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Little Tern

Sternula Albifrons

The little tern is the smallest tern to breed in the UK and has a bright yellow bill with a black tip.  Adults have a black cap with a distinctive white brow (albifrons) clearly seen in their breeding plumage, and bright orange legs.

Weighing in at about 50g, which is about a third of the weight of an average mobile phone, these diminutive birds are instantly recognisable by their tiny size and will be seen fishing relatively close to the shoreline, plunge diving for small prey.

Little terns winter in West Africa and migrate thousands of miles to nest on our beaches from April to August.

All about little terns

Little terns’ courtship is an elaborate dance, starting with an aerial display from the male bird who will be calling and carrying fish to attract a female. If she’s interested, she’ll follow him in the air, and, once back on the beach, if she decides to accept the fish her prospective mate is offering, the pair will then mate.

A female will chase him up high before he descends and back on the beach she may accept the fish offered. Once an offering has been accepted they will then mate. Their nests are shallow scrapes on sand or shingle beaches, spits or inshore islets where they normally lay 2-3 eggs.

Nesting just above the high tide line on shingle or gravelly beaches in small colonies, a female will lay 2 – 3 eggs in a tiny scrape. The well-camouflaged eggs, the size of your thumbnail, and eventual hatchlings, the size of your thumb, are almost invisible to the naked eye and extremely vulnerable to disturbance as well as predation.

Unusually for seabirds, little terns stay close to their colonies to feed, working incredibly hard to raise their brood. One study found that a little tern feeding its young, would make as many as 100 dives in an hour, visiting its young in the nest more than 60 times in a single day. Chicks are fed by their parents for several weeks until, with much practice, the fledglings finally master the art of fishing.

Local Spotlight

It’s hoped that raising shingle banks at known little tern nesting sites around the Solent will protect them from the storm surges and rising sea levels that have devastated breeding colonies in recent years.

Conservation status

UK conservation status is amber due to the decline in their breeding range and low productivity due to disturbance and predation.

Did you know?

A ringed little tern known to be 27 years old was recorded which means that in its lifetime it will have travelled nearly 200,000 miles.