Sterna albifrons (Little tern) 

Kleinsterretjie [Afrikaans]; Dwergstern [Dutch]; Sterne naine [French]; Zwergseeschwalbe [German]; Gaivina-pequena [Portuguese]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Tetrapoda (four-legged vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Reptilia (reptiles) > Romeriida > Diapsida > Archosauromorpha > Archosauria > Dinosauria (dinosaurs) > Saurischia > Theropoda (bipedal predatory dinosaurs) > Coelurosauria > Maniraptora > Aves (birds) > Order: Charadriiformes > Family: Laridae > Genus: Sterna

Sterna albifrons (Little tern) 

Little tern, Veldrif, South Africa. [photo Trevor Hardaker ]

Little tern in breeding plumage, Greece. [photo Tristan Bantock ]

Distribution and habitat

Breeds in Europe, southern and eastern Asia, northern and western Africa, Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, heading south in the non-breeding season to the Atlantic seaboard through the tropical Indian Ocean to the West Pacific. It is locally fairly common in southern Africa, occurring along the coast of Mozambique and South Africa, although scarce along the west coast, generally preferring estuaries, coastal lagoons and salt pans.

Distribution of Little tern in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project ( Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Movements and migrations

It starts to arrive in southern Africa in August, with numbers peaking from December-February before it departs in April and May.


Mainly eats small fish, crustaceans and insects, doing most of its foraging by flying upwind, 5-8 metres above water, searching for prey which it plucks from the air or water. 


Not threatened, although its European breeding colonies have halved in size recently, mostly due to development and disturbance.


  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town. 



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