COASTAL CRITTER:LEAST TERN (Sterna antillarum)
DESCRIPTION:The Least Tern is the smallest tern of North America. It has a snowy white underbody with a black "cap" on its head. The bird's back is gray in color. It has a yellow beak and yellow legs. The Least Tern is about 8 to 10 inches long and has a forked tail. A Least Tern can be be identified by its frequent hovering position that allows it to pause to look down as it flies. A Least Tern typically hovers 10 to 15 feet above the surface of the water while searching for small fish. Upon spotting a fish, it "dive bombs" straight down into the water and captures the fish with its beak.
HABITAT/ECOLOGY:The Least Tern nests in on Santa Rosa Island beaches and on other beaches along the Gulf of Mexico coastline. It winters from Central America to Brazil and returns to the Gulf of Mexico beaches in the spring to raise its young. A Least Tern nests in a small depression in the sand; it may occasionally use small shells as a liner. The Least Tern's eggs are speckled and are so well camouflaged that they are very difficult to find. The Least Tern is a very aggressive bird who defends its nest and surrounding area fiercely. When disturbed, it may kill its own baby chicks and desert the nest.
CONSERVATION:Humans and their pets present the greatest danger to the Least Tern. Homes and businesses built on beaches are displacing many Least Tern's nesting sites. This forces the tern to search for other sites, none of which are natural to the bird. Similar to the Black Skimmer, Least Terns may try to use the tops of flat buildings as nesting sites. In an attempt to help the Least Tern and other birds that nest on the beaches to survive in their natural habitat, Florida does not allow dogs on beaches. Also, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission has listed the Least Tern as a threatened species.
Due to the difficulty of seeing the nests and eggs, nesting sites are marked with "KEEP OUT" signs. Please respect the nesting areas and notify the park rangers of any nests you might come upon that are not