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Least Tern - BirdForum Opus

Photo by John Dempsey
Cuba, May 2003
Sternula antillarum

Sterna antillarum


L. 22-24cm

  • Pale grey upperparts
  • White underparts
  • White lower head
  • Black cap down to the level of the eyes
  • White front of head that intersects black back to above eyes
  • Yellow bill that becomes black outside of breeding season
  • Yellow legs
  • Grey wings with black markings on outermost primaries
Least Tern in fishing posture
Photo by HelenB
Quintana Jetty, Upper Texas Coast, June 2010

Similar Species

it is very noticeably smaller than other North American beach terns.


Breeds in coastal and inland North America north to California and Maine, in Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America (mainly islands off Venezuela).

Northern birds migrate, and the species is found to Brazil in winter.


Photo by Chato
Brooklyn, New York, July 2012

Least Tern is closely related to, and was formerly often considered conspecific with, the Little Tern S. albifrons of the Old World. Other close relatives include Yellow-billed Tern S. superciliaris and Peruvian Tern S. lorata, both from South America. In the past, all were usually included in the genus Sterna.


There are 3 subspecies[1]:

  • S. a. browni:
  • S. a. athalassos:
  • S. a. antillarum:


Breeds and winters in coastal areas, and to some extent uses inland waters such as rivers. Migrates along coasts but also more pelagic.



Mostly feeds on fish caught with plunge-dives, but can also take insects in the air.


Normally nests colonially. Very aggressive in breeding season.


  1. Clements, JF. 2010. The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World. 6th ed., with updates to December 2010. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0801445019. Spreadsheet available at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/Clements%206.5.xls/view

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