American Oceans
arctic terns on rock

Where Does the Arctic Tern Migrate to?

The Arctic Tern is a tiny bird with a mighty task: to migrate 25,000 miles to the other end of the earth two times a year! This birds’ mission to follow the sun and the arctic summer weather is one that scientists have been interested in for years. So where exactly does the Arctic Tern migrate to, and what route do they take to get there?

Chasing the Sun: Arctic Tern Migration Locations

Most people are familiar with the concept of having a summer home: a place of retreat that one goes to better enjoy the sun and warmth that the season brings. Saying this, there aren’t too many people who own summer homes, as the time, energy, and money is not worth having an alternate location just to better enjoy a season.

The Arctic Tern, however, has plenty of time and energy, and they don’t need to worry about money at all! To take advantage of this luxurious situation, the Tern has invested in not one, but two summer homes: one in the Arctic, and one in the Antarctic. 

Why Multiple Homes?

The Arctic Tern is a bird that mates for life with two things: their actual mate, and the sun. Because of this, they are very passionate about summer, as it is the time that the sun shines the most. 

In the Arctic and Antarctic especially, the summer sun lasts twenty-four hours. As you would think, these are the perfect locations for the Tern to pursue its sunny passion.

Arctic sun

However, there is one catch to the Arctic and the Antarctic having 24 hours of sun in the summer: during the winter, there are 24 hours of darkness for both places. 

The Arctic Tern does not exactly enjoy this catch, so they came up with a solution. When it is winter in the Arctic, it is summer in the Antarctic, and vice versa. So, it seems only natural (to the Arctic Tern) that they make a trip twice a year to ensure that they can enjoy summer in both locations, thus having sun 24 hours almost all year long. 

While most of us humans may find this excessive and honestly a bit dramatic, the Arctic Tern would argue differently: after all, they have been migrating from one end of the earth to the other (and back!) for generations, and do not seem to have a problem with the long trek. 

The Arctic vs The Antarctic 

The Arctic and Antarctic seem fairly similar to most people. Other than the fact that they are on opposite ends of the globe, they seem to uphold the same icy and cold conditions. To the Arctic Tern, however, the two places are very different regions.

The Arctic 

The arctic is located at the “top” of the earth in the north. This region is often claimed to be the “north pole.”

Anywhere within the Arctic Circle is considered a part of the Arctic: in other words, any location 66.5 degrees north (or higher) of the equator. 

The Arctic circle encompasses more countries than most people would expect, including parts of Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Russia, and the United States (Alaska). The Arctic Tern actually prefers to live in the upper regions of these countries as opposed to the very top of the earth.

The Arctic is where the Arctic Tern chooses to breed, nest, and raise their young. The Tern tends to spend the months of May through August in the Arctic before embarking on their extraordinarily long journey to the Antarctic in order to ensure their chicks are able to fledge beforehand. 

The Antarctic 

On the other hand, the Antarctic is what is commonly referred to as the “south pole.” The Antarctic Circle also encompasses everything south of 66.5 degrees latitude south of the equator.

The Antarctic Circle covers 20% of the southern hemisphere. The continent Antarctica, which lies within the Antarctic Circle, is covered almost completely in ice and snow. 

There is no indigenous population though there are quite a few scientists stationed to study the land, environment, and biology of Antarctica. The lack of humans makes the Antarctic a quietly welcome summer home to the Arctic Tern.

The Arctic Tern generally uses the Antarctic as a place to molt and rest, restoring their feathers as they prepare for the journey northward. The Tern spends the months of November through February in the Antarctic.

The Arctic Tern Migration Path

group of arctic terns migrating

While it would make sense for the Arctic Tern to fly straight from the Arctic to the Antarctic, the birds tend to turn their migration into quite the road trip!

Instead of making a straight shot to their desired location, the Arctic Tern tends to travel in an “S” type shape across the Atlantic ocean. While they spend almost all of their time flying over water, they seem to trace the shorelines of some northern continents before crossing the Atlantic completely and tracing the shorelines of another southern continent. 

For example, birds starting their migration journey in upper Canada may fly down the eastern coast of the United States and part of South America before crossing the Atlantic and flying down the coast of Africa – or even Australia! –  before crossing back over to the Antarctic. On the other hand, birds starting in Greenland or Iceland trace the European coast before crossing the Atlantic and flying down the coast of South America until reaching the Arctic Circle. 


The Arctic Tern migrates every year from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back! A 50,000 mile round trip to follow the sun may not appear worth it to most animals, but to the Tern, it is a necessity. 


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