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.
are similar. Immature birds are similar to non-breeding adults.
Fairy Tern is found on beaches, coastal islands,
sheltered inlets, harbours, estuaries, and coastal lakes, lagoons and wetlands.
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.
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.
In flight the bird emits a high pitched 'zwitt'.
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).
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