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Least Tern: Sternula antillarum

Appearance:

Like all North American terns, the least tern has long, pointed wings and a deeply forked tail. It is the smallest of our terns, and bears outer wing feathers that edge the light-gray wings in black. The breeding adult is gray above, white below, with a black cap.

Habitat:

Not only are the birds extremely susceptible to nest disturbance, they have lost extensive nesting habitat to beach development and increased human activity there. Least terns are colony nesters, meaning they nest in a group, which allows them to exchange information about food sources, as well as to detect and mob predators. An entire colony can be easily destroyed by predation by red foxes, raccoons, dogs and house cats, by human trampling, or by catastrophic storms.

In the past couple of decades, due to habitat loss, least terns have taken to nesting on flat roofs, especially gravel ones. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has developed an educational pilot program being implemented in Pinellas county. The program is to help business (or home) owners educate their customers about having tolerance for least terns that are 'squatting' on their flat, gravel roofs. A poster was developed to promote the public educational project.

Least terns do respond quickly to improved habitat, such as the removal of beach vegetation or the dumping of dredged sand. Least tern populations seem to be slowly rising, although they are still listed as 'threatened' by the state. At many nesting areas, signs warn people against entering colonies, many of which are roped off during breeding season.

Behavior:

In early spring least terns return from wintering grounds in Latin America. They soon pair up using courtship rituals in which hopeful males offer small fish to prospective mates. The shorebirds nest in very shallow depressions on broad expanses of bare sand, which camouflage the eggs. They lay from mid-April in south Florida to the first of May in the north, and the eggs hatch after 21 days. The young leave the nest in a few days, but don't begin to fly safely until about three weeks later.

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