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Species Guide
A photo of a Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)
Little Tern

Little Tern

Sternula albifrons

The Little Tern, Sternula albifrons, is a diminutive member of the seabird family Laridae. This sprightly bird is easily recognized by its compact body, measuring 21–25 cm in length with a wingspan of 41–47 cm. It is characterized by its white forehead, which is particularly prominent during the breeding season.

Identification Tips

When observing the Little Tern, look for its yellow, thin, sharp bill tipped with black, and its matching yellow legs. In breeding plumage, the white forehead contrasts with a black cap, while in winter, the forehead becomes more extensively white, the bill turns black, and the legs appear duller. Its flight is buoyant and graceful, a delight to watch as it hovers over water before diving.


This species is partial to coastal environments, favoring gravel or shingle beaches and islands for breeding. It also frequents inland waterways, adapting to the habitats provided by temperate and tropical regions alike.


The Little Tern is a globe-trotter, breeding across temperate and tropical Europe and Asia, and migrating to subtropical and tropical oceans for the winter. Its range extends as far south as South Africa and Australia, with three recognized subspecies occupying distinct geographical areas.


The Little Tern is a colonial nester, laying two to four eggs directly on the ground. It is fiercely protective of its nest and offspring, ready to dive at intruders with surprising ferocity. Courtship involves the male presenting fish to the female, a tender ritual that strengthens their pair bond.

Song & Calls

Listen for a loud, distinctive creaking noise that carries over the sounds of the sea, a call that is unmistakably that of the Little Tern.


Breeding colonies are established on coasts and islands, where the Little Tern's nest can be found on the bare ground. The commitment to their young is evident in their vigilant defense against potential threats.

Similar Species

The Little Tern could be mistaken for the Fairy Tern or Saunders's Tern, but its size and the white forehead in breeding plumage are distinguishing features that aid in its identification.

Diet and Feeding

Adept at plunge-diving, the Little Tern primarily feeds on fish from saline environments. Its hunting technique is a marvel of precision, as it drops from the air into the water to catch its prey.

Conservation status

The Little Tern is currently listed as Least Concern by the IUCN. However, its populations have faced declines due to habitat loss, pollution, and human disturbance, particularly in coastal areas and along European rivers where traditional habitats have been compromised. Conservation efforts are ongoing to protect this species and its habitats, especially along rivers like the Drava where populations are critically threatened. The Little Tern is also a subject of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA), highlighting the international commitment to its preservation.

Little Tern Sounds

Recorded by: © 
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