
Recovery Plan Decision Recovery Plan required, this species had a recovery plan in force at the time the legislation provided for the Minister to decide whether or not to have a recovery plan (19/2/2007).
Adopted/Made Recovery Plans National Recovery Plan for Ten Species of Seabirds 2005-2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005f) [Recovery Plan].
Policy Statements and Guidelines Survey Guidelines for Australia's Threatened Birds. EPBC Act survey guidelines 6.2 (Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA), 2010l) [Admin Guideline].
Federal Register of
    Legislative Instruments
Declaration under s178, s181, and s183 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 - List of threatened species, List of threatened ecological communities and List of threatening processes (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000) [Legislative Instrument].
State Government
    Documents and Websites
TAS:Sterna vittata bethunei (Antarctic Tern (New Zealand)): Species Management Profile for Tasmania's Threatened Species Link (Threatened Species Section (TSS), 2014te) [State Action Plan].
State Listing Status
TAS: Listed as Endangered (Threatened Species Protection Act 1995 (Tasmania): September 2012)
Non-statutory Listing Status
NGO: Listed as Endangered (The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2010)
Scientific name Sterna vittata bethunei [64451]
Family Laridae:Charadriiformes:Aves:Chordata:Animalia
Species author Buller, 1896
Infraspecies author  
Distribution map Species Distribution Map

This is an indicative distribution map of the present distribution of the species based on best available knowledge. See map caveat for more information.

Illustrations Google Images

Scientific name: Sterna vittata bethunei

Common name: Antarctic Tern (New Zealand)

The Macquarie Island population is sometimes considered to be a separate subspecies (Sterna vittata macquariensis) (del Hoyo et al. 1996). However, other authors have questioned the validity of that assertion and it is more commonly accepted that the population is synonymous with the Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) (Garnett & Crowley 2000; Higgins & Davies 1996).

The distribution of the Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) in the Australian jurisdiction is restricted to Macquarie Island, however, the subspecies occurs in several sub-antarctic locations in the seas south of New Zealand (NZ). They breed on Macquarie Island and NZ subantarctic islands including Snares, Antipodes, Bounty, Auckland, Stewart and Campbell Island. Some birds may disperse as far north as Australia and NZ during the non-breeding season. This assertion is based on only one specimen collected in south-west Kangaroo Island, South Australia, in November 1982. The specimen was possibly this subspecies, but it is not specified (Higgins & Davies 1996; Garnett & Crowley 2000).

In 1979, the Macquarie Island population of the Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) was estimated at 40 pairs, which resulted in the species being listed as endangered under Australian legislation (Garnett et al. 2011). An estimate made in 2000 was 50 pairs, with the population considered to be stable (Garnett et al. 2011). A more recent census in 2003 placed the population at 24 pairs (Schulz & Gales 2004). Observations made in the 2003 census indicated that predation on nests and flooding were threats to nesting success and that the population may not be stable while those threats continue (Schulz & Gales 2004).

Up to 500 pairs breed on NZ's subantarctic islands (Higgins & Davies 1996; Rounsevell & Brothers 1984). In 1985, the total breeding population on the Snares Island was about 70 pairs, with 100 birds being counted at a roosting site in February 1992 (Miskelly et al. 2001). The global status of Sterna vittata bethunei is 'Near Threatened' under the IUCN criteria (Garnett et al. 2011).

The Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) prefers embayments with rocky shores or cliffs and feed in inshore waters, which often support large beds of kelp. They prefer to breed in rocky areas, either very near the coast or a short distance inland, including steep slopes or cliffs adjacent to the sea. Breeding on Macquarie Island is confined to offshore rock stacks. This is thought to be a response to predation of nests on the shore by the Cat (Felis catus) or the Black Rat (Rattus rattus) (Schulz & Gales 2004).

Nests on the shore are usually made on live vegetation, though occasionally in unvegetated crevices, in slight scrapes in shallow peat and vegetation, or vegetation in a crevice of rock, lined with a thin layer of leaves. On Snares Island, NZ, nearly all nests were near groups of nesting Silver Gulls (Larus novaehollandiae) (Garnett & Crowley 2000; Higgins & Davies 1996; Miskelly et al. 2001; Sagar 1978). During summer, they forage in kelp beds in waters close to the islands. The area of feeding habitat may be limited by the extent of the continental shelf and weather conditions. They forage in coves, bays, inlets, harbours and off estuaries, often in heavy surf, and in straits separating islands (Garnett & Crowley 2000; Higgins & Davies 1996; Miskelly et al. 2001; Petyt 1995). They roost in large groups, mostly on rocks on islands, usually on ledges or in cavities of steep sea-cliffs and stacks, or rocky ridges, and less often on sheltered beaches of coves and estuaries (Higgins & Davies 1996).

The Anatarctic Tern (New Zealand) breeds in small colonies. The laying period occurs from September to December, rarely extending into February and March and with young fledging until late March to early April. On Antipodes Island, laying appears to occur later, during February (Higgins & Davies 1996; Miskelly et al. 2001). There is a high rate of nest failure on Macquarie Island (Garnett & Crowley 2000), most commonly due to flooding by storm waves and predation (Schulz & Gales 2004). The Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) has a clutch size of 1—2 eggs. On the Snares Island, NZ, during 1976—1977, of 14 eggs, 10 (71%) hatched and five (36%) fledged, however all died soon after during bad weather (Sagar 1978). During 1982—2000, the hatching success of the Snares Island population was 93%, with 75% of chicks fledging (Miskelly et al. 2001).  Banding showed that the minimum age of first breeding was 3 years. The oldest known bird was banded as a breeding adult in January 1984 and was 18+ years old when last seen in March 1999 (Miskelly et al. 2001).

When foraging, individuals patrol back and forth 3—8 m above the surface and, on sighting prey, hover, then plunge and also dip to the surface to snatch prey. The Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) normally forages alone or in small groups of up to five or six. There have been occasions when larger foraging flocks have been observed, and other species may forage alongside them, such as the Cape Petrel (Daption capense), Silver Gulls (Larus novaehollandiae), Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus griseus), Snares Crested Penguins (Eudyptes robustus), Common Diving-Petrels (Pelecanoides urinatrix), Fairy Prions (Pachyptila turtur), Buller's Albatross (Diomedea bulleri) and Shy Albatross (Diomedea salvini). They are predominately carnivorous, and dietary studies have indicated that they feed mainly on fish, crustaceans and occasionally molluscs, algae and insects (Garnett & Crowley 2000; Higgins & Davies 1996; Miskelly et al. 2001).

High winds and rough seas affect the subspecies' feeding ability, reducing the rate of attempt, capture and success (Higgins & Davies 1996; Miskelly et al. 2001).

Movements of the Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) are poorly understood. They are not considered migratory, as many birds remain on breeding islands throughout the year. Some birds (e.g. those on Campbell Island; Sadleir et al. 1986), are thought to be sedentary, moving only to the nearest open water in winter. On some islands, some birds depart from breeding areas during the non-breeding period. However the non-breeding ranges of populations are poorly known and birds possibly move out to sea. On Snares Island, birds tend to flock during March after the breeding season, before moving away during April to July and returning during September to November or sometimes as late as January. Some individuals from Macquarie Island are said to disperse as far north as Australia and NZ, though there are no confirmed records (Garnett & Crowley 2000; Higgins & Davies 1996; Miskelly et al. 2001).

Pairs defend the immediate area around the nest and the young. On Snares Island, defence was noted 9—11 days before laying, and continued throughout the breeding season. On Campbell Island, birds were observed swooping at intruders early in September. When nests are close together, territories are often only a few square metres in size (Higgins & Davies 1996).

The Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) is very similar to other subspecies of Antarctic Tern, such as Sterna vittata vittata, which is listed as Vulnerable under the EPBC Act. The Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) can be distinguished from S. v. vittata by the colour of the adult plumage, with the former slightly darker grey above and below, giving it more contrasting plumage and a paler breast compared to its chin and throat, whereas those patches are the same colour in S. v. vittata. In relation to juvenile plumage, the Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) is slightly lighter and less brown (more buff) on the breast and (in adults) has shorter wings, but a larger bill and longer tarsus and toes than S. v. vittata (Higgins & Davies 1996). When individuals are encountered in non-breeding plumage at sea, they could also potentially be confused with the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea), the Roseate Tern (S. dougalli), White-fronted Tern (S. striata) and Common Tern (S. hirundo). A suitably experienced expert in tern identification should be available for all surveys of this subspecies, in order to avoid inaccuracies due to misidentification.


The Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) is considered moderately conspicuous at sea and on land, particularly when in flocks (DEWHA 2010l).

Survey Methods

At sea, shipboard surveys are recommended for the Antarctic Tern (New Zealand). For inshore waters, boat transects and observation from onshore vantage points using telescopes may be possible. On land, area searches or transect surveys should be used, but caution is required to prevent disturbance if birds are nesting in the survey area. Land searches should survey by detection of flying birds, and nests. Scanning through mixed flocks of roosting or foraging terns when they are present is a potentially useful method of detection. Surveys of beach cast birds may represent an opportunity of detecting this species, though they provide little information on origins of specimens as bodies are usually displaced by currents and winds. Colony sites are well documented, with the only Australian breeding occurring at Macquarie Island (DEWHA 2010l; Higgins & Davies 1996).

Predation of shore nests has forced most pairs on Macquarie Island to breed on offshore rock stacks, which increases vulnerability to flooding from king tides and storm surges (Schulz & Gales 2004).

The absence of nesting Antarctic Terns (New Zealand) from the main island of Macquarie Island was caused by predation on nests and hatchlings by the Cat (Felis catus), the Black Rat (Rattus rattus) and the Weka (Gallirallus australia). However, recent feral eradication efforts have eliminated these predators.

Given the small size of the remaining population and ongoing rates of nesting failure due to natural causes, the persistence of the population on Macquarie Island must be considered tenuous. The ongoing prevention of feral animal establishment on Macquarie Island following the eradication program must be maintained in order to promote the recovery of the local Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) population and perhaps allow pairs to return to shore-nesting, where the threat of flooding is less than nesting on offshore rock stacks.

Management documents relevant to the Antarctic Tern (New Zealand) are at the start of the profile.

The following table lists known and perceived threats to this species. Threats are based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) threat classification version 1.1.

Threat Class Threatening Species References
Invasive and Other Problematic Species and Genes:Invasive Non-Native/Alien Species:Competition and/or predation Felis catus (Cat, House Cat, Domestic Cat) Sterna vittata bethuneiin Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006yb) [Internet].
Invasive and Other Problematic Species and Genes:Invasive Non-Native/Alien Species:Competition and/or predation Rattus rattus (Black Rat, Ship Rat) Sterna vittata bethuneiin Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006yb) [Internet].
Invasive and Other Problematic Species and Genes:Invasive and Other Problematic Species and Genes:Predation, competition, habitat degradation and/or spread of pathogens by introduced species Sterna vittata bethuneiin Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) database (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006yb) [Internet].

del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & J. Sargatal (1996). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Barcelona, Lynx Edicions.

Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH) (2005f). National Recovery Plan for Ten Species of Seabirds 2005-2010. [Online]. Available from:

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) (2010l). Survey Guidelines for Australia's Threatened Birds. EPBC Act survey guidelines 6.2. [Online]. Canberra, ACT: DEWHA. Available from:

Garnett, S., J. Szabo & G. Dutson (2011). The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2010. CSIRO Publishing.

Garnett, S.T. & G.M. Crowley (2000). The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2000. [Online]. Canberra, ACT: Environment Australia and Birds Australia. Available from:

Higgins, P.J. & S.J.J.F. Davies, eds (1996). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Volume Three - Snipe to Pigeons. Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Miskelly, C.M., P.M. Sagar, A.J.D. Tennyson & R.P. Scofield (2001). Birds of the Snares Islands. Notornis. 48:1-40.

Petyt, C. (1995). Behaviour of seabirds around fishing trawlers in New Zealand subantarctic waters. Notornis. 42:99-115.

Rounsevell, D.E. & N.P. Brothers (1984). The status and conservation of seabirds at Macquarie Island. In: Croxall, J.P., P.G.H. Evans & R.W. Schreiber, eds. Status and Conservation of the World's Seabirds. ICBP Technical Publication 2. Page(s) 587-592. ICBP, Cambridge, UK.

Sadleir, R.M.F.S., R.H. Taylor & G.A. Taylor (1986). Breeding of Antarctic Terns (Sterna vittata bethunei). Notornis. 33:264-265.

Sagar, P.M. (1978). Breeding of Antarctic Terns at the Snares Islands, New Zealand. Notornis. 25:59--70.

Schulz, M. & R. Gales (2004). Breeding of the Antarctic Tern (Sterna vittata bethunei) on Macquarie Island. Notornis. 51:114-116.

EPBC Act email updates can be received via the Communities for Communities newsletter and the EPBC Act newsletter.

This database is designed to provide statutory, biological and ecological information on species and ecological communities, migratory species, marine species, and species and species products subject to international trade and commercial use protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). It has been compiled from a range of sources including listing advice, recovery plans, published literature and individual experts. While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, no guarantee is given, nor responsibility taken, by the Commonwealth for its accuracy, currency or completeness. The Commonwealth does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the information contained in this database. The information contained in this database does not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth. This database is not intended to be a complete source of information on the matters it deals with. Individuals and organisations should consider all the available information, including that available from other sources, in deciding whether there is a need to make a referral or apply for a permit or exemption under the EPBC Act.

Citation: Department of the Environment (2014). Sterna vittata bethunei in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available from: Accessed Mon, 21 Apr 2014 14:33:53 +1000.