Bird of the Week: Little Tern

Published 22 Jul 2019, 17:12 BST
A little tern returning to its nest with fish on the Norfolk coastline, August.
A little tern returning to its nest with fish on the Norfolk coastline, August.
Photograph by Ben Andrew, RSPB Images

Weighing no more than a tennis ball, little terns (Sternula albifrons) are the smallest of the five species of tern which breed in the UK, and one of the smallest seabirds. The delicately built adult birds have a black head and white forehead patch, along with a distinctive yellow beak with black tip. 

Little terns travel thousands of miles from West Africa to the UK, joining their noisy breeding colony. The male will attract a female through an acrobatic, aerial display which involves a fish offering and calling to the female. If she chases him and accepts the fish, they will mate. She will then lay 2-3 eggs in a shallow scrape on the ground close to the high-water mark. 

Little tern chicks are coloured to camouflage them against the sand to help protect them against predators in their exposed nests.
Photograph by Ben Andrew, RSPB Images

The chicks are speckled balls of beige and white fluff to try to keep them camouflaged from predators against the backdrop of their shingle beach nest. Unfortunately, this very open nesting place means that the eggs are still at risk from predation, being washed away during storms or disturbance from beach goers.

An adult sits with chicks in a nest, which are typically situated on coastal dunes.
Photograph by Kevin Simmonds, RSPB Images

Its vulnerable nesting sites and decline in Europe means this is an Amber List species but multiple organisations are working hard to protect this endearing bird. One successful conservation method has been to deposit little tern decoys made from wood and playing recordings of their calls in areas less vulnerable to flooding to attract the birds to nest there instead.

To see little terns, visit these beaches between April and August: RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk; Winterton Beach, Norfolk; Chesil Beach, Dorset; RSPB Pagham Harbour, Sussex; Gronant Beach, North Wales and RSPB Hodbarrow, Cumbria. 

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