Little Tern

The Little Tern would be better called the ‘Tiny Tern’. It looks small compared to other Terns, being the size of a Starling, the weight of a tennis ball, and a third of the size of a Common Tern. It is a scarce summer visitor, coming to our sandy and shingle beaches between April and September after spending the winter on the west coast of Africa, 5,000km away.

The Little Tern is dumpy looking and slightly tubby chested with a grey back, a black cap, and a white forehead with a black stripe through the eye. It has yellow legs and a yellow bill with a black tip. Its wings are long and slim with dark outer flight feathers and the tail is deeply forked. It flies with ultra-fast, flickering wingbeats and often hovers, calling with a shrill, excited "Kik, Kik!"

They feed mostly on sand eels and young herring, by hovering and then plunge-diving into the water to catch them. They will also feed on shrimps and small invertebrates. The Norfolk name for the Little Tern is ‘Little Pickie’, because of the skilful way they ‘pick’ fish from the sea.

Fish feature heavily in their courtship, during which the male puts on an impressive aerial display that involves carrying fish to attract a female. The female will chase him high into the sky to show she likes his choice of food. The male then descends in a graceful glide with wings held in a 'V' shape and offers the fish to her. Their nesting starts in May. The number of eggs laid and the survival of the chicks largely depends on food availability. The nest is a shallow scrape in the shingle close to the high-water mark. It is not much of a nest and is vulnerable to storms and high tides. They lay 1-3 camouflaged eggs on the ground, which makes them an easy target for predators such as gulls, foxes, stoats, crows, snakes, and even herons - just about anything that fancies eggs for breakfast. However, like all terns, the Little Tern is very defensive and will heroically attack any intruders. They often nest in colonies for extra protection. The eggs hatch after 20 days and the youngsters are soon mobile, leaving the nest and hiding amongst the nearby shingle. They can fly 19 days later and are fed by both parents for several weeks.

The Little Tern, sadly, is becoming a scarce summer visitor with only about 1,500 pairs breeding in Britain. Their nesting colonies are often on beaches liked by holiday makers with dogs and the nest often fails if it gets accidentally disturbed. The Little Tern is Amber listed, but protection schemes now operate in several parts of the country to try to help them. They can live to a ripe old age, with the oldest ringed Little Tern living to over 21 years old!

Their Latin name is 'sternula albifrons' where 'sterna' means 'tern' and 'albifrons' is derived from the Latin 'albus' for 'white' and 'frons' for 'forehead'. A Tern with a white forehead is close enough to how they look.

Sandwich Tern

The Sandwich Tern is the largest Tern that breeds in Britain. It’s named not because it enjoys nicking your butties, but because it nested in Sandwich Bay and was first identified by the ornithologist John Latham in 1787. Ironically, your butty's name is also derived from the bay via the Earl of Sandwich, who first had the idea of putting something tasty between two slices of bread. Sandwich in Anglo-Saxon means 'town on sandy ground' and is nothing to do with food at all.

The Sandwich Tern is a heavy-looking bird. It is a very white Tern with a white front, very pale grey back, shaggy black cap, untidy chest, and short black legs. The bill is black with a yellow tip. It is stiff and less buoyant in flight, often flying higher than other Terns. Their call is a harsh grating "keer-ick".

It seldom hovers and plunge dives with quite a large splash, staying longer underwater than other Terns when catching fish like sprats, whiting and sand eels. Fish is their favourite food and they can range as far as 20km from their colonies to find a suitable snack.

Sandwich Tern breeding starts at the end of April. They nest in large noisy colonies on sandy seashores. The 1-2 eggs are laid in a shallow scrape on the ground. Both parents incubate the eggs which hatch after 21 days. While adults are away fishing, the youngsters often gather in creches which helps protect them. How parents identify their own young in such a large group of chicks, when they get back, is a mystery. The youngsters can fly 28 days later, but depend on mum and dad for a further 4 months. Unlike some of the smaller Terns, the Sandwich Tern is not very aggressive toward potential predators. They rely on the sheer density of their nests, often only 20--30 cm apart, and they nest close to other more aggressive species like Arctic Terns and Black-headed Gulls which keep them safe. After nesting, the Sandwich Terns quickly disperse and by October most have gone, migrating along the coasts to Southern Europe or Africa.

With the increased disturbance of nest sites, by more people having holidays by the sea, many of the important colonies survive only because they are now protected on nature reserves. There are 12,000 breeding pairs of Sandwich Terns in Britain and the oldest ringed Sandwich Tern lived to be 30 years old!

Their Latin name is 'sterna sandvicensis' where 'sandvicensis', like the English name, refers to Sandwich Bay in Kent and 'sterna' is derived from 'stearn', an old English name for a Tern. Interestingly, the Sandwich Tern is one of three birds to be named after Kent - the others being the Kentish Plover and the Dartford Warbler.

Common Tern

An elegant summer visitor to beaches, marshes, gravel pits and reservoirs - often called sea swallows because of their long, forked tails and graceful flight.

The Common Tern has a pale silver-grey back, wings, and underparts. A flat looking head with a black cap, an orange-red bill with a dark tip, and short red legs. The wings are long, pointed, and angular while the tail is forked with long streamers. There is a dark edge on the outermost wing feathers. They look 'buoyant' when flying, like a cork bobbing on water and so graceful. The male and female look identical. Their call is a loud "keee-yaah!"

They eat insects and fish like herring, sprat, roach, perch, minnows, with sand eels being their most favourite. They catch fish by hovering and then diving headfirst into the water.

Common Terns get here in April. The male selects a nesting territory a few days after his arrival. He usually re-uses the same spot year after year within a nesting colony. He is then soon joined by his previous partner unless she is over five days late, in which case he may find another girl who is a bit more punctual. The courtship involves presenting his sweetheart with a fish, as who can turn down a lovely fish supper? Breeding generally starts in May, though the happy couple may delay starting their family if there are not enough fish available. The Tern's nest is a scrape made in the sand or shingle close to water or on a manmade floating raft. Their 1-3 well camouflaged eggs hatch after 21 days. The youngsters leave the nest scrape after 3-4 days and hide in nearby vegetation or hollows in the sand where they are fed by their parents for 2-3 months even though the youngsters are able to fly after 25 days. The young Terns will not breed themselves until they are 3 years old.

Common Terns are only summer visitors, leaving here in October to go back to overwinter on the west coast of Africa. There are 13,000 breeding pairs in Britain and the numbers are increasing as the construction of rafts and islands on nature reserves has helped them. Their Latin name is 'sterna hirundo' where 'sterna' is derived from 'stearn', an old English name for a Tern, and 'hirundo' is Latin for a swallow. We can call them sea swallows after all!

Common Tern

An elegant summer visitor to breaches, marshes, gravel pits and reservoirs that are often called sea swallows because of their long, forked tails and graceful flight. 

The Common Tern has a pale silver-grey back, wings, and underparts. A flat looking head with a black cap, an orange-red bill with a dark tip, and short red legs. The wings are long, pointed, and angular while the tail is forked with long streamers. There is a dark edge on the outermost wing feathers. They look ‘buoyant’ when flying, like a cork bobbing on water and so graceful. The male and female look identical. Their call is a loud “keee-yaah!”

They eat insects and fish like herring, sprat, roach, perch, minnows, with sand eels being their favourite. They catch fish by hovering and then diving headfirst into the water.

The Common Terns arrive in April and the male selects a nesting territory a few days after his arrival. They usually re-use the same site year after year within a nesting colony. He is soon joined by his previous partner unless she is over five days late, in which case he may go and find another girl who is a bit more punctual. The courtship involves presenting his sweetheart with a fish, as who can turn down a lovely fish supper? The happy couple may delay starting their family if there is not enough fish available, though breeding generally starts in May. The Tern’s nest is a scrape made in the sand or shingle close to water or on a man made floating raft. The 1-3 well camouflaged eggs hatch after 21 days. The youngsters leave the nest scrape after 3-4 days and hide in nearby vegetation or hollows in the sand where they are fed by their parents for 2-3 months despite being able to fly after 25 days. The young Terns will not breed themselves until they are 3 years old.

Common Terns are only summer visitors, leaving here in October to go back to overwinter on the west coast of Africa. There are 13,000 breeding pairs in Britain and the numbers are increasing as the construction of rafts and islands on nature reserves has helped them. Their Latin name is ’sterna hirundo’ where ’stearn’ is an old English name for a Tern and ’hirundo is Latin for a swallow. We do call them sea swallows after all!