Skip to content

Sterna albifrons

warning Endangered
EN (A2c)

Contributed: Lior Kislev, Asaf Mayrose, Yifat Artzi
Update Time: Jan. 1, 2011, 7:39 a.m.

The Little Tern is classified as Endangered (EN) because of the decrease in its range, which is estimated to exceed 80% during three generations (32.7 years). On the other hand, the breeding population in Israel is only a portion of a far larger migrating population, which might provide immigration (“rescue effect”). In the previous edition of the Red Book (2002), it was classified as Near Threatened (NT). The change in the threat category of the species reflects the significant reduction in its range, as well as its dependency on active preservation and management actions.
EN Current Regional Assessment | NT Previous Regional Assessment | LC Global Assessment

Habitats Salt Ponds, Wetlands with Shallow Banks
Presence In Israel Migrant, Summer
Breeding In Israel Breeder
Migration Types Long Range
Zoographical Zones Mediterranean
Landscape Types Wetlands, Salt Ponds, Sandy Beach, Mud Plain
Vegetation Densities Low
Nest Locations Ground
Diet Types Fish
Foraging Grounds Water
Body Sizes Small (up to 500g)
Threat Factors Wetland Drainage & Pollution, Direct disturbance from human activity, Increased predation from invasive and eruptive species

The smallest tern found in Israel. It is about the size of a bulbul and easily identified by its white forehead and yellow bill and legs. Flight is rapid and restless and when hunting it hovers rapidly, plunging into the water after fish, and rising rapidly once again. A long-distance migrant in which the Israeli population apparently overwinters in East Africa.

The Little Tern is a rare summer visitor and relatively common passage migrant, particularly along the Mediterranean coast and the Gulf of Eilat. It was first discovered breeding in Israel in 1953, when the Hula Lake was drained, and since the 1970s has been breeding in the Atlit saltpans. The number of breeding pairs at Atlit has increased gradually from a few pairs to 100-250 in the 1980s and 1990s (Yossi Eshbol, pers. comm.). At that time, a few pairs also nested in the Hula Valley, northern Sea of Galilee and the Jezreel Valley (Shirihai 1996). The few attempts at nesting along the Mediterranean coast mostly ended in failure because of human disturbance. About 1,000 breeding pairs were observed at the Bardawil Lagoon in Northern Sinai in the 1970s and 1980s. Currently Little Terns nest regularly in the in the Atlit saltpans breeding colony and in small satellite colonies in the fishponds and reservoirs of the Carmel Coast. The breeding population arrives in Israel during April and leaves in August-September.

The Little Tern nests on sandy shores or the edges of dirt roads and on sand and mud banks around ponds and reservoirs.

Little Tern breeding is now almost completely concentrated in one major colony in the Atlit saltpans. This alone is evidence of the threat to the continued existence of the species in Israel. The saltpans have no statutory protection and some of them may be converted to other uses. Moreover, the colony is sometimes threatened by predators such as foxes and jackals as well as by diseases such as the Newcastle Disease Virus (Goldstein, Kiat & Hatsofe 2017).

The Little Tern breeding islet in the Atlit saltpans is constantly monitored. It has been expanded and raised to prevent nest flooding and fenced to prevent predator invasion. Attempts to restore breeding on the Mediterranean coast have not been successful.

The Little Tern is a migratory species that is endangered because of its small population, which is dependent on artificial habitat and active management. Most of the species population is concentrated in the Atlit saltpans, which is a private industrial area. In the past, large breeding colonies were recorded on the Northern Sinai coast, but there is no updated information regarding their status.

Monitoring and preservation efforts should be continued in order to ensure the future of the Little Tern in Israel, which now nests in areas that have no statutory protection to ensure their preservation.

  • הצופה, א. ומירוז, א. 2009. קינון שחפיות בישראל - תמונת מצב והמלצות לממשק. מסמך פנימי של רשות הטבע והגנים והחברה להגנת הטבע.
  • פז, ע. 1986. עופות. מתוך אלון, ע. (עורך), החי והצומח של ארץ ישראל. כרך 6. הוצאת משרד הביטחון, ישראל.
  • ריבק, א., כיאט, י., גולדשטיין, ע., והצופה, א. 2017. קינון שחפיות בחוף הכרמל - סיכום עונת 2017.
Contributed: Lior Kislev, Asaf Mayrose, Yifat Artzi

Current Occupancy Map

Current occupancy map by density
Data Missing Sporadic Limited Sites Low Density High Density
0 0 0 0 0

Distribution maps

The maps presented here provide visual information on the distribution of species in Israel from the past and present, and the changes in occupancy and breeding density during the comparison period. For further reading

Relative Abundance 2010-2020

Breeding density values in the current decade as determined from experts' opinion and observations from databases.

Relative Abundance 2010-2020 by density
Data Missing Sporadic Limited Sites Low Density High Density
8 12 12 21 19

Relative Abundance 1980-1990

Density values based primarily on the book The Birds of Israel (Shirihai 1996).

Relative Abundance 1980-1990 by density
Data Missing Sporadic Limited Sites Low Density High Density
5 14 14 17 22

Occupancy 1990-2020

The map shows differences in the species breeding distribution between the 1980's breeding map and the current weighted breeding evaluation. Negative value - species previously bred in the grid and is not presently breeding; positive value - species has not previously bred in the grid and is currently breeding.

Occupancy 1990-2020
Data Missing No Change Occupancy Increase Occupancy Decrease
6 35 1 9

Change in Relative Abundance 1990-2020

The map shows the changes in the relative abundance of a species in each of the distribution grids between the breeding map of the 1980s and the weighted current breeding evaluation. Negative values - decline in abundance; positive values - increase in abundance; zero - no change in abundance.

Change in Relative Abundance 1990-2020
80 to 100 50 20 to 30 No Change 30- to 20- 50- 100- to 80- Data Missing
0 4 2 22 12 14 11 16

Red number
IUCN category
Threat Definition according to the red book
() districts
% of protected sites

Other Species

Larus leucophthalmus
Chlidonias niger
Larus armenicus