The white-cheeked tern is the darkest of the terns in the genus Sterna(2). During the breeding season the back, wings, rump, tail and underparts are a dirty grey, while the crown is black and the cheeks are usually white, hence the common name (2)(3)(4). Outside of the breeding season the underparts are white and the head is mostly all white, except for black or dark brown areas around each eye and across the nape (2)(4). The legs and feet are red to dark brownish-red (2), and the bill is dark red at the base, and black towards the pale tip (4). Juveniles are similar in appearance to the non-breeding adult but are more brown above (2)(4).
The white-cheeked tern feeds on small fish and invertebrates, and often shares feeding grounds with predatory fish and marine mammals. It usually catches prey by plunging into the water or just dipping its bill below the surface, but will also land on the surface and walk in areas that are sufficiently shallow (2)(5).
During the breeding season it gathers with other tern species in scattered, mixed colonies that typically comprise around 10 to 200 pairs, but sometimes as many as 900 pairs. The colonies are usually situated in barren or sparsely vegetated areas on islands, sand-flats sand dunes, and beaches (2)(5). The nest is a shallow scrape in the ground in which the female lays two to three eggs. The incubation and fledging periods are unknown, but the chicks remain dependant on the parents for several weeks after fledging. Although some populations, especially in east Africa, remain in the same area year round, most are migratory (2).
Although the white-cheeked tern is not globally threatened, the species is subject to egg-collecting in many areas, whilst contamination of eggs through industrial pollution is a concern in India (2)(5).
The white-cheeked tern is listed under Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), which aims to conserve migratory species throughout their range (6). It is also listed under the associated Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA), which calls upon parties to engage in a range of conservation actions to help protect and conserve bird species that are dependent on wetlands for at least part of their annual cycle (7).
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