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A tern for the better

Asia’s rarest seabird discovered breeding

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Two adult and two juvenile Chinese Crested Tern spotted at Qingdao in August 2016, ©Yu Tao Website

Asia’s rarest seabird has been discovered breeding in the Korean Peninsula. This new stronghold could help the Chinese Crested Tern bounce back from near-extinction.

Our hearts raced as we saw them,” recalls Yunkyoung Lee and Se-Kyu Song. Amongst the hustle and bustle of a Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris breeding colony, the scene was a squawking mass of grey-and-white feathers and black-tipped bills. But in the chaos something looked different. If their eyes were not deceiving them, the researchers were looking at a bird never before seen in South Korea. They focused harder, knowing that less than 100 individuals of this species are known to exist in the world…

As part of a routine survey undertaken by the National Institute of Ecology of Korea, the team were on a rocky islet in the Yellow Sea, seven kilometres off the coast of southwestern South Korea. It was there, amongst the sparse short grass, that they spotted an anomaly happily sitting amongst the gulls in the Spring of 2016. “When we saw the distinctive headcrests we couldn’t believe we were looking at two pairs of nesting Chinese Crested Tern”, said Yunkyoung.

Chinese Crested Tern Thalasseus bernsteini is one of the rarest birds in the world – possibly the rarest seabird in the world, and certainly in Asia. Only rediscovered 16 years ago on the east coast of mainland China, after its assumed extinction since 1937, only three breeding sites were known of this Critically Endangered tern, all on islands south of China. That is, until this year: as well as a new site confirmed in the Taiwanese Strait, one chick has fledged from another, a South Korean colony all the way across the Yellow Sea.

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cChinese Crested Tern with a chick, and incubating, amidst Black-tailed Gull colony, South Korea ©Yunkyoung Lee Website

The return of Chinese Crested Tern as a breeding bird in the Yellow Sea is an extremely nice surprise,” says Simba Chan, Senior Conservation Officer for Asia, BirdLife International. Yet there is another twist in the tale: the situation in which the South Korean birds were found, breeding amongst a gull colony, gives new hope for the rare terns. At other discovered breeding sites (Matsu Islands, Jiushan Islands, Wuzhishan Islands and the recently-confirmed Penghu Islands), Chinese Crested Tern are found breeding in mixed colonies of Greater Crested Tern Thalasseus bergii. Chan explains the importance of the new discovery amidst the gulls: “

Shaun Hurrell - BirdLife

8th January 2017