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Living Sanibel: Least Tern

April 27, 2012
Charles Sobczak , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

True to its nickname sea swallow, this is the smallest tern in the Western Hemisphere. Weighing half that of a robin, this tiny tern feeds on small fish, crustaceans, and sand eels. Its cap is similar to other terns, but its diminutive size and black-tipped yellow bill are the best methods of identifying this bird.

Like several other summer species, the least tern has made Florida its northern nesting site, although several small populations nest as far north as Massachusetts. Once hunted for its plumes, the least tern is still considered threatened in much of its range, and its population is being closely monitored. There is also a West Coast population that summers in California and winters deep into Mexico.

The least tern suffers from habitat and nesting-site loss. It prefers to nest on beaches where it is often in conflict with humans and their pets. If agitated by an unwanted intruder, the least tern has a nasty habit of hovering over the potential predator and defecating, so be forewarned. The least tern is monogamous but always nests in colonies with other terns.

Article Photos

Least Tern and Chick
Photo by Bob Gress

Fact Box

Least Tern (Sterna antillarum)

Other names: sea swallow, pigeon de la mer, little tern

Status: FL=threatened, IUCN=LC

Life span: to 24 years

Length: 8.3-9.1 in. (21-23 cm)

Wingspan: 18.9-20.9 in. (48-53 cm)

Weight: 1.1-1.6 oz (30-45 g)

Nests: in Florida in the summer months, mostly along the coastline, and it winters in Colombia and Venezuela

Found: Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee and Collier, coastal

Months found: JFMamjjaSOND (lower case indicates nesting season).



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