Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)

The Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) is a very small migratory tern (21-25cm) which can be found in several locations around the world. In Australia it is most commonly found breeding from Tasmania to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Like many terns its appearance changes between breeding and non breeding plumage. See the photos of Little Terns below to see the differences.

Little Tern Non-breeding plumage.

Adult Little Terns have a dark/black bill and a dark brown eye. The forehead, forecrown is white and reaches to the nape. The dark band starts in front of the eyes and extends as a band around the back of the head. The chest and underbody are white with a pale grey rump and wings. The edge of the primaries is also a darker shade of grey. Legs are a dull orange brown colour.

Little Tern - Non Breeding Plumage

Little Tern – Non Breeding Plumage -Notice the dark bill and the white forehead. – Shoalhaven Heads, NSW

Little Tern - Non Breeding Plumage

Little Tern – Non Breeding Plumage – Culburra, NSW


Little Tern – Non Breeding Plumage -Notice the dark bill and the white forehead. – Burrill Lake, NSW

Little Tern Breeding Plumage

Adults are similar to non-breeding however the bill becomes bright yellow in colour with a black tip. The crown is black and extends over the forecrown leaving a white forehead. The other distinguishing feature is the black eye-line from the eye to the bill.

Little Tern - Breeding Plumage

Little Tern – Breeding Plumage, notice the yellow bill with black tip. – Culburra, NSW

Little Tern in Breeding Plumage

Little Tern in Breeding Plumage, notice the black line from eye to bill. – Culburra, NSW

Breeding Cycle


Little Tern Colony – Culburra, NSW

On the south coast we only get Little Terns during their breeding season. That is usually over summer from December to the end of February. They prefer large sand bars with colonies choosing Shoalhaven Heads, Lake Wollumboola, Lake Conjola and Burrill Lake within the Shoalhaven. The birds arrive and then start their courting behaviour which often includes the male offering up a fish to the female.

Little Tern Courting Behaviour

Little Tern Courting Behaviour – Culburra, NSW

Little Terns Courting

Little Terns Courting -Culburra, NSW

Once the bond is strengthened they start looking for suitable nesting sites.

Inspecting possible nesting site

Inspecting possible nesting site – Culburra, NSW

Breeding Little Terns

Breeding Little Terns – Culburra, NSW

The nest is simply a scrape in the sand where they will usually lay 2-3 eggs. The female will then sit on the nest waiting for the chicks to hatch.

Nesting Little Tern

Nesting Little Tern – Burrill Lake, NSW

Nesting Little Tern

Nesting Little Tern – Culburra, NSW

After 3 weeks the chicks start to hatch. They are very small and vulnerable at this age. They have several threats including Seagulls, Ravens, Foxes, Dogs, Cats and humans. Due to the myriad of predators their survival rate is rather low. The chicks also have the habit of running about in the open whilst the parents are out catching food.

Little Tern Chick

Little Tern Chick freshly hatched. Notice the unhatched egg in the background


Little Tern Chick

Little Tern adult and chick

Little Tern adult and chick

The chicks then start to grow quickly and will move often waiting for fish from their parents. As mentioned this is when they are most vulnerable.

Little Tern Chick

Little Tern Chick calling for food.

Little Tern chick being fed by adult

Little Tern chick being fed by adult

Older Little Tern chick taking shelter

Older Little Tern chick taking shelter

I believe after 3 weeks they are then at fledgling age and start to fly. They are still fed by their parents but are encouraged to attempt to hunt for themselves.


Little Tern Fledgling

The Little Tern is sometimes mistaken for a Fairy Tern which is very similar and resides around southern and western Australia. They have been recorded as far north as Sydney but are very uncommon. I was lucky to see one nesting with Little Terns at Burrill Lake on the South Coast of NSW. If you look at the photos there are a few differences. They do not have the dark line that extends from the eye to the bill. They have lighter outer primaries. They are slightly bigger and their bill is a slightly brighter orange.

Fairy Tern

Fairy Tern – Notice the lack of black tip on bill and no line extending from eye to bill. The bill is a darker orange. The outer primaries are lighter and the white forehead does not reach behind the eye.

In Flight

The Little Tern is a dynamic flyer often dropping to the ocean for fish. They call almost non-stop whilst flying and often chase one another around breeding season. It can be a challenge to capture them flying.

Little Tern Flying

Little Tern Flying

Little Tern Flying

Little Tern Flying

In conclusion the Little Tern is a very small Tern that is found predominantly in the north of Australia and down around the east coast to Tasmania. They often breed on sand bars out in the open and have several predators which impact heavily on breeding success. I really enjoy photographing them and I wish them well in the future.

For more Little Tern photos visit my Little Tern Gallery.