Fairy Tern

Did you know?

Huge flocks of Fairy Terns have been seen along the north-western Australian coast by aerial fisheries observers. Individual flocks may contain up to two or three thousand birds, and one flock was estimated to contain as many as 15,000 birds.

Varied; common calls include a throaty 'krik-krik-krik' and a high-pitched, scolding 'kekekeket'.
Facts and Figures
Research Species: 
Minimum Size: 
Maximum Size: 
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Breeding season: 
September to January
Clutch Size: 
One to three, usually two
21 days
Nestling Period: 
20 days
Conservation Status
Associated Plants
Plants associated with this species
Basic Information
Scientific Name: 
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What does it look like?

The Fairy Tern is white, except for the crown which is black from bill to nape. The bill is orange-yellow and the legs are dull yellow. The sexes are similar. In non-breeding plumage the crown is largely white, mottled black and the bill is blackish at the base and tip. Immature Fairy Terns are similar to non-breeding adults. Young birds are similar to immatures, but upperwing coverts and mantle are mottled grey and brown. Also known as Nereis Tern, White-faced Tern, Little Sea-swallow, Sea-swallow or Ternlet.

Similar species: 

The Fairy Tern and the Little TernS. albifrons, are the two smallest terns in Australia. The Fairy Tern is similar in size and shape to the Little Tern but the Fairy Tern lacks the sharp pointed white brow of the Little Tern when breeding.The Little Tern is also slightly smaller, with dark outer primaries, rather than grey on the Fairy Tern.

Where does it live?

The Fairy Tern is found on isolated sandy inlets and along the coast from Dampier Archipelago, Western Australia, southward to Tasmania and Victoria, and is only vagrant to the east coast. It is most common in Western Australia and rare in New South Wales, Northern Territory and Queensland. It is also found in New Zealand and New Caledonia.


The Fairy Tern is found on coastal beaches, inshore and offshore islands, sheltered inlets, sewage farms, harbours, estuaries and lagoons. It favours both fresh and saline wetlands and near-coastal terrestial wetlands, including lakes and salt-ponds.

Seasonal movements: 

Movements are poorly known and the Fairy Tern appears partly migratory and partly non-migratory. The relationship between breeding and non-breeding ranges is not known. In South Australia Fairy Terns appear not to move regularly and are numerous at all times in some areas. Movements of the Victorian population are unknown but probably local. The Tasmanian population is migratory, moving away in winter, possibly to the mainland. South-west Australian populations are migratory, but the non-breeding range is not known although it is thought to include the west Kimberley coast.

What does it do?

The Fairy Tern feeds almost entirely on fish. Plant material, crustaceans and gastropods (snails) may also be digested, possibly from the stomachs of fish. Fairy Terns catch fish by plunging in shallow water and have been observed diving from heights of up to 5 m. They fly about 3 m - 10 m above the sea surface, hovering on rapidly beating wings with bill pointing downwards; then dive at angles of 60 degrees to almost 90 degrees with wings held in steep V before plunging into the water, rising again after a few seconds. They swallow fish head first.


The Fairy Tern breeds in colonies which are occasionally large (but they are solitary in New Zealand). Both sexes share incubation of the eggs and care of the young. The nest is a shallow scrape in sand, often rimmed with small pebbles, shell fragments or gravel. Nests may be in sandy patches among rock or on rocky flats, in areas spangled with tiny flowers, among stunted plants, clumps of Artotheca populifoliaand pigface or on banks of seaweed.They produce a single brood per season.

Living with us

Human disturbance is a major cause of desertion and failure at some colonies; some eggs are trampled by people or trail bikes. One colony nesting on an airstrip was destroyed by planes.

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