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Southwest ecological burns important for orange-bellied parrot conservation


Planned ecological burns in Southwest National Park will help regenerate important habitat areas for the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot.More

Upgraded Julius River bridges improve visitor access


Bridge upgrades at the Julius River Regional Reserve are now complete.More

Viewing platform upgrades for Rocky Cape's Aboriginal heritage sites


Two viewing platforms have been replaced as part of visitor facility improvements at Rocky Cape National Park on the North-West Coast. The platforms are at the Lee Archer Cave and South Cave sites, which have highly significant Aboriginal heritage values.More

Little Tern, Sterna albifrons


The Little Tern is a slender, migratory seabird. The smallest of Tasmania's terns, it reaches 250mm. It has a white chest and underbelly, pale grey back and upperwings, a black crown and black leading wing-edges. During the breeding season the bill is yellow and a narrow wedge leads from the eye to the bill.

In non-breeding plumage, the crown is mottled with white and the bill is blackish. Males and females are similar and immature birds are similar to non-breeding adults, with upper wings and back mottled grey and brown.

The Little Tern can be distinguished from the similar Fairy Tern by the narrow, black wedge that extends from eye to bill during the breeding season, and the black wing tips rather than the single-toned grey of the Fairy Tern.


The Little Tern is found on coastal beaches, but also sheltered inlets, estuaries, lakes, lagoons and river mouths.


The Little Tern eats small fish, insects, crustaceans, annelids and molluscs. It can be seen hovering briefly before plunging into the water to catch prey. It often feeds in flocks.


The Little Tern breeds in low dunes or on sandy beaches, and near estuary mouths, coastal lakes and islands. The nest is a scrape in sand above the high tide mark which may be lined with shell grit, seaweed or small pebbles. Up to three, well-camouflaged eggs are laid. Incubation lasts for 22 days. Each mating pair produces a single brood and shares nest-building, incubation and care of young. Both parents aggressively defend the nest against intruders until the young fledge at 17 - 19 days.


A sharp, high-pitched "cweek" and "peet-peet-peet".


Distribution Map courtesy Natural Values Atlas, data from theLIST
© 2010 State of Tasmania
The Little Tern is migratory. After spending the northern summer through North America, Eurasia, Western Africa and Australasia, the species migrates to northern South America, Africa, Southern Asia and Australasia to breed.

In Australia, it is found on the north, east and south-east coasts, from Shark Bay in Western Australia to the Gulf of St Vincent in South Australia.  It breeds in spring and summer along the east coast from Tasmania to northern Queensland. Only occasional birds seen in winter months.

In Tasmania, birds are found mainly along our north-east coast, from Bridport to Little Musselroe Bay, the Furneaux Group of islands and King Island. They are limited to certain breeding areas - those with coastal lagoons nearby for fishing in when seas are too rough.


The Little Tern is extremely sensitive to human disturbance and is rapidly declining in numbers and range throughout Australia.

It is listed as endangered under the Tasmanian Threatened Species Act 1995. Very few individuals breed in Tasmania (less than a dozen pairs).

Threats to nesting birds include four wheel driving on beaches, trampling by people and disturbance and predation by domestic and feral animals. Cats, dogs, foxes and black rats predate on eggs and kill the chicks. Nests may be trampled by stock.

Other coastal nesting birds, such as the threatened Hooded Plover and Fairy Tern, face similar threats.

How you can help

Most nest sites are on unprotected land. Areas where terns nest that are also used by the public may have signs posted. Given the very small numbers of these birds in Tasmania, it is of great importance to ensure that they are not disturbed. Things you can do to help include:

  • Keep domestic dogs/cats indoors at night.
  • Do not drive above the high water mark on beaches
  • Do not walk above the high water mark
  • Keep your dog on a lead on beaches
  • Heed signs that warn of the presence of nesting birds