Roseate Tern

Irish Name: Geabhróg rósach
Scientific name: Sterna dougallii
Bird Family: Terns
Conservation status


Rare summer visitor from April to October, the majority breeding at two sites in the Irish Sea, with another colony in Wexford.


Only seen over the sea. Slender seabird with narrow, pointed wings, long forked tail and long, pointed bill. Bill all dark with a red base when breeding. Grey above and white below, dark cap to head. Flight light and buoyant, can hover briefly over the sea before diving in, dives in with a distinctive angled powerful dive. A slight, elegant tern which is similar to Common and Arctic Terns. Told apart by flight action, more rapid and shallower wingbeats with shorter wings giving a more direct looking flight. Birds in adult summer plumage are very pale, much paler than other terns, with a faint rosy tinge to the upperparts. Legs are long and bright red. Tail steamers very long. Lacks dark trailing edge to primaries. Winter plumage, like all terns is different from breeding plumage. Adult winter plumage develops white forehead and dark carpal bar. Juvenile birds have bold patterns to upperparts with dark legs and bill. First winter birds similar to adults but with some retained juvenile feathers.


Calls either quick wader like "kerrick" (not unlike Sandwich Tern) or a deep, harsh "ach".


Chiefly marine fish.


Nest colonially on the ground. Restricted to two main colonies in Ireland, one on the island of Rockabill, off Skerries, Co. Dublin and one at Lady's Island, near Rosslare, in Co. Wexford. Birds have bred at other sites recently, for example on Dalkey Island, Co. Dublin and on the Blasket Islands Co. Kerry. Rockabill holds the most important colony in Europe with up to 1,200 pairs of birds. The colony at Lady's Island is much smaller with around a hundred pairs.


Winters in west Africa.

Monitored by

Roseate Terns are monitored annually at their breeding colonies on Rockabill Island and Lady's Island Lake. Also all-Ireland tern survey in 1995, and through breeding seabird surveys carried out every 15-20 years, the last was Seabird 2000, which was undertaken between 1998 & 2002.

Blog posts about this bird

Birds of Prey

King of the Ring - Ireland's record-breaking birds

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) recently published the ‘2020 Ringing Report’, detailing all of the birds ringed in Ireland and Britain up to the end of last year. Included in this is an update to the ‘longevity list’, i.e. the individuals of each species which have lived the longest. This always makes for fascinating reading, to see what ringed individuals bucked the trend by outliving their counterparts. Some birds can live a lot longer than you might think! See below for more on the Irish record-breakers, including one bird that is the oldest of its species seen by our staff this summer.  

Click here to read the full longevity list up to the end of 2020, on the BTO website.

  Ringing birds, by people who are appropriately trained and licensed, is a valuable way to learn about the lifespan of birds, their annual survival rates, migratory movements and dispersal, and how individuals use a certain area. All of these things vary by species, by location (e.g. Irish birds might do something different to English birds of the same species) and by time, and changes to weather patterns, loss of prey or food supplies, or destruction of habitat might cause these to change, which we can again measure through ringing. Ringing involves fitting a bird with a small lightweight metal and/or plastic ring with a unique code on it, so that specific individual is recognisable in the future and we know exactly where it has been in the past, and when it was in that place. There are around 100 bird ringers on the island of Ireland, and all sorts of species are ringed here, from Robins to Ravens, Blackbirds to Brent Geese, Coal Tits to Cuckoos, Siskins to Swifts, and everything in between. If you’re interested to find out more about ringing see this link on the BTO website, and we’ve also been running a regular feature in our BirdWatch Ireland membership magazine ‘Wings’ to highlight ringing projects currently running in Ireland, so check that out too!  

Irish birds on the Longevity List

Over the years, many birds either ringed in Ireland, or ringed elsewhere and found in Ireland, have taken pride of place on the ringing list. Some have fallen from the top spot over time, including a Manx Shearwater from the Copeland Islands in Northern Ireland, which was the oldest known living wild bird in the world when it was re-trapped by ringers in 2003, 50 years since being ringed as an adult, making it at least 55 years old when it was caught in 2003! You can read more about Manx Shearwater ringing on the Copeland Islands in this recent article from our Wings magazine here. See below for seven Irish birds currently ranked as the oldest of their species in Britain and Ireland, and we’ve got one to add to the list from our conservation work this summer….  

Greenland White-fronted Goose

A white-front ringed on the North Slob in Wexford in 1985, was shot in Iceland in 2004, making it 18 years and 10 months old!  


A Shag ringed on Great Saltee in Wexford as a chick in 1977 subsequently washed up on the beach at Greystones in Wicklow in 2007, making it a whopping 29 years and 11 months old!   wood-sandpiper-walking-on-rock

Wood Sandpiper

The Wood Sandpiper is a scarce passage migrant in Ireland, meaning they move through on migration in the autumn. A Wood Sandpiper caught on the Shannon Estuary in Limerick in 1974 was subsequently caught by another ringer in Belgium, 922km away and almost 8 years later. Some species that aren’t particularly common in Britain and Ireland might have a larger maximum lifespan recorded through ringing schemes elsewhere, but the examples here are the oldest individuals in Britain and Ireland for each species!  

Stock Dove

This increasingly-scarce pigeon species has a well-established breeding population on the Copeland Islands in Down. One bird caught in 1953 was found a mere 10km away on the mainland, 9 years and 2 months later!   short-eared-owl-flying-low-over-grassland

Short-eared Owl

A Short-eared Owl, ringed as nestling in the Forest of Balloch in South Ayrshire in Scotland was unfortunately shot in Cork, at 6 years and 8 months of age. It was originally ringed in May 1956 and met it’s untimely death in January 1963.  


Many people are a bit surprised that species such as Rooks are ringed and studied, but we can learn a lot about bird behaviour and environmental change by looking at our most common species. A Rook chick ringed in May 1982 in Castlewellan in Down was found dead 7km away. That mightn’t surprise you, as they can move around a bit and 7km isn’t too far as the Rook flies. The surprising bit though, is that it was exactly 22 years and 11 months since it was ringed!

Dipper Next time you see a Dipper, happily bobbing away on a rock in a stream near you, this might make you wonder how long it has been using that same rock! A Dipper ringed as a chick in April 2008 under a bridge in Laois was caught by the ringer again 8 years and 9 months later! We have our own distinct subspecies of Dipper in Ireland, so research into this species in Ireland is particularly valuable and important.  

And in 2021, a record-breaking Roseate Tern!

Ireland has the two largest Roseate Tern colonies in Europe, Rockabill in Dublin and Lady’s Island in Wexford, accounting for over 90% of Roseate Terns in north-west Europe. Ringing has been a really important tool for the conservation work by BirdWatch Ireland and the National Parks and Wildlife Service at both colonies, helping to monitor the progress of each bird as they grow as a chick, and when they return as an adult. Because such a large proportion of the Roseate Terns at both colonies are ringed, we have a really good insight into the average age of the population, and in most years we record a few birds in their late teens or early twenties. Not bad for something the size of a Blackbird, that migrates to and from West Africa every year! This summer, one of our Rockabill Wardens Alex Fink, spotted a Roseate Tern that had been ringed in July 1993, making it 28 years old and the oldest Roseate on record in this part of the world! The majority of breeding Roseate Terns are 3-7 years old, so this bird has done extremely well for itself, and depending on how successfully it has been breeding over the years, and how successful its offspring have been, it might even be a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparent!  

For more details on the oldest ringed birds in Britain and Ireland, see the BTO website here.

For more information about ringing projects in Ireland, see our regular ‘Ringing Tales’ feature in our Wings membership magazine. Click here to see about becoming a member.


If you find a bird with a ring and need help to report it and find where and when it came from, email us here with as many details as you can provide, particularly the code on the ring.


All Grown Up and Ready to Ring

Life continues to move fast out here on Rockabill. This year we recorded a record number of Roseate Tern nests on the island. That is a lot of chicks to watch over! Not only that, but each of these chicks need to be ringed with a uniquely coded leg ring so that we can continue to monitor them after they migrate and when they hopefully return to Rockabill to nest in the years to come. In no time at all our tiny tern chicks had shed their fluffy down feathers and had grown into their more elegant flight feathers.  
Common Tern chicks at different stages of their growth. Photos by Emma Tiernan, taken under NPWS license.
Roseate tern chicks at different stages of their growth. Photos by Emma Tiernan & Alex Fink, taken under NPWS license.
  Common tern chicks will start to wander away from their nest as early as 1 or 2 days old. Roseate tern chicks on the other hand will wait a bit longer and at 10 to 15 days old they will start to investigate the world outside their nest boxes.  
Common tern chick cosy under their parent on a cold day. Photo by Emma Tiernan, taken under NPWS license.
Roseate tern chicks from the same clutch stepping outside their nest box for the first time. Photo by Emma Tiernan, taken under NPWS license.
  It’s not just the terns, the Black Guillemots and Kittiwakes have also been getting very big, very fast.  
Black Guillemots at 5 days old (left) and over 15 days old (right) before getting weighed for biometrics analysis. Photos by Emma Tiernan, taken under NPWS license.
Kittiwake chicks at 5 days old (left) and over 20 days old (right), now almost ready to fledge. Photos by Emma Tiernan & Alex Fink, taken under NPWS license.

Ringing Takes Time

As the tern chicks continued to grow throughout June it wasn’t long before it was time for the annual ringing blitz. While we had each ringed the majority of Roseate and common Tern chicks within our study areas, thousands of chicks still remained to be ringed around the rest of the island. We definitely would not be able to accomplish this with just the three of us. Thankfully, on the 28th of June, we were joined by Dr Stephen Newton, BirdWatch staff Brian Burke and Tara Adcock, and ringers Caroline McKeon and Thorfinn Newton to help us with this daunting task. Bird ringing is strictly licensed in Ireland through both the NPWS and BTO and requires extensive training before licenses are granted! We spent the next 3 days sweeping through each sub-colony of the island, systematically searching every box and nest location to catch and ring every Roseate and Common Tern chick that could be found. Once caught, the chicks were given a uniquely-coded metal ring and Dr. Newton recorded the ring number and other important details including the species, location and wing size (which gives us an idea of how many days old that chick is). Once ringed, the chick was released in its original setting and we moved on with our search. It was a tedious job, but with the help of the volunteers and some good weather, we managed to get the bulk of this ringing completed quickly.  
Warden Micheal Fitzgearld and ringer Caroline McKeon busy ringing Common and Roseate chicks. Photo by Emma Tiernan, taken under NPWS license.
Tara Adcock ringing a young Common Tern chick. Photo by Emma Tiernan, taken under NPWS license.

Good News for our Arctic Terns

We are lucky to have thirty-seven Arctic Tern pairs nesting on the Rock this year. In previous breeding seasons, Arctic tern chicks out here have not been very lucky and most nest have been destroyed by either predation or wet weather. However, this year is looking good for our Arctic terns and 17 chicks have fledged. Fifteen Arctic chicks were fitted with BTO and special colour rings. Keep an eye out for some Arctic Terns along the East coast wearing a black ring with 2 white letters on the left leg.  
Dr Steven Newton colour ringing an Arctic Tern chick. Photo by Emma Tiernan, taken under NPWS license.
An adult Arctic Tern with a colour ring (black 'E5') on the right leg. Hopefully this years fledglings will return to Rockabill in the coming years! Photo by Brian Burke, taken under NPWS license.

Climbing for Kittiwakes

There were more than just Tern chicks to ring however, and with the majority of this work completed we set about catching adult Kittiwakes from the cliff tops on the Rock. Kittiwakes are now globally red-listed, so we’re trying to increase our monitoring of this beautiful gull on Rockabill. As well as ringing them, we also attached GLS tags to each one so that their movements over the next fifteen months could be tracked. All in all, we caught twenty of these beautiful birds over the course of two days.
Kittiwake with a GLS tag (on the green ring), plus identifying metal and colour rings, before being released back into the colony. Photo by Brian Burke.
  The week concluded with the Steve and the volunteers’ departure, leaving the wardens to look after more and more fledglings by the day. However, we were not left for too long, as a few weeks later it was time to go climbing to ring some Kittiwake chicks. Dr. Stephen Newton returned with work experience student Hannah O’ Connor, who helped us earlier in the season with the nest census, and we set off. As Kittiwakes are cliff nesting seabirds, catching some of the chicks for ringing required some Micheal’s rock climbing expertise.
Warden Micheal Fitzgerald has been a keen rock climber for years and was looking forward to climbing cliffs for Kittiwakes, Photo by Emma Tiernan.
  We set to work and over the course of two days, we ringed 174 Kittiwake chicks on the Bill and on the Rock.  
The Rockabill team ringing Kittiwake chicks while Micheal waits to carefully put them back in their nests. Photo by Emma Tiernan, taken under NPWS license.
  While its always enjoyable to find fluffy Kittiwake chicks, the work was made a bit more difficult as we worked through the recent heatwave. At the end of each day the wardens and Hannah enjoyed a well-deserved swim in the sea. After a very sweaty few days, it was time for Dr Newton to leave us again and we were once again left to our own devices, this time, however, on an island bustling with teams of busy fledglings, as they took to the air for the first time.  

- Micheal, Emma and Alex, Rockabill Team

  (PS – Don’t forget to keep an eye out for terns roosting around the coast at this time of year, and let us know via the link here)    

To find out more about what life is like as a seabird warden on Rockabill island, watch the Rockabill documentary here


This year’s work to protect and monitor the terns and other breeding seabirds on Rockabill would not be possible without support from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the cooperation of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

To revisit news and blogs from previous years on Rockabill, click the link here.


Similar Species

Common Tern

Irish Name:
Scientific name:
Sterna hirundo
Bird Family:

Arctic Tern

Irish Name:
Geabhróg artach
Scientific name:
Sterna paradisaea
Bird Family: