Little tern

Sternula albifrons albifrons

Family: Laridae

Length: 21 – 28 cm
Wingspan: 41 – 55 cm
Weight: 45 – 65 g

Credit photo: JJ Harrison


Appearance: small-sized tern with a thin sharp yellow bill with a black tip; legs are also yellow. In winter, the forehead is more extensively white, the bill is black and the legs duller. 

Distinguishing characteristics: the smallest tern in Mediterranean.

Flight: light, fast and jerky.

Sound:  loud and distinctive high-pitched creaking call.

Ecology and habitat

Nest: a small hollow formed in the sand or gravel of sandy coasts or on the edges of lagoons.

Diet: small fish and crustaceans, insects, annelid worms and molluscs; feeds in very shallow water, often over the advancing tideline or in brackish lagoons and saltmarsh creeks.

Behaviour at sea: rarely seen at sea or far from the coast.

* This map indicates coastal nesting sites in the Mediterranean and adjacent Seas.

Distribution and movement

Breeding: the species is cosmopolite; the subspecies Sterna albifrons albifrons breeds in Europe, West Asia and West Indian Ocean.

Wintering: Africa to India.

Phenology: Laying: May-July; one or two eggs. Incubation: 22 days. Chick-rearing. Fledging: 4 weeks after hatching.


Global population estimate: 190,000-410,000 individuals . European population: 36,000-53,000 pairs.

Threats: disappearance of coastal habitats due to tourism development, human disturbance, predation by rats and seagulls.

Protection level: Barcelona Convention: Annex II; Bern Convention: Appendix II, African Eurasian Waterbird Agreement; Convention on Migratory Species: Appendix II; EU Birds Directive: Annex I; IUCN Red List: Least Concern.

Some key references

BirdLife International (2021) Species factsheet: Sternula albifrons

Oro D., Bertolero A., Vilalta A. M., López, M. A. 2004. The biology of the Little Tern in the Ebro Delta (northwestern Mediterranean). Waterbirds 27(4): 434-440.