Scientific name: Sternula albifrons


  • Queensland: Least concern (NCA 1992

What does it look like?

The little tern is a small and slender migratory seabird. Measuring 20-28cm in length with a wingspan of 45-55cm, it is the smallest tern in Australasia.

This bird is pale grey on top, contrasting with the white chest, underbelly and tail. It also has a caped black head. During breeding season, the bill is yellow with a narrow black wedge leading to the eye. During non-breeding, the little tern’s black cap shrinks to a black nape and its bill becomes black.

Where do they live?

The little tern lives in an area covering Shark Bay in Western Australia, northern and eastern Australia, and the east coast of Tasmania and around the Gulf of St Vincent in South Australia. The majority of south-eastern Australian little terns move north outside of breeding season, with some migrating to Asia and some congregating in Queensland.

Mainly found in coastal waters, the little tern uses sheltered coastal areas including beaches, sheltered inlets and river mouths for habitat. The birds also venture inland for several kilometres along harbours, inlets and rivers.

The little tern nests on sandy beaches or shingle pits in small, scattered colonies vulnerable to human disturbance, predation and natural disasters. The birds will attempt to re-nest if they lose the first clutch. The breeding pair cares for 1-3 eggs and the newly hatched young until they fledge.

What is threatening them?

  • Natural flooding
  • Natural predators and predation by introduced species
  • Strong winds
  • Hot weather
  • Coastal development including mining and waste disposal
  • Coastal recreational activities, i.e. beach driving
  • Pesticide pollution and induced water-level fluctuations in salt marshes
  • Modification of rivers and drainage systems
  • Local egg collection.


The little tern is protected under the Nature Conservation Act 1992. It is an offence to damage or interfere with the little tern in any other way than when accepted by the Act.

Redland City Council manages environmental pests throughout the Redlands to minimise their impact on native ecosystems and birds such as the little tern.

Did you know...?

Little terns plunge into the shallow water of channels and estuaries to catch small fish. They also eat crustaceans, insects, annelids and molluscs.

The little tern is very similar in size and shape to the Fairy Tern (sterna nereis), however it is far more vocal.

The usual little tern sighting spots are around lakes, ponds and lagoons close to coastal areas.

How you can help

Be aware that beach driving can crush nests and if you have seen or suspect the little tern at any location, please report it to IndigiScapes on (07) 3824 8611.