We photographed this tern in an industrial salt pan of the Bay of Cádiz in August 2012. Even though its general aspect matches that of an Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans) from America, the identification of this and several other “orange-billed” terns recorded in Spain, Portugal, Italy and France has been a mystery over the years. The extreme rarity of the Elegant Tern in Europe, the existence of similar species such as the Lesser-crested Tern and the American and African subspecies of the Royal Tern, together with proven and suspected cases of hybridization have all contributed to an interesting debate.
Thankfully, some of these birds, including the one in the picture, were sampled for genetic analysis. The long-awaited results of the genetic analysis using state-of-the art procedures (multilocus instead of the traditional single-locus barcoding) have been just published in the Journal of Ornithology. Accordingly, this tern and two more out of the four sampled individuals are pure Elegant Terns, unequivocally. This way, the occurrence and reproduction of Elegant Terns in Europe has been finally confirmed!
We recommend the article on the matter published at Birdguides web where the whole issue has been comprehensively reviewed, including an excellent selection of pictures of the studied individuals.
Interestingly, on the second of August 2016 this tern (which lost its yellow ring in 2012) and a food-begging juvenile have been recorded again in the same area of the Bay of Cádiz by Rafa García Costales. This way, the coast of Cádiz stands out as an unique area to observe three species of “yellow/orange-billed” terns, namely: Elegant Tern, Royal Tern and Lesser-crested Tern, and the eventual presence of hybrids of different origin should not be overlooked!
We thank our friend Rafa García Costales for his help to observe and photograph this tern and his dedication on the study of terns in Cádiz.