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The Black-naped Tern (scientific name: Sterna sumatrana) is a slender white bird found in rocky islets near the Singapore coast. It was one of 34 bird species identified and named by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1822. Its species name sumatrana describes where Raffles collected the specimen from during his naturalist voyages, i.e., the Sumatran islands. It was featured on the S$1 notes of the "Bird Series" currency notes issued by the Monetary Authority of Singapore between 1976 and 1984. It also appeared on the 15-cent stamps of a 1952 postage stamp series featuring singing birds, the first set of stamps featuring the flora and fauna of Singapore.
This species of terns is a slender bird, with narrow wings and a distinct long, forked tail. Its name is attributed to the presence of a thin black band across its eyes that broadens around the nape, giving it a masked appearance. Its colour is predominantly white with a pale grey wash on its upper parts. Specimens recorded are 30-35cm in length. Both sexes are alike and its breeding plumage can be distinguished by a pinkish tinge to its underparts and a broader black band. Juveniles are buffy and have grey or black mottles on the head. The call is a high-pitched "kee kee" uttered a few times in flight.
Black-naped Terns nest in small colonies and usually do not nest with other tern species, although they may be associated with nesting colonies of Roseate Terns (Sterna dougalli). They lay their eggs directly on rocky surfaces on cliffs or on the ground in a slight depression above tide level with no nesting material. However, bits of rocks are sometimes used to encircle the eggs. One or two eggs are laid and these are light buff or pale greenish in colour with rough blotches of brown or black.
In Singapore, breeding has been recorded off Pedra Branca or Pulau Batu Puteh and off Fairy Point in Changi, in the Serangoon Harbour. The breeding season is between April and August.
This bird feeds on small fish and squid, often making small dives into the sea but also fishing from the surface. It is solitary when feeding.
Distribution and Habitat
There are 45 species of terns worldwide and they are primarily distributed in tropical areas. The range of the Black-naped Tern covers the Pacific and Indian oceans, starting from the Andaman and Nicobar islands and parts of the East African coast, eastward through southern Japan and China, and southwards through Southeast Asia, up to Papua New Guinea and parts of northeastern Australia.
There are 12 species of terns recorded in Singapore, and most are winter visitors. Whilst the Black-naped Tern is a resident of Singapore, it is not commonly sighted. These birds will roost and perch on offshore boulders and buoys and are scarce farther out in the open seas. They are seldom found with other tern and wader species on beaches.
Breeding populations have been established continuously on some of the rocky outcrops close to the Singapore coastline. However, there are reports of these colonies being raided by poachers and the population in the Thai-Malayan region has been described to be in general decline.
Malay: Chamar Tengkuk Hitam, Burong Chamar Sumatera, Chamar
Its Malay names describe its appearance (Tengkuk Hitam refers to the black nape) and locale (Sumatra).
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(Call no.: R 598.2954 ALI v. 3)
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(Call no.: R 598.29 HAN)
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(Call no.: RCLOS 598.29595 GIB -[GBH])
Hails, C. J. (c1987). Birds of Singapore. Singapore: Times Editions.
(Call no.: RSING 598.295957 HAI)
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(Call no.: RSEA 598.2989 KIN)
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(Call no.: RCLOS 598.29595 MAD -[GBH])
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Tweedie, M. W. F. . Common birds of the Malay Peninsula. Kuala Lumpur: Longman Malaysia.
(Call no.: RSEA 598.29595 TWE)
Wells, D. R. (c1999). The birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula: Covering Burma and Thailand south of the eleventh parallel, Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore: Vol. 1, Non-passerines. San Diego, California: Academic Press.
(Call no.: RSING 598.0959 WEL)
The information in this article is valid as at 2006 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.