The smallest fresh-water tern in the region. A common non-breeding Palaearctic migrant from central Europe and east to China. It is likely that a large proportion of southern African birds come from central Asia. The main migration route into Africa follows the Nile River Valley, reaching South Africa during September.
In South Africa they appear in their non-breeding plumage. In south Africa the head is predominantly white, sometimes with a black streak extending from behind the eyes over the crown, separated from grey mantle by a white collar. Rump, upper tail coverts and tail pale grey. Upper wing pale grey, flight feathers silvery grey. Underparts white, bill black, legs dark red, tinged black. At their European breeding grounds the breeding male birds have the head, nape, mantle and back glossy black. Rump and upper tail coverts and tail white. The bill is dark red to black, eyes dark brown with legs and feet deep red to orange-red. Adult breeding female as the male but black coloration duller, with a grey tail.
Immature birds duller grey plumage. Bill blackish-brown, base pale reddish to yellowish, legs red to orange-grey.
The White-winged Tern is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa away from large deserts and forested regions. Widespread in South Africa, populations centred in eastern half of our region, avoiding the dry west. Inhabiting large inland wetlands, including ephemeral water bodies. Regularly at artificial water bodies, including sewerage works and saltpans. Less common at coastal wetlands and estuaries. Uncommon on the coast, forages over several terrestrial habitats, including valley bushveld and agricultural land.
Roosts communally on low, bare, muddy or sandy islets with a shallow covering of water, often in company of other terns and waders. When not foraging rests on floating rafts of Kariba weed.
Usually forages in flocks over fresh or brackish water, targeting dense concentrations of prey. Regularly forages away from water, over crops, scrubland and thickets. Forages exclusively by day under natural conditions. Forages on the wing, pursuing aerial invertebrates. Also plunge dive for fish. Hunts crabs by walking on mud.
They are purely summer visitors, returning to their breeding grounds by mid March to April.