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Fairy Tern, Sterna nereis

Description

The Fairy Tern is a small (to 250 mm) tern with a white body and light blue-grey wings. The crown is black with a black strip reaching only as far as the eye - not as far as the bill as it does in the Little Tern.

During the breeding season the bill is orange-yellow and the legs are dull orange-yellow. In non-breeding plumage the crown is largely white, mottled black and the bill is blackish at the base and tip.

The sexes are similar.  Immature birds are similar to non-breeding adults.

Habitat

The Fairy Tern is found on beaches, coastal islands, sheltered inlets, harbours, estuaries, and coastal lakes, lagoons and wetlands.

Diet

The Fairy Tern feeds largely on fish by hovering on rapidly beating wings with bill pointing downwards and then plunging into the water. Plant material, crustaceans and gastropods may also be digested.

Breeding

The Fairy Tern breeds in colonies on sheltered mainland coastlines and inshore islands, usually on sandy beaches or sandy patches among rock. The nest is a shallow scrape in sand, often rimmed with small pebbles, shell fragments or gravel. They produce a single brood per season.

One or two eggs are laid. Both sexes share incubation of the eggs and care of the young.

The oldest recorded individuals are at least 17 years of age.

Call

In flight the bird emits a high pitched 'zwitt'.

Distribution

Distribution Map courtesy Natural Values Atlas, data from theLIST
© 2010 State of Tasmania
The Australian subspecies of the Fairy Tern (Sterna nereis nereis) is found along the coast from the Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia, southward to Tasmania and Victoria. It is most common in Western Australia but has declined in numbers across southern Australia.

The Tasmanian population comprises just a few hundred pairs and is migratory, moving to the mainland in winter, possibly to the mainland.

Two other subspecies breed in New Zealand (Sterna nereis davisae) and New Caledonia (Sterna nereis exsul).

Threats

The species is listed as vulnerable  under Tasmania's Threatened Species Protection Act 1995.

Recent research shows that its numbers are decreasing rapidly throughout its range. The New Zealand subspecies is on the brink of extinction.

Threats include predation by introduced and domestic species such as cats, dogs and foxes, extreme weather events, and disturbance by humans, which has been shown to be a major cause of desertion and breeding failure at some colonies. Eggs can be trampled by people, trail bikes or four wheel drives.

How you can help

Things you can do to help reduce the risk to breeding birds 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