Little Terns

Let’s dive into the world of the Little Terns (Sternula albifrons), the petite but charming members of the tern family Sternidae. They are widely distributed across coastal and estuarine hotspots all around Eurasia and Australasia. They breed along shorelines in Europe, parts of Africa, and Asia (including Singapore), and when winter rolls around, they migrate south to warmer locales in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and even the sunny shores of Australia.

These cuties measure around 22-25 cm in length, with wings that span 41-47 cm. In flight, they display a forked tail and graceful, buoyant flight patterns.

During the breeding season, they flaunt a black crown and nape, along with a crisp white forehead and a shiny yellow bill decorated with black at the tip. Non-breeding terns have a dark bill, legs and feet, white lores and forecrown, and blackish hind-crown with whitish streaks and black nape.

The juvenile Little Tern resembles non-breeding adults but has patterned markings adorning its upperparts and wings.

These terns are masters of graceful hovering and dive-bomb techniques when they’re hunting for fish, which is their favourite item on the menu.

They often dive from the air, plunging headfirst into the water to catch small fish near the surface.

If you’re wondering where to check out their aerial antics in Singapore, swing by places like Pasir Ris Town Park, Jurong Lake Gardens, or Marina Bay during their May to August breeding season. It’s a bird ballet in the air!

Romance is in full bloom too. The offering of delicious fish by the male to the female is how he woos his lady love. If the female shows interest in the male’s romantic gestures, she might graciously accept the fishy offering.

Little Terns are colonial nesters, often building their nests in communal fashion. Right here in Singapore, they nest on our sandy beaches or remote offshore islands, usually away from prying eyes. During one of our excursions to Lazarus Island, we were treated to a memorable sight of a colony of Little Terns, with their breeding party in full swing.

They craft snug nests out of sand, grass or whatever bare ground they can find. Their typical clutch size ranges from two to four eggs, which both parents incubate for about three weeks. Once the eggs crack open, the chicks are cared for by both parents and become proficient at flying within a month.

The younglings typically take about three weeks to fledge. Throughout this phase, the adults are tirelessly engaged in the task of feeding the chicks with a steady supply of fish.

Whenever a parent approaches with a beakful of fish, the chicks can hardly contain their excitement, going into a near-frenzy with their eager chirping and waving of wings.

While these charming seabirds are common in our region, appropriate spots for their nests are dwindling in Singapore. Just like numerous other coastal and marine avian species, the Little Terns encounter various conservation challenges including habitat disturbances, human activities on their nesting beaches, and predation by introduced species. Conserving their habitats and protecting their nesting sites is essential for the continued survival of these lovely and charismatic seabirds.