Images by Kevin Simmonds
Images by Kevin Simmonds
Little Tern Project
Little Tern Project

Little tern facts

Appearance: one of the UK’s smallest seabirds, weighing only 40-60g - no more than a tennis ball.  Adults have a black cap and a distinctive white forehead.  Its bill is yellow with a black tip.


Family: Terns (Sternidae): including the little tern there are five species of terns breeding in the British Isles.  These are common tern, roseate tern, Arctic tern and Sandwich tern.


Courtship and Breeding: they return to the UK in April to breed.  Courtship starts with an aerial display involving the male calling and carrying fish to attract a mate.  A female will chase him up high before he descends and 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 they 2-3 eggs. 


Migration:  little terns winter in West Africa and migrate thousands of miles to nest on our beaches during April to August.


Habitat:  in the UK, little terns nest exclusively on the coast in well-camouflaged shallow scrapes on sand and shingle beaches, spits or inshore islets.


Distribution: found around the UK coastline at suitable breeding beaches.  The largest colonies can be found along the east coast of England.  They occur along European beaches and globally have several sub species.  Other closely related species are the least tern in North America and the fairy tern in New Zealand.


Feeding:  takes place in shallow, sheltered coastal areas with a diet of fish and invertebrates.  They can be seen plunge-diving for fish along the shoreline.  Feeding close to the shore is a foraging behaviour not seen in other seabirds which may fly long distances for food.  This means little terns are vulnerable to disturbance where they feed and a lack of prey food close to their breeding colony.


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Little Tern Recovery Project is generously supported by the EU LIFE+ Nature Programme