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Bird watching holidays in the Outer Hebrides, UK Spotlight: Little Terns

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

Little Tern (Sternula albifrons), flight
Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)

In this series of articles we will bring you information and images about the wonderful birdlife you can see on a bird watching holiday in the Outer Hebrides. This article will focus on the smallest species of tern - the Little Tern (Sternula albifrons). These gorgeous birds are full of character and delightful to watch. They are very agile in the air and often plunge into the sea very close to the shore offering good opportunities to watch them fishing.

Little Tern diving
Little Tern at the start of it's dive

Little Tern diving, flight fishing
Little Tern starting manoeuvring during a dive

Little Tern catching a fish
Little Tern catching a fish

When to see Little Terns

Little Terns are summer visitors to the UK and arrive after a long journey from Africa in April. They generally migrate back to Africa in August or September after the breeding season.

Where to look for Little Terns

Little Terns breed in small numbers throughout the Outer Hebrides including Berneray and the islands of Uist. They are found at coastal sites and prefer sandy or gravelly areas with access to shallow water where they can feed close to the shore to avoid long foraging flights. If you see a Little Tern continually returning to the same spot on a beach then they may be bringing food to a mate in springtime or feeding a chick later in the year so please take care to avoid disturbing them.

Breeding and biology

Little Terns are highly vulnerable to disturbance, especially during the breeding season because they nest on the ground. Adults start breeding at about 3 yrs of age. They have one brood of 2-3 eggs a year. The average life span is 12 years but the longest recorded lifespan was 25 years!

The eggs and also the chicks are incredibly well camouflaged on beaches and they are often disturbed by dogs and walkers. The picture below shows just how well camouflaged they are, even when not hunkered down.

Accordingly they are protected and are a schedule 1 species which means that you need a license to disturb them for ringing or nest recording. They should not be disturbed during birdwatching or to obtain photographs.

All the photographs taken for this article were from a beach which is commonly used by dog walkers and there was no disturbance to the Little Terns. We always allow birds to come to us rather than "stalking" them. By nestling down quietly in the dunes you can watch them behaving naturally.

One calm evening I was lucky to see Little Terns performing their courtship display and mating ritual a little further down the beach. The male Tern brought several fish back to the female on the beach and as he approached he would swoop into a full dive as part of the display. He would then handover the fish to her.

Little Tern courtship, pair, behaviour
Little Tern pair courtship

Little Tern pair, courtship, behaviour
Pair of Little Terns courting. The male is handing over a fish to the female.

After watching them for an hour or so they eventually mated. Unfortunately the light was fading but I got some pictures of their behaviour. The male still had a fish in his beak during mating and as part of the ritual they would turn their heads in sync to look in different directions.

It was great that the walkers who saw me sitting with my camera were interested to hear about the Little Terns. When the parents brought their chicks to the beach I was able to point them out to the walkers who subsequently gave them a wide berth.

The two chicks seemed to develop rapidly over the space of three days and they also started to become more aware and confident. When they first came to the beach from their breeding site they just stayed in one place and their parents came backwards and forwards with fish. Over the next few days they became more mobile, moving up and down the beach. On occasions they would follow a parent a short way over the sea and they looked as if they were practicing trying to hover. After just a few days their muscles looked stronger and their feathers more developed. They also became noticeably more "streetwise" hiding behind rocks and seaweed and nestling down into the beach more.

At this time the adults were feeding them tiny fish and as the chicks developed they brought larger fish. The parents had to work so hard to keep up with the demand and also to deal with the Arctic Terns trying to steal fish from them. The Great and Arctic Skuas would also pass through each day looking for a meal, chasing the Terns and wading birds.

Little Tern chick in flight
Little Tern chick becoming more adventurous

Conservation status and population

Little Terns are amber listed on the UK birds of conservation concern list. There was an average of 1450 breeding pairs in the UK between 2013 - 2017. There has been a 30% loss of areas recording breeding pairs of Little Terns between 1968 and 2011. Their habitat and range is shrinking and there are now efforts to protect their breeding sites along the east coast of England.

How to identify Little Terns

Little Terns are small birds, slightly smaller than a blackbird. They have a black head with a white forehead and a relatively large (for their size) yellow beak which has a black tip. Their tails are shorter than the other Tern species . They are quite noisy, making a high pitch chattering noise as they fly up and down the beach and you can often hear them coming before you see them.

Little Tern identification, markings, beak, diving, flight
Little Tern showing the distinctive white forehead and yellow beak with a black tip

It was challenge to try and capture a sequence of reasonable photographs of an adult Little tern diving but eventually I got some I was pleased with.

We hope you have enjoyed reading about these wonderful birds and that you have been inspired to visit the Outer Hebrides to see them - along with the many other fantastic and huge variety of bird life here. In Spring and Autumn there are migrating birds including rarities. Our breeding birds can be seen in summer and in winter we have visitors such as the Snow Buntings. You can read more about Snow Buntings in our earlier article.


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