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Little Tern

At the Sanctuary Point Boat Ramp


The Little Tern is mainly white with a dark crown, pale grey back and upperwings. The eye is dark brown. When breeding, the bill is yellow, the crown black with a short, pointed white brow and the black eye-line reaches the bill. In non-breeding plumage, the crown is mottled with white and the bill blackish. The wing tips are two-toned grey to black on the outer primaries (flight feathers). The sexes are similar and immature birds are similar to non-breeding adults with upper wings and back mottled grey and brown. The Little Tern is also known as the Black-lored Tern, the Sea Swallow, or the White-shafted Ternlet.

Similar Species

The Little Tern and the Fairy Tern, S. nereis, are the two smallest terns in Australia. The Fairy Tern lacks the sharp pointed white brow of the Little Tern when breeding.The Little Tern is also slightly smaller, with two-toned dark to black wing tips, rather than the single-toned grey of the Fairy Tern.


The Little Tern breeds in North America, Eurasia, Western Africa and Australasia and winters in northern South America, Africa, Southern Asia and Australasia. In Australia, it breeds from Tasmania to the Gulf of Carpentaria and has bred in the Coorong and near Adelaide, South Australia. It has been recorded across Northern Australia to Shark Bay, Western Australia.


The Little Tern is mainly coastal, being found on beaches, sheltered inlets, estuaries, lakes, sewage farms, lagoons, river mouths and deltas.


The Little Tern eats small fish, insects, crustaceans and other invertebrates. It prefers to feed over shallower coastal waters and can hover briefly with the body horizontal and the bill pointing down, before plunging into the water to catch prey.


The Little Tern breeds in small colonies, with each mating pair producing a single brood. The sexes share nest-building, incubation and care of young. The nest is a shallow scrape in sand or shingle, usually just above the high tide mark on sandy shores, and is unlined but often rimmed with fragments of shell or dry seaweed

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