Little Tern

Did you know?

Occasionally pairs of Little Terns can still be seen diving for fish in Sydney Harbour, where their high pitched calls attract attention. Flocks of as many as 1000 or more birds have been seen on the estuary of the Hunter River and other places on the coast.

Varied; common calls include an abrupt 'jeep' and a frantic 'kee-kee-kee'.
Facts and Figures
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Breeding season: 
September to January
Clutch Size: 
2 to 3
22 days
Nestling Period: 
19 days
Conservation Status
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Basic Information
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What does it look like?

The Little Tern is mainly white with a dark crown, pale grey back and upperwings. The eye is dark brown. When breeding, the bill is yellow, the crown black with a short, pointed white brow and the black eye-line reaches the bill. In non-breeding plumage, the crown is mottled with white and the bill blackish. The wing tips are two-toned grey to black on the outer primaries (flight feathers). The sexes are similar and immature birds are similar to non-breeding adults with upper wings and back mottled grey and brown. The Little Tern is also known as the Black-lored Tern, the Sea Swallow, or the White-shafted Ternlet.

Similar species: 

The Little Tern and the Fairy Tern, S. nereis, are the two smallest terns in Australia. The Fairy Tern lacks the sharp pointed white brow of the Little Tern when breeding.The Little Tern is also slightly smaller, with two-toned dark to black wing tips, rather than the single-toned grey of the Fairy Tern.

Where does it live?

The Little Tern breeds in North America, Eurasia, Western Africa and Australasia and winters in northern South America, Africa, Southern Asia and Australasia. In Australia, it breeds from Tasmania to the Gulf of Carpentaria and has bred in the Coorong and near Adelaide, South Australia. It has been recorded across Northern Australia to Shark Bay, Western Australia.


The Little Tern is mainly coastal, being found on beaches, sheltered inlets, estuaries, lakes, sewage farms, lagoons, river mouths and deltas.

Seasonal movements: 

The Little Tern is migratory. Substantial numbers move north from the far south-east after breeding. In Australia generally, except in the south-west, it is almost exclusively coastal.

What does it do?

The Little Tern eats small fish, insects, crustaceans and other invertebrates. It prefers to feed over shallower coastal waters and can hover briefly with the body horizontal and the bill pointing down, before plunging into the water to catch prey.


The Little Tern breeds in small colonies, with each mating pair producing a single brood. The sexes share nest-building, incubation and care of young. The nest is a shallow scrape in sand or shingle, usually just above the high tide mark on sandy shores, and is unlined but often rimmed with fragments of shell or dry seaweed.

Living with us

The Little Tern is extremely sensitive to human disturbance when breeding and is rapidly declining in numbers and range. Nesting sites are usually located where humans swim, walk, exercise dogs, picnic and drive off-road vehicles.The mere presence of people on the beach may cause these terns to desert their eggs and eventually leave the colony altogether. In New South Wales, where they were once quite common, the breeding population of Little Terns has declined to fewer than 50 pairs and of 30 known breeding sites only a handful have been used since 1970. The Little Tern has been declared an endangered species and the Department of Environment and Conservation is actively promoting its protection.

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