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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Least Tern - Sternula antillarum

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G4
State Rank: S1B

Agency Status
PIF: 1


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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
The smallest tern in North America, the Least Tern averages 21 to 24 cm long and has a wingspan of 51 cm (Thompson et al. 1997). In breeding plumage the species is characterized by a black cap and stripe through the eye that contrast sharply with a white forehead (Thompson et al. 1997). The underparts of the bird are white, while the upperparts are gray. The outer primaries of their long, narrow wings are black. They have a short, slightly notched tail, and a slightly decurved and tapered yellow bill (unique from other tern species) with a small black tip. The sexes are virtually identical, although Whitman (1988) notes some subtle differences; the male bill is described as orange to bright yellow, while the female's is light, dull yellow, or straw-colored. The iris is dark brown (Thompson et al. 1997); the feet and legs of the male are bright orange and generally bright to pale yellow on the female (Whitman 1988).

Vocalization of the Least Tern is described as a shrill, rapid, sharp "piDEEK-adik" or "keDEEK" as well as a weak, nasal sounding "whididi" and high, sharp "kweek" or "kwik" squeaks. The alarm call is a sharp, rising "zreek" (Sibley 2000).

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
It is unlikely for the Least Tern to be confused with any other tern species in Montana. Its diminutive size, yellow bill, and white forehead are distinctive. Another tern species found in the state, the Forster's Tern, also has a black cap, but it lacks the white forehead. Also, the Forster's Tern is larger than the Least Tern, has a large orange, not yellow, bill and lacks black primaries in breeding plumage (Sibley 2000).

Species Range
Montana Range

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Western Hemisphere Range


Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 456

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Little is known about the migratory patterns of the Least Tern in Montana. Most of the observations in the state have been recorded for breeding pairs, with few reported sightings of transient individuals. Spring arrival of the species occurs in mid-May, with departure in the fall generally occurring by mid-August (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). The extreme early migration date in Montana is May 24, 1994 at Fort Peck (Skaar et al. 1985). Least Terns nesting in the northern U.S., including Montana, may migrate the farthest of all terns, possibly wintering in South America (Thompson et. al 1997).

Least Terns nest on unvegetated sand-pebble beaches and islands of large reservoirs and rivers in northeastern and southeastern Montana, specifically the Yellowstone and Missouri river systems (Christopherson 1991). These wide, open river channels, and lake and pothole shorelines provide the preferred characteristics for nesting Least Terns. Sites with gravel substrate provide the most suitable sites for nesting (Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee 1994). One of the most limiting factors to nesting site selection is vegetational encroachment; Least Terns avoid areas where relatively thick vegetation provides cover for potential predators. Fine-textured soils are easier to treat mechanically than rocky or gravelly soils when vegetation is determined as a limiting factor in an area's ability to provide suitable nesting habitat, but fine soils are not typically a preferred nesting substrate (Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee 1994).

In Montana, as in other areas, another and more important limiting factor in nest site selection is the location of nesting sites in relation to surrounding water levels. Nests are often inundated because water levels are kept unnaturally high throughout the breeding season (and high winds can cause nests to be flooded) or nesting sites are not available (either because of encroaching vegetation or because water levels are so high that beaches are under water during the early part of, and possibly throughout, the nesting season) (Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee 1994).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
No specific information regarding food habits in Montana is known for this species. Generally the Least Tern consumes small fishes (generally less than 9 cm long), but sometimes eats crustaceans or insects. Prey is obtained by diving from the air into shallow water usually less than 4 m deep (Moseley 1976). Interior populations depend almost entirely on cyprinids. Feeding in newly plowed fields has been observed in Texas; apparently beetle larvae were being captured (McDaniel and McDaniel 1963).

When breeding, the Least Tern usually forages within a few hundred meters of the colony, but occasionally up to 3 to 12 kilometers away (Thompson et al. 1997). Coastal breeding populations may forage in marine, estuarine, or nearby freshwater habitats.

Least Terns are a recent breeder in the state. The first confirmed nesting occured in 1987 (Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee 1989, 1994). In Montana, nesting colonies are particularly vulnerable to inundation in the Missouri River system.

Research suggests that the Least Tern travels in large flocks during migration; while in the non-breeding season the species is usually found singly or in small loose groups. Foraging may occur singly, in pairs, or in small flocks (Erwin 1978).

In California, the species usually nests in the same area in successive years; and tends to return to the natal site to nest (Atwood and Massey 1988). On Long Island, New York this species tends to nest in the same area in successive years if physical conditions are conducive to nesting (MacLean et al. 1991).

Reproductive Characteristics
Least Terns are known to nest along the shorelines of Fort Peck Reservoir, the Missouri River below Fort Peck Dam, and along the Yellowstone River, downriver from Miles City (Hanebury, personal communication). Least Terns have been observed nesting in association with Common Terns at Fort Peck Reservoir and are often closely associated with Piping Plovers in the limited areas of the state in which they breed (Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee 1994).

The highest nesting population of Least Terns in the state, in most years, is found on the Missouri River below Fort Peck Dam and may number over 100 individuals (Casey 2000); this is particularly true when downriver conditions are not ideal and the Least Terns move upriver in search of better nesting habitat (Pavelka, personal communication). Nests may be lost to flooding when water levels rise during the breeding season as occurred in 1994 and 1995, when a labor-intensive captive hatching and release program saved eggs from nests imminently threatened with inundation by high water levels (Pavelka, personal communication).

Over the past several years the total number of Least Terns on the Missouri River has remained fairly constant, though the total number of initiated and successful nests is highly dependent upon river conditions. In 2003, 38 Least Terns were observed on the Missouri River (this includes the portion of the river to the headwaters of Lake Sacajawea in North Dakota), with 19 nests initiated, 10 nests hatched, and 12 young fledged (Pavelka, personal communication). Since 1998, the greatest number of birds observed on this stretch of the river (1999) totaled 40 birds (12 nests; 7 nests hatched; 17 chicks fledged). The highest number of nests initiated over this time period occurred in 2002, with 34 birds with 23 nests (10 nests hatched and 10 fledged) (Pavelka, personal communication). The Yellowstone River nesting population is generally limited to less than thirty birds (Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee 1994).

As identified in the Recovery Plan for the Least Tern, delisting can be considered when four censuses confirm that the interior population has reached 7,000 and remains stable for at least 10 years. The goal for the Missouri River system is 2,100 birds (census numbers in 2003 revealed 735 birds for the Missouri River in total; Pavelka, personal communication), with 50 individuals as the minimum targeted for Montana's population. This goal was exceeded from 1989 through 1992, dropped to only 39 individuals in 1993, and again met goal in 1994, when a record 51 pairs produced 81 young (MTFWP 2003). For the past six breeding seasons (from 1998 to 2003), the goal of 50 Least Terns for the Missouri River in Montana has not been met (Pavelka, personal communication). Appropriate water management, that which includes natural seasonal flows, is identified as the major consideration for Least Tern conservation in Montana, for the greatest threat to breeding pairs, in some years, is the loss of existing nesting sites from inundation by high water at unusual times of the breeding season (Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee 1994). Rising water levels late in the nesting season can also decrease overall island size, and may result in assisting local avian predators to locate nests (containing eggs or nestlings) more easily (Erickson and Prellwitz 1999). These conditions reinforce the need to manage reservoirs and dammed rivers in a manner that mimics more natural seasonal fluctuations for the protection of Least Tern populations. Other management activities beneficial to the species include: instituting grazing management practices more appropriate to the conservation of the Least Tern; controlling access to key nesting locations; moving nests upslope from areas where flooding of nests is imminent; relocating eggs to nests of other Least Terns for foster incubation; signing of beaches to indicate nesting by Least Terns (though in areas where there is hostility toward the species, or toward listed species in general, this is not recommended); beach enhancement (grading or burning to remove unwanted encroaching vegetation); raising island elevation to make room to move nests in years with rising water during the nesting season (Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee 1994); and timing spring flow releases from Fort Peck Dam to more closely mimic the natural seasonal flows of the river (MTFWP 2003). Other management activities to enhance habitat or affect better protection for this species includes reducing human, dog, and vehicular disturbance during nesting (MTFWP 2003).

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Atwood, J. L. and B. W. Massey. 1988. Site fidelity of least terns in California. Condor 90:389-394.
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • Christopherson, D. 1991. Results of surveys for piping plover (Charadrius melodus) and least tern (Sterna antillarum) in Montana, summer 1990. Unpublished report for the Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee. 60 pp.
    • Erickson, K. and F. Prellwitz. 1999. Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) surveys; Nelson Reservoir, Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge, Hewitt Lake National Wildlife Refuge. May 1999. Unpublished report. PRT-704930.
    • Erwin, R. M. 1978. Coloniality in terns: the role of social feeding. Condor 80:211-5.
    • Erwin, R. M. 1978. Population and colony site dynamics in selected Massachusetts seabirds. Proceedings of the 1977 Conference on Colonial Waterbirds Group 1:19-25.
    • MacLean, D. C., T. S. Litwin, A. M. Ducey-Ortiz, and R. A. Lent. 1991. Nesting biology, habitat use, and inter-colony movements of the least tern (Sterna antillarum) on Long Island, N.Y. The Seatuck Research Program in cooperation with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 70 pp.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • McDaniel B. and S. McDaniel. 1963. Feeding of least terns over land. Auk 80:544.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. 2003. Online informational search on Least Tern in Montana.
    • Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee. 1989. Results of surveys for piping plover (Charadrius melodus) and Least Tern (Sterna antillarum) in Montana - summer 1988. 39 pp.
    • Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee. 1994. 1993 Surveys for piping plover (Charadrius melodus) and least tern (Sterna antillarum) in Montana. Unpublished report. 116 pp. plus appendices.
    • Moseley, L. J. 1976. Behavior and communication in the least tern. Ph.D. dissertation. University of North Carolina. 164 pp.
    • Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley guide to birds. National Audubon Society and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY. 544 pp.
    • Skaar, P. D., D. L. Flath, and L. S. Thompson. 1985. Montana bird distribution. Montana Academy of Sciences Monograph 3(44): ii-69.
    • Whitman, P. L. 1988. Biology and conservation of the endangered interior least tern: a literature review. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report 88(3):1-22.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
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    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Atkinson, S. J., and A. R. Dood. 2006. Montana Interior Least Tern Management Plan. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Bozeman. 47 p.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Faanes, C. A. 1983. Aspects of the nesting ecology of least terns and piping plovers in central Nebraska. Prairie Naturalist 15(4): 145-154.
    • Grover, P. B. and F. L. Knopf. 1982. Habitat requirements and breeding success of charadriiform birds nesting at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma. J. Field Ornithol. 53:139-148.
    • Kirsch, E. M. 1996. Habitat selection and productivity of least terns on the lower Platte River, Nebraska. Wildl. Monogr. 132. 48 pp.
    • Kreil, R.L. and M.P. Dryer. 1987. Nesting of the Interior Least Tern on the Yellowstone River in North Dakota. Prairie Nat. 19(2): 135-136.
    • Lenard, S., J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar’s Montana bird distribution, 6th edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, MT. 144 pp.
    • Massey, B. W., K. Keane, and C. Boardman. 1988. Adverse effects of radio transmitters on the behavior of nesting least terns. Condor 90:945-947.
    • Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee. 1990. Results of surveys for Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) and Least Tern (Sterna antillarum) in Montana - summer 1989. Unpublished report. 43 pp.
    • Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee. 1992. Results of surveys for Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) and Least Tern (Sterna antillarum) in Montana - summer 1991. Unpublished report. 62 pp.
    • Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee. 1993. Surveys for Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) and Least Tern (Sterna antillarum) in Montana - summer 1992. Unpublished report. 66 pp.
    • Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee. 1995. 1994 Surveys for piping plover (Charadrius melodus) and least tern (Sterna antillarum) in Montana. 117 pp. plus appendices.
    • Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee. 1995. 1994 Surveys for Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) and Least Tern (Sterna antillarum) in Montana. 117 pp. plus appendices.
    • Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee. 1996. 1996 Surveys for piping plover (Charadrius melodus) and Least tern (Sterna antillarum) in Montana. Unpublished report.
    • Montana Piping Plover Recovery Committee. 1997. 1995 Surveys for piping plover (Charadrius melodus) and Least tern (Sterna antillarum) in Montana. Unpublished report. 112 pp. plus appendix.
    • Pavelka, Greg. 2003. Threatened and Endangered Species Specialist. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Operations Division, Omaha District, Gavings Pt. Project Office. Personal communication regarding recent river censuses of Least Terns in Montana. 12 August 2003.
    • Reel, S., L. Schassberger and W. Ruediger. 1989. Caring for Our Natural Community: Region 1 - Theatened, Endangered and Sensitive Species Program. USDA, Forest Service Northern Region Wildlife and Fisheries.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • Thompson, B.C., J.A. Jackson, J. Burger, L.A. Hill, E.M. Kirsch, and J.L. Atwood. 1997. Least Tern (Sterna antillarum). Species Account Number 290. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database
    • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1990. Recovery plan for the interior population of the Least Tern (Sterna antillarum). Dept. of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildl. Serv., Twin Cities, MN. 90 pp.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Ziewitz, J.W., J.G. Sidle and J.J. Dinan. 1992. Habitat consevation for nesting Least Terns and Piping Plovers on the Platte River, Nebraska. Prairie Nat., 24(1): 1-20.
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Citation for data on this website:
Least Tern — Sternula antillarum.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on January 18, 2017, from