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 Little Tern - Fact File

Little Tern

Sterna albifrons
Widely but very locally distributed and largely absent from the south-west of the region. Declining.
Coastal, breeding on shingle beaches where prone to disturbance.

Smallest of our terns, with black-tipped yellow bill and yellow legs.

23cm (9")

Little Tern

A detailed history of the fortunes of the little tern in south-east Norfolk appears in 'Birds of Great Yarmouth', published 1991. Perhaps surprisingly none is known to have nested on the shore at Yarmouth until during the second world war.

Following a return to peace-time conditions the mines and coils of rusting barbed wire were rapidly removed. The bulk of the little terns sought sanctuary on exposed Scroby Sands.

At that time the sandbank was extensive, almost three miles. But it was a treacherous spot, periodically under-water following storms which resulted in big tides. This meant disaster to eggs and nestlings.

As a result, the surviving Scroby little terns re-united with the remnant attempting to rear young on Yarmouth's north beach. However, endless disturbance and the activities of egg-collectors meant few success. This depressing situation changed during 1983 and 1984 when part of the beach was fenced off to enable a sewage pipe to be laid. To the delight of local birdwatchers young were again reared.

Two years later and to everyone's surprise a substantial little tern colony became established at Yarmouth and close by a large caravan park. Fifty-five pairs of these delightful birds had selected as their summer home one of the country's most popular holiday beaches. Rapid action by Yarmouth RSPB members' group, supported by the regional office and volunteers from Strumpshaw reserve and with support of Yarmouth Borough Council resulted in the colony being roped off.

A full-time RSPB warden was quickly appointed. The final result: 96 flying young which exceeded all expectations. The following season the Yarmouth colony was again highly successful despite often abysmal weather. The favoured stretch of shingle beach and marram was again fenced off. Seventy pairs of these very vulnerable seabirds reared 96 young.

Little Tern in flightDuring 1988 an impressive 140 pairs raised 244 young to the free-flying stage. And the total increased to 180 pairs in 1989. But almost inevitably birds were then exploited by raising kestrels. Only 160 young fledged. Misfortune struck again last summer. Despite a total of 201 breeding pairs the activities of kestrels and hedgehogs resulted in a mere 15 flying young.

By the summer of 1991, at its peak Yarmouth's little terns were 277 pairs strong - easily the largest colony in the country. Not surprisingly kestrels continue to take their toll despite a formidable defence.

We visited Yarmouth's little terns on a day of azure skies. A procession of dazzling white birds brought in fish for newly hatched young and the air rang with excited calls. The scene was entrsancing.

We watched a group fishing close to the shore: working back and forth each with head directed downwards, scanning the surface. At intervals one and then another checked the pace, poising with wings uplifted and vibrating and tail depressed and expanded. Suddenly wing movement ceased and each bird plunge-dived into the sea reversing as it dropped.

Often on completely submerged, but was on the wing again before the splash subsided. Little terns work hard for a living and by no means every dive brings rewards. Rough season conceal the shoals of small fry upon which they survive.

Young little terns become highly mobile, making short excursions from the nest within hours of birth and soon becoming widely separated. During the short hours of darkness the parents remain with small chicks making a scrape to brood them. In bad weather they may be brooded until almost three weeks old at which time the first short exploratory flights are made.

Little terns begin the long southward flight to the Atlantic seaboard of West Africa towards the end of the month. By mid-August few will remain in local waters. The protective fencing at Yarmouth will have been removed and the RSPB information centre dismantled. Those fledged locally this summer almost without exception will remain in tropical waters throughout next year, not returning 'home' until two years hence.

Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.