A tiny, but feisty, seabird, the little tern undertakes epic annual migrations of up to 10,000 km (6,000 miles) between breeding grounds along the UK coast to winter territories in West Africa. Further east, little tern populations complete similar journeys from China and Japan to Australia each year.
In breeding season, little terns have white underparts, breast and rump, and a grey upper back and wings. Their outer wing feathers are black, and their short, forked tail is white. Their distinctive facial markings include a black cap that extends to the neck, a white forehead, and a wide black stripe running from their bill to behind their eyes. Their bill is yellow, tipped with black, and their legs are orange-yellow.
Once breeding is complete, little terns moult into alternative winter plumage, losing the deep black cap and facial stripe, instead showing a black spot in front of the eye and a streaky black crown, receding into a smaller blackish patch to the rear of the head. Non-breeding adults have black bills and black legs.
Male and female little terns are alike in both breeding and non-breeding plumage.
Juvenile little terns are mainly white, with scaled black edges to their upper back feathers giving a chevron pattern. Their outer wing feathers are dark brownish grey and their legs are yellow-orange. As they enter their first winter, juvenile little terns begin to resemble non-breeding adults.
Little Tern in breeding plumage
Little Tern non-breeding plumage
Little terns are the smallest tern species found in the UK. Males and females are roughly the same size, although research data shows that males may be slightly heavier than females.
Little Tern in-flight looking for prey
A rasping ‘kri-ett, kri-ett’ is the most common call of a little tern, heard in flight and when feeding. A warning chattering call of ‘kerre, kri-ett, kerre, kri-ett’ is used to signal danger or to see off approaching predators around the nest site.
Juvenile Little Tern calling
Small fish, up to 6 cm in length, form the main part of a little tern’s diet, with sand eels, roach, carp, anchovies, sand smelts and perch among the top species caught. Small crustaceans and some aquatic insects are also eaten. Prey is caught by diving into shallow water or picking insects from the water’s surface.
Sand smelts are the main fish fed to little tern chicks, with high-energy foods also a key part of their diet, including sardines, garfish and killifish.
Little Tern feeding fish to its young
During the breeding season, little terns can be spotted nesting on beaches with little or no vegetation, including areas of shingle, sand, pebble, and shell-covered shoreline. They are also not uncommon at estuaries, or sometimes slightly further inland, at reservoirs, lakes, and along rivers, as well as out to sea at coral reefs and coastal saltpans.
Foraging grounds are usually located nearby, so nest spots are never far from either a saltwater or freshwater source.
During the non-breeding season, little terns visit tidal creeks and coastal lagoons. They may spend long periods foraging at sea, up to 15 km (9 mi) from land, and may also regularly feed on mudflats and saltpans.
Little terns that breed in Europe are found across the continent’s coastlines, from the British Isles and Portugal in the west, around the coasts of France, Italy, and Greece, and deeper inland into western Asia, through Turkey and Afghanistan.
Breeding also occurs along North Africa’s Mediterranean coast and along the Atlantic coast of Morocco. From here, little terns migrate south to spend winters on Africa’s coasts, as far south as South Africa on occasion.
Further east, into south Asia, south-east Russia, China, Japan, and south-east Asia, the range of the eastern population of little terns extends as far as Australia’s north and eastern coasts. Some Australian populations are resident all year round, while many birds that breed in these regions spend winters in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and into southern Australia.
Little Tern on the beach
Up to 100,000 pairs of little terns breed in China, while between 50,000 and 100,000 birds live in northern India. Within Europe, up to 18,000 pairs are in Russia, 5,000 to 8,000 pairs in Turkey and up to 4,000 pairs in Ukraine. The Australian population of little terns is estimated at around 10,000 individuals.
Globally, little terns are a fairly common seabird species, with between 190,000 and 410,000 individuals, of which up to 53,000 pairs are in Europe. Populations are scattered around coastlines across the continent, and sightings are not uncommon. In the UK, however, little terns are considered one of the rarest breeding seabirds.
In summer, between 14,50 and 1,900 pairs of little terns breed in colonies along the UK coastline. The largest nesting grounds are located on the east and south coasts of Scotland and England. Sites with the largest colonies include Blakeney Point and Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, Minsmere in Suffolk, and Langstone Harbour in Hampshire.
In Australia, little terns breed along the stretch of coastline from north-western Australia, through the Northern Territory into northern Queensland. Breeding grounds also line the country’s east coast to Victoria and around Tasmania. In recent years, breeding has also become established in South Australia.
Little Tern parents feeding their chicks with fish
The typical life expectancy of a little tern is approximately 12 years, with occasional records of much older birds identified through ringing schemes, including one that reached 25 years in 2018.
Breeding is thought to occur from the age of three years, although birds breeding in their second year have sometimes been observed.
As ground nesters, little terns and their eggs and young are vulnerable to a number of land predators, including foxes and badgers. Avian predators include gulls, kestrels, carrion crows, and stone curlews.
As a Schedule I species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, little terns’ nest sites and eggs are protected against being destroyed, disturbed, or damaged. The same legislation also states that it is an offence to knowingly kill or injure a little tern, or to take one into captivity.
In Europe, the population of little terns has witnessed significant declines, due to development in coastal regions and loss of suitable nesting habitats.
In the 19th century, little terns were common inland birds, breeding along rivers across Europe, but these populations have almost entirely died out because of damming of waterways and industrial development along many major rivers.
In their wider global range, little tern numbers are stable enough to be classified as a species of least concern. In the UK, they are rated as Amber on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list.
Pair of Little Terns during the courtship ritual
Little terns nest on the ground, using a shallow scrape built by the female directly on the shingle, sand, or pebble shore of a beach above the high tide line. Breeding sites may also be chosen in marshy wetlands, where a platform nest is built using plant matter.
Nest colonies usually consist of no more than 100 pairs, with island sites a popular choice to protect against disturbance by land predators.
Little terns arrive on European breeding grounds from April onwards, with eggs usually laid in May and June. Incubation is shared between males and females relatively evenly for between 21 and 24 days. After hatching, parental care continues to be shared, with both parents feeding their young until they are 2 months old.
For little terns native to Australia, the breeding season lasts from October to March.
Little terns’ eggs are well camouflaged against the shingle landscapes on which they build their nests. A typical clutch contains two or three cream to olive-brown eggs, which are marked with dark brown and grey blotches and measure 32 mm by 24 mm (1.3 in by 0.9 in).
Little terns are monogamous during the breeding season, with a spectacular courtship display signalling the beginning of a strong pair formation. The male presents the female with a fish, following an impressive aerial flight display. If the female is interested, she accepts the fish and pursues the male high into the air, before he then divebombs with a swooping gliding flight.
Pairs separate ahead of winter migration but may reform on the return to breeding grounds the following spring.
Nest of a Little Tern with two eggs
Little Tern parent sitting on eggs in the nest
A common trait among white terns is severe aggression when defending their nests, and little terns are no exception, with fierce displays and attacks against any intruder that approaches too closely while during the breeding season.
Little Tern in-flight
Little terns are migratory, breeding in coastal regions of Europe and Asia, and spending winters in tropical oceans, reaching South Africa and Australia.
Little terns that breed in eastern Europe and south-west Asia spend winters around the Red Sea and Arabian Sea, with some reaching as far south as South Africa. The south-western coast of the Caspian Sea is an important staging point for passage migrants, with thousands of birds gathering ahead of their onward migration.
The little tern population that breeds around the Caspian Sea heads to the coasts of the Persian Gulf and the coast of west India once they have raised their young. Those that breed in East Asia migrate southwards, to the seas around coastal South East Asia and some reach as far south as Australia.
Some small regions of the north coast of Australia are home to breeding populations of little terns and these move to the ocean waters around Indonesia, as well as other parts of Australia and sometimes as far south as New Zealand.
Little terns’ migrations to and from breeding grounds are timed to coincide with peak fish seasons in both the northern and southern hemisphere oceans.
Family:Gulls and terns
22cm to 24cm
48cm to 55cm
49g to 63g
Named in honour of the French naturalist and ornithologist, Jean Victor Audouin (1797 – 1841) the Audouin’s gull is one of the world’s rarest and is limited in the main to regions within and surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
Until fairly recently yellow-legged gulls were considered a subspecies of the caspian gull or the herring gull. In 2007, the British Ornithologists’ Union first listed it as a distinct species with key differences in appearance and distribution range from similar-looking gulls.
Sandwich terns are migratory seabirds that breed at large nesting colonies along the warm-water coasts of Europe, parts of the south-eastern United States, the Caribbean and as far south as Patagonia in South America. Their distinctive yellow-tipped bill and shaggy black crest make them relatively unmistakable alongside similar seabird species.
Roseate terns have a wide distribution range, and are found on six continents around the world. However, numbers have declined dramatically in some regions, leading to conservation concerns over the long-term survival of the species.
Despite its name, the Mediterranean gull is not limited to coastal waters of southern Europe, and is widespread on the Atlantic and Black Sea coasts, as well as in coastal regions and inland reservoirs of England and Wales.
Little gulls are small, tern-sized seabirds that breed mainly in Central Asia, but are occasionally reported as vagrant breeders in North America and may be seen in passage around coastal areas of the UK, and rarely reach the United States and Canada.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull
The Lesser Black-backed Gull is one of many attractive ‘white-headed-gulls’ from the Larus genus. Common in the UK throughout the year, these migratory seabirds also visit the eastern half of the United States each winter.
The Kittiwake is an attractive, short-legged gull that breeds on rocky cliffs along the UK’s coastline. These birds disperse each winter to forage out over the open ocean.
Iceland Gulls breed exclusively along the rocky coastlines of north-east Canada to Greenland. Winter migration south occurs, with temporary visitors arriving along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States, and to coastal areas across north-western Europe.
A familiar bird of the coast, the bold and long-lived Herring Gull is a fascinating seabird in decline.
Great Black-Backed Gull
The Great Black-backed Gull is the world’s largest gull and one formidable seabird. This impressive species lives and breeds along Northern Hemisphere shores on both sides of the Atlantic.
A large, pale gull species, the Glaucous gull breeds across the Arctic, where it hunts for fish, birds and small mammals and scavenges for carrion. Known for their intolerance of sharing a food source with other birds, Glaucous gulls can be physically aggressive as well as highly vocal when approached.
Terns are water birds from the family Sternidae and are expert fish catchers. There are generally considered to be forty five separate species of terns worldwide. Generally smaller than gulls but with long tails, thin bodies and short legs, they are long distance migrants.
There are four sub-species of the common gull with the European variant being the nominate. The other three are the Russian, Kamchatka and American, which are all predominantly confined to the geographical region attributed by their name. There are subtle differences in plumage and overall size of bird between sub-species.
The title of Black-headed Gull is rather a misnomer for this bird as its head is not black but a dark brown colour and only in adult birds during the breeding season. It is not present during the winter months or in other plumages. Unlike many gulls it is not restricted to coastal regions and is widespread inland in both rural and urban areas.
The Black Tern is a small, graceful seabird that nests far from the ocean. These birds switch between radically different habitats in the breeding and non-breeding seasons, but habitat loss inland has caused their numbers to plummet since the mid-1900s.
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