White common tern

Tahitian names


Interesting facts

The White common Tern is completely white with a dark blue beak that becomes black at the tip. It is a smaller bird with a wingspan of 70 to 87 cm that hunts in small packs. Its diet consists mostly of small (3-10 cm) fish that are scooped from the surface and, occasionally, may dive to eat cephalopods or catch insects on land. These birds reproduce year-round on all the motu of Tetiaroa and lay a single beige egg that has gray and brown spots. A particularity of the Common White Tern is that they do not build a nest, and instead lay and incubate their eggs in a nook on a tree branch. The incubation is done by both the male and female for 36 days before the chick is born and raised for 60 to 75 days. In 2014 there were 400 couples estimated in Tetiaroa.

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Gygis alba is also known as the “White Tern”, “Fairy Tern”, or “‘Itata'e” in Tahitian. This small, white seabird is found throughout the tropical Pacific, Indian and South Atlantic Oceans.

The 'itata'e is graceful and enchanting, and seems to have descended straight from the heavens. In Polynesia, similar to all native bird species, the 'itata'e is a messenger or incarnation of a god. For the 'itata'e, it is the god Tane, who is known as the god of all beautiful things and allowed light to enter the creation.

fairy tern in flight
white tern with a fish for dinner

‘Itata'e travel up to 120 miles offshore from their roost to feed. Their diet mainly consists of small fish near the surface that they catch by dipping or shallow dives. They usually prey on fish driven to the surface by large predators, such as flying fish mārara in tahititian and juvenile goatfish 'ōuma, They are often seen fishing alone or in small groups of mixed flocks.

In Tahiti, fishermen often rely on itata’e when looking for mahi mahi since both the bird and the dolphin fish chase after the same diet of flying fish.

‘Itata'e can breed year around, however we notice an increase in breeding activity during the austral summer from December to February. Typically, an 'itata’e couple pairs for life. The male and the female produce one egg per season. This spotted egg is soft when laid and is delicately balanced directly on a tree branch without the use of a nest.

baby gygas alba

About 36 days after, a small tuft of brown or spotted gray down emerges on a pair of disproportioned and powerful claws, allowing it to cling to the branch in any weather conditions. The parents take turns caring for the egg and the chick. After fledging, it takes two and a half months for the juvenile to be autonomous in feeding. He/she reaches sexual maturity at least in the third year. 

baby white tern in the Pisonia forest on motu Reiono

On Tetiaroa, these brilliant white seabirds are easily seen in the famous Pisonia grandis forest on the motu Reiono, alongside black noddies that also nest on these large native trees. The chicks will turn their backs to you when you pass by so that they cannot see you anymore, while the parents fly overhead to keep a watchful eye.

Motu Reiono is the first motu to have benefited from the removal of invasive rats, which posed a huge threat to nesting seabirds, turtles, crabs, and other native species. Now free from predation, white terns can reproduce in the primary forest without losing their eggs and young to invasive rats.

Find out more about the success of the rat eradication program on Tetiaroa

The 'itata'e are present on most motus and seem to adapt well to human presence. The Brando hotel guests can find them in the garden of their villa on a Pandanus tree branch.

An ‘itata’e couple are regularly seen together on a Pandanus branch along the path between the Villa 201 and Villa 202.

white tern couple

One day a guest called the concierge to report the presence of an all-white bird that appeared to be in poor health on a nearby branch. The guest was concerned that the bird had not moved from the branch since she had arrived at her villa. The concierge contacted Tetiaroa Society, so I went to check the condition of the bird. I climbed up the tree to see it more closely, and the bird flew away and unveiled an egg. The bird was obviously incubating. The male and female ‘itata’e look alike, so it is hard to tell that they are actually two different birds!

- Tarita Tumi Brando

fairy tern on Tetiaroa

Adult 'itata'e have black eyes, bill and legs. Their bill is electric blue at the base. Their plumage is immaculate white and silky. Their wings are sharp and reach a wingspan of 60 to 70 cm.

The 'itata'e surely is a beautiful bird for all to see.