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Little Tern

Nationally scarce Dorset is one of the few places that the little tern nests.

Photograph by: 
John Wall

The little tern (Sterna albifrons) is a summer visitor to Dorset but we have only one breeding colony here. The population level at this one nesting site on Chesil beach was declining but substantial efforts have been made involving extensive fence protection and volunteers manning a 24 hour a day watch over the site and this has meant the negative effects of predators and egg collectors have been minimised. These efforts have been rewarded by a gradual reversal of the downward trend and the population numbers are now healthier. Once breeding is finished the little tern flies south to avoid our winter. Unlike some migrating species they avoid crossing the Sahara and follow the western coasts of Europe and then Africa with some flying as far as South Africa. 

First spring arrivals are seen in week 14 in April and numbers build over the following couple of weeks and many reports come in during May but once established and breeding starts from about week 20 onwards reports are much fewer. By week 33 at the beginning of August they are gone for another year.

The colony in Dorset on Chesil beach is just west of Ferrybridge on the way from Weymouth to Portland and as a result the bulk of the records come from Ferrybridge but they can also be seen searching for food anywhere along the Fleet up as far as Abbotsbury Swannery. They are sometimes seen in Portland Harbour and off the Portland coast down to the Bill but they seem to prefer the shallower waters of the Fleet for fishing rather than deeper waters. Little tern are occasionally seen further east in Poole Harbour and off Christchurch but these will be birds from colonies further east.

Undoubtedly, the best way to see little tern for your Dorset list is to book an expedition on the Fleet Observer which cruises quite close to their colony and you get the best possible views without causing the birds distress.



Common Name Little Tern
Scientific Name Sterna albifrons
Species Group Birds Gulls Skuas and Terns
Status Local
Interest Level
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
Look for

Small terns fishing over the Fleet and in Portland Harbour

Identification Notes
  • One of the country's rarest breeding sea birds and found only in Dorset on the shingle of Chesil beach
  • Much smaller than other terns with a white forehead
  • Thanks to extreme efforts to protect them the Chesil colony is thriving and now growing in numbers 
Primary Habitat
Preferred Environment
Look for
Additional Identification Notes
Similar Species

The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Notebook Distribution Map Sites List Some Charts Some Photographs Recent Records Guidance Notes

To see related species click here: 

Birds Gulls Skuas and Terns