Nature conservation

Threatened species

Little Tern - profile

Indicative distribution

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The areas shown in pink and/purple are the sub-regions where the species or community is known or predicted to occur. They may not occur thoughout the sub-region but may be restricted to certain areas. ( click here to see geographic restrictions). The information presented in this map is only indicative and may contain errors and omissions.
Scientific name: Sternula albifrons
Conservation status in NSW: Endangered
Commonwealth status: Not listed
Profile last updated: 13 Oct 2021


The Little Tern is a small, slender, migratory or partly migratory seabird. At less than 25 cm long it is two-thirds to half the size of any other south-eastern tern. Pale grey upperparts contrast with the white chest, underbelly and the moderately long, deeply forked tail (80 - 110 mm). The Little Tern has a black cap and black outer wing-edges. During breeding the bill (26 - 32 mm) and legs change from black to yellow, and a black wedge appears from the bill to the eye. During non-breeding, the Little Tern’s black cap shrinks to a black nape and its bill becomes black.


Migrating from eastern Asia, the Little Tern is found on the north, east and south-east Australian coasts, from Shark Bay in Western Australia to the Gulf of St Vincent in South Australia. In NSW, it arrives from September to November, occurring mainly north of Sydney, with smaller numbers found south to Victoria. It breeds in spring and summer along the entire east coast from Tasmania to northern Queensland, and is seen until May, with only occasional birds seen in winter months.

Habitat and ecology

  • Almost exclusively coastal, preferring sheltered environments; however may occur several kilometres from the sea in harbours, inlets and rivers (with occasional offshore islands or coral cay records).
  • Nests in small, scattered colonies in low dunes or on sandy beaches just above high tide mark near estuary mouths or adjacent to coastal lakes and islands.
  • The nest is a scrape in the sand, which may be lined with shell grit, seaweed or small pebbles.
  • Both parents incubate up to three well-camouflaged eggs for up to 22 days, aggressively defending the nest against intruders until the young fledge at 17 - 19 days.
  • Often seen feeding in flocks, foraging for small fish, crustaceans, insects, worms and molluscs by plunging in the shallow water of channels and estuaries, and in the surf on beaches, or skipping over the water surface with a swallow-like flight.

Regional distribution and habitat

Click on a region below to view detailed distribution, habitat and vegetation information.


Recovery strategies

Activities to assist this species

Information sources

IBRA Bioregion IBRA Subregion Known or predicted Geographic restrictions region
NSW North CoastCoffs Coast and Escarpment Known Within 10 km of coast and tidal influenced water bodies
NSW North CoastKaruah Manning Known None
NSW North CoastMacleay Hastings Known Within 10 km of coast and tidal influenced water bodies
NSW North CoastYuraygir Known Within 10 km of coast and tidal influenced water bodies
OceanBatemans Shelf Known None
OceanHawkesbury Shelf Known None
OceanManning Shelf Known None
OceanSouth Pacific Ocean Known None
OceanTweed-Moreton Known None
OceanTwofold Shelf Known None
Ocean - Other StateNorthern Australian Coastal Waters Known None
Ocean - Other StateSouthern Australian Coastal Waters Known None
Other StateJervis Bay Territory Predicted None
Other StateQLD Known None
Other StateSA Known None
Other StateVIC Known None
South East CornerBateman Known None
South East CornerEast Gippsland Lowlands Known None
South East CornerSouth East Coastal Ranges Known None
South Eastern QueenslandBurringbar-Conondale Ranges Known Within 10 km of coast and tidal influenced water bodies
South Eastern QueenslandClarence Lowlands Known Within 10 km of coast and tidal influenced water bodies
South Eastern QueenslandSunshine Coast-Gold Coast Lowlands Known Within 10 km of coast and tidal influenced water bodies
Sydney BasinHunter Known None
Sydney BasinIllawarra Known None
Sydney BasinJervis Known None
Sydney BasinPittwater Known None
Sydney BasinSydney Cataract Known None
Sydney BasinWyong Known None