If you live near the beach, or you visit the beach in the summer, you might (if you're very lucky) have heard the distinctive squawk of a little tern or even seen one. This sea bird is the smallest of the terns in the UK.

The little tern is a mainly white bird, with pale grey upper wings and back with a dark crown. What distinguish them from other terns are their size, as well as their black tipped yellow beak.

Little tern from RSPB-images.com by Ben Andrew

The little tern is a coastal and migratory species. They migrate to Europe during the summer months of April and May to breed and take advantage of the more temperate climate. During this time, they can also been found in parts of Asia and Australasia. However, in winter months, the little terns that you see in the UK generally return back to the coasts of Africa.

Little terns, being a coastal species, like to live on the coast but can also be found in more sheltered coastal areas such as harbours, spits, and bays – about 150m from the tide line. They usually nest on shingled beaches, as this is where their eggs can be camouflaged pretty well as similar to shingle, they’re a pale grey colour with darker speckles. Little Terns also normally nest near shallow waters so that they can easily feed on types of crustacean and fish.

In spite of little terns being one of the most widespread species in the world, there are few of them, and are regarded as an amber species. In the UK, there are less than 2,000!

Little tern from RSPB-images.com by Ben Andrew

This is due to many reasons, one of which is human disturbance. The building of dams, sediment extraction and coastal development are examples of human activities that have affected the little tern population.

Little terns are particularly vulnerable due to their nests only being small depressions in the ground, making it easy for predators, such as foxes, or even people, to access their nests and take eggs. Another issue, come rising sea levels due to climate change, are eggs being washed away due to an amplified high tide.

This, added to their naturally low breeding rate is why their population is so low.

A growing problem that I’m particularly passionate about is ocean plastics. Over the past 50 years, the ocean has seen a huge increase in plastic, which has inevitably, affected sea life.

From micro beads in our toothpaste (which are in the process of being banned in the UK, hooray!) to polystyrene fibres from your jumper – whether we mean to or not – they end up in our ocean, creating artificial plastic islands such as the infamous ‘Great Pacific garbage patch’.

Unfortunately, this is not the total wrath of the plastic. This durable polymer has affected the ocean’s inhabitants and every fish-eating organism – including sea birds such as Little Terns.

Luckily, unlike albatross, Little Terns don’t venture far out into the ocean and don’t skim their beaks along the surface of the water to catch fish. So maybe the plastic problem isn’t currently at the top of the Little Tern’s list. However, with growing amounts of tiny, plankton size pieces of plastic, the problem of the plastic will grow to be more apparent for birds such as the Little Tern.

The RSPB have been running a project to monitor and improve the breeding success of little terns.


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