- A small bird with narrow, pointed wings and sharp, bracket-shaped tail.
- Breeding adults: a black crown and white forehead. Thin yellow legs and a thin yellow bill. Yellow bill often has black tip. White feathers and gray wings, wings can have black edges, visible in flight..
- Non-breeding adults: all adults keep breeding coloration.
- Juveniles: Very small, with white belly and barred or scaly looking back and wings with light brown coloration. Crown is light brown or can be partially black. Darker bill than adults.
- Breeding: the Caribbean, the United States (both coastal and major rivers), coastal Mexico, down to northern South America.
- Migrating: migrate to central U.S. to breed in major rivers.
- Found along seacoasts, bays, beaches, lagoons, estuaries, rivers, and lakes.
- Breed on sandy and gravelly beaches or on lakeshores and riverbanks.
- Aerial divers that plunge for prey.
- Small fish, crustaceans, insects, small mollusks, worms.
- Cats, dogs, coyotes, crows, skunks, foxes, and raccoons all prey on tern nests.
- Burrowing owls, peregrine falcons, and American kestrels feed on adult terns.
- They are the smallest tern in North America, hence the name Least Tern.
- The oldest recorded least tern was 24 years old.
- Least terns nest on the ground. Their population declined by 88% between 1966 and 2015, mainly due to humans encroaching on their nesting habitat. Never disturb a nest if you see one in the ground on the beach!
Hear a Least Tern’s call at nest
Hear a Least Tern’s typical shrill call
Sources: AllAboutBirds.org; Audobon Field Guide; American Bird Conservancy; Los Padres ForestWatch
Photo: Thomas A. Blackman