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Least Tern Sterna antillarum


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Least Terns
credit: Bear Golden Retriever/CCSA

© Lang Elliot/ (audio)

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Family: Laridae, Gulls and Terns view all from this family

Description ADULT SUMMER Has gray back and upper wings and mainly black cap, although forehead is white; plumage is otherwise pure white. Note the black-tipped yellow bill and yellow-orange legs. In flight, outer two primaries are noticeably dark (show as black wingtips at rest). ADULT WINTER (acquires this plumage from late summer onward) Similar, but white on forehead is more extensive and leg and bill colors are duller; upper wing is more uniformly pale. JUVENILE Similar to winter adult, but back appears scaly, and outer four or five primaries and leading edge of inner wing are dark. Most first-summer birds resemble winter adult, but with dark leading edge to inner wing and dark outer primaries.

Dimensions Length: 8-10" (20-25 cm)

Endangered Status The Least Tern is on the U.S. Endangered Species List. It is classified as endangered in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas. The California subspecies (the California Least Tern) was the first to be declared endangered, in 1970, but the interior and east coast populations have since also achieved that distinction. The destruction of its habitat by human activities and development has put the species in peril. Where it still finds nesting habitat, it is also vulnerable to predators and to human disturbance when bathers and beach strollers enter its nesting colonies. Least Terns will sometimes abandon their nests if they have been disturbed. Because of this tern's habit of nesting on low sandbars, whole colonies are sometimes destroyed by very high tides.

Habitat Declining, but still very common locally. Nests colonially on sandy and pebbly beaches, both on coasts and at inland freshwater sites. Badly and directly affected by man's actions, specifically dis_turbance, to, or exclusion from, beach nest sites, as well as habitat destruction and degradation. Ground predators compound the problem. Migrates along coasts and river courses and winters on coasts and at sea off Central and South America.

Observation Tips Easy to see at locations where nesting colonies are protected (search the web for sites and access details). If you come across nesting birds elsewhere, keep your distance and avoid disturbing this vulnerable species.

Range California, Southeast, Southwest, Rocky Mountains, Plains, New England, Great Lakes, Florida, Mid-Atlantic, Texas

Voice Utters a raucous kree-ick call.

Discussion Our smallest tern. Flight is rapid and buoyant and it frequently hovers before plunge-diving into shallow water for small fish and shrimp. Sexes are similar.