Least tern
Sterna antillarum
ITIS Species Code:   176923         NatureServ Element Code:   ABNNM08100
NatureServe Global Rank: 
NatureServe State (NC) Rank: 
Federal Status: 
NC State Status: 
Southern Blue Ridge:  n/a Southern Piedmont:  n/a South Atl. Coastal Plain:  n/a
Land Unit

US Fish & Wildlife Service
US Forest Service
US National Park Service
US Department of Defense
NC State Parks
NC University System
NC Wildlife Res. Com.
NC Forest Service
NC Div. of Coastal Mgmt.
Local Governments
Non-Governmental Org.
Other Public Lands
Private Lands

GAP Status 1-2
All Protected Lands




% of Dist. on
Prot. Lands

34.4 %
0.4 %
18.7 %
24.2 %
4.6 %
0.0 %
9.3 %
0.0 %
4.0 %
4.3 %
4.3 %
< 0.1 %
0.0 %

67.8 %
% of Dist. on
All Lands

11.7 %
0.1 %
6.8 %
8.3 %
1.6 %
0.0 %
3.2 %
0.0 %
1.4 %
< 0.1 %
1.4 %
< 0.1 %
65.5 %

23.1 %
Commmon on the coast and barrier islands (Portnoy et al. 1988).

Nests solitarily or in small to large colonies (Ehrlich et al. 1988) on ocean and barrier beaches, as well as in salt marshes (Portnoy et al. 1988) and on sand bars (Scott 1983). Preferred habitat may be pebbles or shells on a sparsely vegetated sandy beach (Ehrlich et al. 1988) near extensive shallow waters for foraging (Kaufman 1996). Before eggs are laid, may roost elsewhere at night. Forages by diving (Ehrlich et al. 1988) or catching insects in mid-air. In other parts of the species' range, also found along rivers and lakes (Kaufman 1996).

Nests in open, flat areas, and occasionally on rooftops (Ehrlich et al. 1988).


Seacoasts, beaches, bays, estuaries, lagoons, lakes, and rivers (AOU 1983). Rests and loafs on sandy beaches, mudflats, and salt-pond dikes (Stiles and Skutch 1989). In California, may roost at night on sandy beaches away from nesting areas for several weeks before nesting. In nonbreeding season (September-March) flocks have been found at sea, often far from land, in southeastern Caribbean and adjacent Atlantic off Guianas (van Halewyn and Norton 1984).

Nests usually in shallow depression on level ground on sandy or gravelly beaches and banks of rivers or lakes, typically in areas with sparse or no vegetation (usually less than 20% vegetation cover, often 10% or less; Bent 1921, Craig 1971, Jernigan et al. 1978, Thompson and Slack 1982, Faanes 1983, Gochfeld 1983, USFWS 1990); also on dredge spoils; on mainland or on barrier island beaches; also on flat gravel-covered rooftops of buildings (especially in the southeastern U.S.) or other similarly barren artificial sites (AOU 1983). Good nesting areas tend to be well beyond the high tide mark, have shell particles/stones/debris for egg camouflage (Burger and Gochfeld 1990), be out of the way of ORVs and the general public recreation areas, not subject to unusual predation pressure, and adjacent to plentiful sources of small fishes. Colonies on small islands usually experience less mammalian predation (Burger 1984). Good roof-top sites provide some shade for chicks.

Adults do not require cover during the breeding season, but chicks may use sparse vegetation and debris for shade and protection (Hardy 1957, Blodgett 1978). Parents may lead chicks toward the periphery of the colony into more heavily vegetated areas (Akers 1975), where the young utilize debris and vegetation for cover (Hardy 1957). In coastal areas, beach grass (AMMOPHILA BREVILIGULATA) is the commonly associated vegetation. Along river systems, willow (SALIX spp.) is the common vegetation adjacent to sites (Sidle, pers. comm. 1985). On Oklahoma salt flats, almost 60% of the nests were within 5 cm of debris (Grover and Knopf 1982).

Dredge spoil islands are often excellent locations for tern colonies, exhibiting habitat characteristics that attract least terns. However, the substrate composition of dredge spoil has presented problems in Texas. Natural sites largely consist of sand and shell fragments and less than 10% silt and clay. Most dredge-spoil deposition sites are composed of a mix of a variety of particles and greater than 45% silt and clay. The fine silts and clay in some dredge spoil sites sometimes promote 'egg sticking' which occurs during wet periods and causes egg loss. These 'artificial' substrates contain sufficient sand to stimulate terns to select the site for nesting, but the finer texture of the silt particles reduces drainage (Thompson and Slack 1982). Furthermore, dredge spoil sites are short-lived and typically undergo rapid succession (Burger 1984).

Interior populations nest mainly on riverine sandbars or salt flats that become exposed during periods of low water (Hardy 1957). As a result of vegetational succession and/or erosion, preferred nesting habitat typically is ephemeral. Hardy (1957) implied that breeding in riverine situations depends on the presence of sandbars, favorable water levels during nesting season, and sufficient food. Nests are usually located at higher elevations and away from the water. Water levels determine the size of sand bars and the extent of nesting areas (USFWS 1990). Dams above colonies generally lower habitat quality by eliminating the spring floods that are necessary for alluvium deposition and the scouring of vegetation. Ducey (1982) reported successful breeding at two privately-owned sand and gravel companies along the Platte River in Nebraska. As old breeding sites became unsuitable due to vegetation encroachment, the terns simply moved to more recently created sand deposits. See also Ziewitz et al. (1992) for information on nesting habitat in the Platte River in Nebraska. Populations in Kansas have nested on oil well sites (Schulenberg and Ptacek 1984).

Since least terns always nest near water, they are vulnerable to flood inundation and seem to seek high ground. In coastal Texas, Thompson and Slack (1982) documented that the densest nesting area in 67% of the colonies was above the midpoint of available elevations. Gochfeld (1983) found that least terns on Long Island avoid beaches that have less than 32.8 feet (10 m) of width beyond the hightide mark. Interior least tern nests on salt plains in Oklahoma were located an average of 110.5 m away from the nearest water (Grover and Knopf 1982). However, nests on the Platte River in Nebraska, were located at an average of 18.9 m away from the nearest river channel on sand bars that averaged 58.9 m wide (Faanes 1983).

In California, usually nests in same area in successive years; tends to return to natal site to nest (Atwood and Massey 1988). On Long Island, New York, tends to nest in same area in successive years if physical conditions are conducive to nesting (MacLean et al. 1991).

Occupied Landcover Map Units:
Code NameDescription NC Natural Heritage Program Equivalent
378 Ocean Beaches Open beach sand. Upper Beach
3 Tidal Marsh Fresh and brackish tidal marshes, including cord grass, wild rice, sawgrass and needlerush alliances. Brackish Marsh, Interdune pond, Maritime wet grassland
375 Hypersaline coastal salt flats Tidal flats within salt marshes, including saltmeadow cordgrass or sea-purslane dominated alliances. Salt Marsh
372 Interdune Herbaceous Wetlands Dune swales with permanently flooded to intermittently exposed hydrology. Species composition depends on salinity and can include cut grass, spike-rush, mosquito fern, and hornwort. Interdune Pond, Maritime Wet Grasslands
371 Maritime Grasslands Dune grass community consisting of sea oats and beach grasses. Dune grass, Maritime dry grassland
202 Residential Urban Includes vegetation interspersed in residential areas. Includes lawns, mixed species woodlots, and horticultural shrubs. Vegetation accounts for between 20 - 70% of the cover. No equivalent
203 Urban Low-Intensity Developed Highly developed areas with vegetation accounting for < 20% of the cover. No equivalent
204 Urban High-Intensity Developed and Transportation Corridors Highly developed areas including infrastructure such as roads, railroads. Vegetation represents < 20% of the cover. No equivalent
8 Open water Open water without aquatic vegetation. No equivalent
View Entire Landcover Legend
Additional Spatial Constraints:
Exclude all area outside of known range.
Exclude all land greater than 500 meters from an open water feature.
Exclude all water greater than 200 meters from land.
Exclude fresh water habitats.
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Atwood, J. L., and B. W. Massey. 1988. Site fidelity of least terns in California. Condor 90:389-394.

Gore, J. A., and M. J. Kinnison. 1991. Hatching success in roof and ground colonies of least terns. Condor 93:759-762.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). 1990. Recovery plan for the interior population of the least tern (STERNA ANTILLARUM). USFWS, Twin Cities, Minnesota. 90 pp.

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Sibley, C.G., and B.L. Monroe. 1990. Distribution and taxonomy of birds of the world. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. xxiv + 1111 pp.

Burger, J. 1988. Social attraction in nesting least terns:effects of numbers, spacing, and pair bonds. Condor 90:575-582.

10 March 2005
This data was compiled and/or developed by the North Carolina GAP Analysis Project.

For more information please contact them at:
NC-GAP Analysis Project
Dept. of Zoology, NCSU
Campus Box 7617
Raleigh, NC 27695-7617
(919) 513-2853