Thai National Parks

Species of Thailand

Gull-billed tern

Gelochelidon nilotica, Johann Friedrich Gmelin, 1789

(In Thai: นกนางนวลแกลบปากหนา)

The gull-billed tern (Gelochelidon nilotica), formerly Sterna nilotica, is a tern in the family Laridae. The genus name is from Ancient Greek gelao, "to laugh", and khelidon, "swallow". The specific niloticus is from Latin and means of the Nile. The Australian gull-billed tern was previously considered a subspecies.


This is a fairly large and powerful tern, similar in size and general appearance to a Sandwich tern, but the short thick gull-like bill, broad wings, long legs and robust body are distinctive. The summer adult has grey upperparts, white underparts, a black cap, strong black bill and black legs. The call is a characteristic ker-wik. It is 33 - 42 cm in length and 76 - 91 cm in wingspan. Body mass ranges from 150 - 292 g.

In winter, the cap is lost, and there is a dark patch through the eye like a Forster's tern or a Mediterranean gull. Juvenile gull-billed terns have a fainter mask, but otherwise look much like winter adults.

Juvenile Sandwich terns have a short bill, and are frequently mistaken for gull-billed tern where the latter species is uncommon, such as North Sea coasts.


There are five listed subspecies of the gull-billed tern:

  • G. n. nilotica – (Gmelin, 1789): nominate, found in Europe, North Africa through the Middle East & south-central Asia to western China & Thailand
  • G. n. affinis – (Horsfield, 1821): found in Transbaikalia to Manchuria, Japan, south and east China through southeast Asia to the Philippines, Borneo, Sulawesi & Sumatra
  • G. n. aranea – (Wilson, 1814): found in eastern & southern United States, Greater Antilles
  • G. n. vanrossemi – Bancroft, 1929: found from southern California to northwestern Mexico
  • G. n. gronvoldi – Mathews, 1912: found from French Guiana to northeastern Argentina


It breeds in warmer parts of the world in southern Europe, temperate and eastern Asia, both coasts of North America, eastern South America. This bird has a number of geographical races, differing mainly in size and minor plumage details.

All forms show a post-breeding dispersal, but the northern breeders are most migratory, wintering south to Africa, the Caribbean and northern South America, southern Asia and New Zealand.

The gull-billed tern is one of the species to which the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) applies.

Life history

This species breeds in colonies on lakes, marshes and coasts. It nests in a ground scrape and lays two to five eggs. While widely distributed in freshwater areas in Eurasia, it is associated almost solely with saltwater, coastal areas in North America.

This is a somewhat atypical tern, in appearance like a Sterna tern, but with feeding habits more like the Chlidonias marsh terns, black tern and white-winged tern. It used to be grouped in the genus Sterna but is now placed on its own in the genus Gelochelidon.

The gull-billed tern does not normally plunge dive for fish like the other white terns, and has a broader diet than most other terns. It largely feeds on insects taken in flight, and also often hunts over wet fields and even in brushy areas, to take amphibians and small mammals. It is also an opportunistic feeder, and has been observed to pick up and feed on dead dragonflies from the road.

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Category / Seasonal Status

Wiki listed status (concerning Thai population): Winter visitor

BCST Category: Recorded in an apparently wild state within the last 50 years

BCST Seasonal status: Non-breeding visitor

Scientific classification

Gelochelidon nilotica

Common names

  • Thai: นกนางนวลแกลบปากหนา


  • Gelochelidon nilotica affinis, Thomas Horsfield, 1821

    Range: Japan, south and east China through southeast Asia to the Philippines, Borneo, Sulawesi & Sumatra

  • Gelochelidon nilotica aranea, Alexander Wilson, 1814

    Range: Eastern & southern USA, Greater Antilles

  • Gelochelidon nilotica gronvoldi, Gregory Macalister Mathews, 1912

    Range: French Guiana to northeastern Argentina

  • Gelochelidon nilotica macrotarsa, John Gould, 1837

    Range: Australia

  • Gelochelidon nilotica nilotica, Johann Friedrich Gmelin, 1789

    Range: Europe, North Africa though the Middle East & south-central Asia to western China & Thailand

  • Gelochelidon nilotica vanrossemi, G. Bancroft, 1929

    Range: Southern California to northwestern Mexico

Conservation status

Least Concern (IUCN3.1)

Least Concern (IUCN3.1)


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Gull-billed tern
Gull-billed tern

Range Map

Distribution map of Gull-billed tern, Gelochelidon nilotica in Thailand
  • Amphawa District, Samut Songkhram
  • Ban Laem District, Phetchaburi
  • Bang Pu Recreation Centre
  • Bueng Boraped Non-Hunting Area
  • Hat Chao Mai National Park
  • Khao Khiao - Khao Chomphu Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park
  • Klaeng District, Rayong
  • Ko Libong
  • Laem Pak Bia
  • Mueang Chonburi District, Chonburi
  • Mueang Krabi District, Krabi
  • Mueang Pattani District, Pattani
  • Mueang Phetchaburi District, Phetchaburi
  • Mueang Samut Sakhon District, Samut Sakhon
  • Mueang Samut Songkhram District, Samut Songkhram
  • Pak Thale
  • Phi Phi Islands
  • Phutthamonthon District, Nakhon Pathom
  • Samut Prakan Province
Range map of Gelochelidon nilotica in Thailand