Rare little tern chicks take their first flight

Emily Kench

Monday 9 July 2018

Little Tern feeding well grown chick on shingle beach, Norfolk

Little tern-agers on east Norfolk beaches are preparing to make their journey to West Africa

Stunning images of little tern chicks captured by RSPB volunteers can be found in the dropbox here.

Little tern chicks are starting to leave the nest and prepare for their 5000km journey to their West Africa wintering grounds.

Little terns are one of the UK’s rarest seabirds, and rely heavily on the east Norfolk coast which supports around 20% of the national population.

Emma Witcutt, Little Tern Project Officer, said: “Like many of us who choose to live near, or holiday by our beautiful beaches, little terns have too realised that east Norfolk is the perfect summer spot.

“However, nesting little terns face lots of challenges on our beaches. High tides, predators, human disturbance, and freak weather can all impact on this specie’s breeding success.

“That’s why it’s so fantastic that we are starting to see this year’s chicks taking their first flight: preparing for the long journey back to West Africa on their own.”

Little tern chicks take their first flight at between 18-21 days old. They then become known as ‘fledglings’. It’s an exciting time for staff and volunteers who have worked on beaches along the east Norfolk coast to protect these birds, and watched them grow.

Lyn Ibbitson-Elks, RSPB Little Tern Volunteer, said: “I have had the privilege to volunteer on the RSPB Little Tern Project for several years and it is a very special experience. These precious little seabirds honour us in Norfolk with their presence for only a few months every year, having flown an astonishing 5,000km.

 “It is wonderful to hear their haunting calls, see their aerial displays and if you are lucky, see them plunge dive into the sea for sand eel.  We need to do everything we can to preserve our colonies of 'Little Pickies' to safeguard their future. They really are a cracking little Norfolk bird!”


Little facts about little terns:

  •         Little terns measure less than 25cm in length and weigh about the same as a tennis ball.
  •          The Norfolk name for the little tern is ‘Little Pickie’, because of the way they skilfully ‘pick’ fish from the sea with their bills.
  •          They’re also picky eaters mainly feeding on sand eels and young herring which they plunge-dive to catch. The number of eggs they lay and the survival of their chicks is largely dependent on food availability.
  •          Food is a big part of the little tern’s elaborate courtship. It involves the male carrying a fish - both in aerial and ground displays. Females seem to respond to long, shiny fish which the males advertise by shaking them from side to side.
  •          Little terns do not breed until they are at least two years old, spending their first summer in their West African wintering grounds. 
  •          Little terns, as with all the terns that breed in the UK, have forked tails and this, together with their aerial acrobatics, gave them their old name of ‘sea swallows’.
  •          They are fast and strong flyers and mature adults will have travelled more than 100,000 km between the UK and Africa during their lifespan.




For further information and to arrange an interview, please contact:

Emily Kench, RSPB Eastern England Communication Officer: 01603 697591. Email: Emily.kench@rspb.org.uk 



A selection of images to accompany this story can be viewed and downloaded from Dropbox here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/8uxrjc2mvtgteuv/AABJG3m8cZb4NF07TMf8CViUa?dl=0


Please credit photographers named in image filenames.


Editor’s notes:


1.     To keep up to date with all RSPB news in the Eastern Region:

·         Follow us on Twitter: @RSPBintheEast

·         ‘Like’ us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/RSPBNorfolk

·         Follow our Blog: http://www.rspb.org.uk/eastblog

2.     This EU LIFE funded UK-wide Project - involving 10 partners - will lay the foundations for the long-term recovery of the little tern in the UK by increasing numbers of breeding pairs and productivity, identifying long-term plans for conservation and increasing public awareness and support.

3.     The European Commission manages the LIFE programme which is the European Union’s funding instrument for the environment and climate action. Natura 2000 is a network of sites which represent important habitat areas of the highest value for fauna and flora in Europe. It was set up to protect 200 important habitat types which are home to around 700 species. The LIFE funding allows the Natura 2000 network of sites to be protected and enhanced so that their value can be enjoyed by future generations.

4.     The EU LIFE Project partners are: Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Denbighshire County Council, Durham County Council, Industry Nature Conservation Association (INCA), Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, National Trust, Natural England, Northumberland County Council/Northumberland Coast AONB , RSPB and Spurn Bird Observatory Trust.

5.     The LIFE Project partners manage over 20 little tern colony sites across England and Wales, representing 65-70% of the total UK population. The Project takes place in 15 of the Special Protection Areas under the Natura 2000 network of European designated sites that have a special importance for nature.

6.     The EU LIFE Little Tern Recovery Project website is http://www.littleternproject.org.uk

7.     There are currently around 1,600 pairs of little terns known to breed in the UK. Published long-term trends are -18% from 2000 to 2015 (The State of the UK’s Birds 2016).

8.     The UK LIFE Project sites results over the last four years are: 2014 1,103 pairs fledged 524, 2015 961 pairs fledged 532, 2016 973 pairs fledged 709 and 2017 1,078 fledged 617. Breeding results can fluctuate. The 5-year average for Project sites prior to LIFE funding from 2009-2013 was 1,089 pairs and fledglings 609.

9.     Little terns are listed on the Annex I of the Birds Directive, which specifically prohibits, amongst other things, “deliberate disturbance of these birds particularly during the period of breeding and rearing, in so far as disturbance would be significant having regard to the objectives of this Directive.”

10.  Little terns are listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it illegal to intentionally or recklessly disturb them while nesting


The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity.
In England and Wales, no: 207076.
In Scotland, no: SC037654.


Last Updated: Friday 16 July 2021

Tagged with: