Little Tern

Sternula albifrons (Pallas, 1764) AF LITTE 6240
Family: Charadriiformes > Laridae

Little Tern, Philip Croft

Little Tern is a summer visitor to our shores, arriving in April to coastal breeding colonies. This small tern favours sand or shingle for nesting, and nests at lower densities than our other breeding tern species.

Elsewhere in its wider breeding range the Little Tern occupies both coastal and inland sites; British and Irish birds are almost entirely coastal in habits, its colonies sometimes threatened by the presence of visiting Foxes or the disturbance caused by human activities.

Wardening of Little Tern breeding colonies is a key conservation tool, with efforts directed towards larger colonies in areas of human activity.


Little Tern identification is usually straightforward. The following article may help when identifying Little Tern.


Listen to example recordings of the main vocalisations of Little Tern, provided by xeno-canto contributors.



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Status and Trends

Population size and trends and patterns of distribution based on BTO surveys and atlases with data collected by BTO volunteers.


This species can be found on the following statutory and conservation listings and schedules.



The Little Tern is monitored by Seabird Monitoring Programme (JNCC 2022 or link to wesbite) and the Rare Breeding Birds Panel. The Atlas maps show range losses since 1968–72 (Balmer et al. 2013). The population fluctuated between 1969 and 1975 when numbers peaked at 2,800 pairs, but subsequently declined (Ratcliffe et al. 2000), with a mean of 1,375 breeding pairs counted over the five-year period 2015–2019 (Eaton et al. 2021). However, numbers have been stable over the 15 years to 2019 (Eaton et al. 2021)


Little Terns nest mostly on beaches on mainland Britain & Ireland. In Britain, c.75% of the population breeds in England, the majority on three sections of coast: the Humber/Lincolnshire, East Anglia and the Solent.

Little Tern breeding distribution 2008-11
Britain and Ireland Breeding Distribution 2008-2011.
More from the Atlas Mapstore.

Occupied 10-km squares in UK

European Distribution Map

European Breeding Bird Atlas 2


The breeding range change map principally captures a picture of colony loss, particularly from the Thames Estuary and Kent, Anglesey, the Solway, the outer parts of the Firths of Forth and Tay, and throughout the Irish coast. The most significant gains since the 1988–91 Breeding Atlas have been the cluster of new colonies in northeast England and northeast Scotland.


Little Terns are localised summer visitors from April/May onwards, departing in August and September.

Weekly occurence of Little Tern from BirdTrack
Weekly occurrence patterns (shaded cells) and reporting rates (vertical bars) based on BirdTrack data. Reporting rates give the likelihood of encountering the species each week.


Information about movement and migration based on online bird portals (e.g. BirdTrack), Ringing schemes and tracking studies.


View a summary of recoveries in the Online Ringing Report.

Foreign locations of birds ringed or recovered in Britain & Ireland

Foreign locations of Little Tern ringed or recovered in Britain & Ireland
Encountered in: Winter (Nov-Feb); Spring (Mar-Apr); Summer (May-Jul); Autumn (Aug-Oct)


Lifecycle and body size information about Little Tern, including statistics on nesting, eggs and lifespan based on BTO ringing and nest recording data.



View number ringed each year in the Online Ringing Report


For information in another language (where available) click on a linked name

Gaelic: Steàrnag-bheag
Welsh: Môr-wennol Fach
Catalan: xatrac menut comú
Czech: rybák malý
Danish: Dværgterne
Dutch: Dwergstern
Estonian: väiketiir
Finnish: pikkutiira
French: Sterne naine
German: Zwergseeschwalbe
Hungarian: kis csér
Icelandic: Dvergþerna
Irish: Geabhróg Bheag
Italian: Fraticello
Latvian: mazais zirinš
Lithuanian: mažoji žuvedra
Norwegian: Dvergterne
Polish: rybitwa bialoczelna
Portuguese: chilreta
Slovak: rybár malý
Slovenian: mala cigra
Spanish: Charrancito común
Swedish: småtärna


Interpretation and scientific publications about Little Tern from BTO scientists.


Causes of change

Population decline has been linked to reduced productivity; the main drivers behind this are unclear but disturbance, predation and flooding may have contributed (Ratcliffe et al. 2000). Little Terns nest on beaches which can change substantially from one year to the next and the species can shift colony location in response to predation and habitat change and is also highly susceptible to disturbance (JNCC 2012). Intensive management across major UK colonies, including protection and habitat restoration and creation, has been successful at increasing breeding productivity, but population models suggest that this increase will not be sufficient to reverse population declines and that further solutions are needed (Wilson et al. 2020).

Links to more information from

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