Little Tern

Sterna albifrons



The smallest pale tern of the region. The sexes are similar but plumage and markings differ slightly by season. During summer, the back and upperwings are grey, there's a black cap (but the forehead is white), and the bird is otherwise white. It has a deeply forked tail with no streamers, the legs are orange or yellow, and the yellow bill has a black tip. The tips of the wings are dark when flying. Winter plumage is similar (and is acquired from late-summer), but the white on the forehead becomes more abundant, the legs are paler and the bill darkens. Juveniles are similar to winter adults, though they're smaller, the crown is streaked, the leading wing-edge is dark, and the back looks scaly.


A marine species when in the region, the Little Tern prefers to nest on beaches of shingle or sand. European habitats include rivers and inland lakes, and it may feed inshore when not in breeding season.


Has rapid wingbeats and often hovers for a period before diving for fish. A colonial breeder, usually socialising in colonies of about 30 pairs, which is a smaller number than most other terns.


Diets consists mostly of small fish, particularly sand eels, and it also eats shrimps and insect larvae.


Female lays 2 or 3 eggs in May, and both parents incubate these for 18-22 days. Hatchlings have a layer of down; they depart the nest for nearby vegetation after a few days.


This bird is a summer visitor to Britain and Ireland. Some European birds leave breeding grounds in July and August and move southwards, flying along coasts. Inland breeders tend to migrate across land and near to rivers. Approximately 1900 pairs breed in the UK and 200 pairs in Ireland.

Observation Tips

The Solent and the north Norfolk coast are some of the best spots in the region for sightings of this bird. Usually seen on the coast, and most likely in colonies during summer. Their feeding grounds vary depending on the tide, and this can sometimes work in favour of observers.


Has a harsh 'cree-kik' call.
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