Bird Database

Least Tern

(Sternula antillarum)

State of the Birds
At a Glance







Habitat loss and fragmentation, Predation, Climate change, Human disturbance

Conservation Actions

Minimize human disturbance at nesting sites

Least Tern

(Sternula antillarum)

The appropriately-named Least Tern is the smallest tern species that breeds in New Hampshire, but unlike its larger relatives prefers to nest on sandy beaches. Like the co-occuring Piping Plover, this has put it in sometimes direct conflict with human recreational interests. The first recorded nest was found in Seabrook in 1926, and probably reflected the recovery of regional populations after widespread slaughter of birds for decorations on women’s hats. They continued breeding in Hampton and Seabrook until 1959, and by the 2000s were no longer even regular visitors to the NH coast.

Meanwhile, conservation efforts for threatened Piping Plovers were starting to pay off, and in 1997 plovers nested on New Hampshire’s beaches for the first time in over 20 years. To ensure their success, managers implemented conservation measures including “symbolic fencing” to reduce human encroachment, predator exclosures, and extensive educational outreach to towns and beach-goers. Least Terns were an unexpected beneficiary of plovers conservation, and in 2015 two pairs attempted to nest and managed to fledge a single chick. Since then, their numbers have grown slowly, with some fits and starts, and an estimated 20 pairs were present in 2022.

In fact, Least Terns have increased faster than plovers, probably because they’re loosely colonial, which allows more pairs to nest in a relatively small area of beach. The nest is little more than a depression in the sand, and in this the tern will lay two or three eggs. When these hatch in three weeks the young are able to leave the nest within a couple of days, and often mingle with those from other nests, which can make estimating breeding success difficult. How much more our population can grow is currently unknown, and will depend largely on the success of ongoing conservation efforts. You can do your part by respecting fencing and signage at the beach, keeping dogs on leashes, and spreading the word about these birds that have been using beaches for far longer than we have.

Seasonal Abundance

Relative abundance based on eBird data. Numbers indicate likelihood of finding this species in suitable habitat at a given time of year, not actual numbers encountered.

Least Tern
Range Map

Information for the species profiles on this website was compiled from a combination of the sources listed below.

  • The Birds of New Hampshire. By Allan R. Keith and Robert B. Fox. 2013. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological club No. 19.

  • Atlas of the Breeding Birds of New Hampshire. Carol R. Foss, ed. 1994. Arcadia Publishing Company and Audubon Society of New Hampshire

  • Birds of the World. Various authors and dates. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

  • Data from the Breeding Bird Survey

  • Data from the Christmas Bird Count