The prevalence of juvenile salmonids (Oncorhynchus spp.) and marine forage fishes in the diet of Caspian terns (Hydroprogne caspia) nesting in the Columbia River estuary has been established, but the relationship between diet composition, foraging distribution, and productivity of these birds has received little attention. We used radio-telemetry and on-colony observations to relate changes in off-colony distribution to patterns of colony attendance, diet composition, and productivity of adult terns nesting on East Sand Island during two years of different river and prey conditions. Average distance from the East Sand Island colony (located in the marine zone of the estuary) was 38% (6.6 km) greater in 2000 compared to 2001, associated with lower availability of marine forage fish near East Sand Island and lower prevalence of marine prey in tern diets. Colony attendance was much lower (37.0% vs. 62.5% of daylight hours), average trip duration was 40% longer (38.9 min), and nesting success was much lower (0.57 young fledged pair-1 vs. 1.40 young fledged pair-1) in 2000 compared to 2001. Higher proportions of juvenile salmonids in the diet were associated with relatively high use of the freshwater zone of the estuary by radio-tagged terns, which occurred prior to chick-rearing and when out-migrating salmonid smolts were relatively abundant. Lower availability of marine prey in 2000 apparently limited Caspian tern nesting success by markedly reducing colony attendance and lengthening foraging trips by nesting terns, thereby increasing chick mortality rates from predation, exposure, and starvation. ?? 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.