Camouflaged beach discovery prompts excitement after 20 years of fear

They're so hard to spot that walkers, dogs and 4WDs often squash them. But little terns are on the rebound.

A little tern chick embedded in the sand with its mouth open on the Central Coast of NSW.
Little terns are increasing in numbers in NSW for the first time in almost 20 years. Source: Andrew Robinson, Central Coast Council

While it’s still common to spot seagulls on Aussie beaches, numbers of another unassuming little seabird have been falling for almost two decades and that's had experts fearing it could face extinction. But this year something remarkable occurred.

Little terns (Sternula albifrons) are squat little shorebirds, with thin yellow legs, and black feathered skull-caps. Because they nest on beaches, their sand-coloured camouflaged eggs are often accidentally squashed. They face threats from animal predators, humans and their dogs, vehicles and increasingly erratic weather.

Last time little tern numbers were stable in NSW, it was the turn of the century, and NSYNC was topping the charts with Bye Bye Bye and Russell Crowe was looking young and fit in the Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator. The species is listed as endangered both by NSW and the Commonwealth and ecologists have been working with landholders, beachgoers, volunteers and councils to help it recover.

We've shared a series of photos taken by those involved in the recovery effort to highlight just how easy the chicks are to miss because of their camouflage.

Related: Fisherman's tussle with seagull reveals 'horrific' problem on Aussie beaches

Two little tern chicks nesting in sand on a Central Coast of NSW beach.
It's easy to see how difficult it is to spot little tern chicks burrowed into the sand. Source: Andrew Robinson, Central Coast Council

It was a welcome surprise that a NSW Parks and Wildlife survey of little terns over the 2023-2024 breeding season discovered close to a 15 per cent jump in numbers of breeding pairs — an increase from 380 last season to 430 this time around.

This followed an exhaustive effort that included 417 survey days and 5,000 little tern observations.

A mother little tern and chick nesting in the background on a Central Coast of NSW beach.
4WDs and dogs are two enemies of nesting little terns and their chicks. Source: Andrew Robinson, Central Coast Council
A little tern hatching from one of three eggs on a Central Coast of NSW beach.
The increase in the number of breeding pairs has boosted the number of hatchlings. Source: Andrew Robinson, Central Coast Council

Its head of coastal operations called the result “incredibly uplifting”. “We are always hoping for a prosperous season for these animals, and we could not be happier with the results we have seen over this season,” Naomi Stephens said.

The surge in breeding pairs led to another welcome result. More babies hatched across the 16 beaches between Wilsons Head in the north and Wallagoot Lake in the south that were surveyed by NSW Parks and Wildlife. A total of 370 fledglings were observed — almost 100 fledglings more than the previous season.

To ensure the species continues to recover, authorities have urged dog owners to ensure they obey the rules and keep them on a leash.

Four tips on how to stop little terns being killed on beaches written on a background showing a flying little tern and a seagull. The tips are Keep dogs leashed Walk close to the waterline. Only drive on approved beaches. Look out for cordoned off nesting areas.
Little tern numbers are increasing and there are key precautions you can take to ensure they don't decline again. Picture: Getty

For those simply walking or lounging on the sand, the advice is to keep to the waterline and avoid straying close to the dunes where the birds may be nesting.

Four-wheel-drive owners are warned to stay away from nesting areas and ensure they have a permit to drive on the sand.

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