Scientific Name: Ixobrychus exilis
Classification: Nongame-Special Concern
Abundance: Found along the coast (blue)

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Species Profile (coming soon!)



The least tern is one of several species of terns that nest along North Carolina's coastline. It is the smallest tern, measuring only about 8 to 9 inches in height. During the breeding season, least terns have a black "crown" and white forehead, a thin yellow bill with a black tip and yellow or orange legs, a snowy underside and grayish back and wings. Least terns often can be spotted feeding in shallow water where they hover until spotting prey and then plunging into the water to extract their meal, which is usually small fishes and crustaceans.

The least tern uses a variety of sites on which to nest – bare sand on barrier islands, sand-shell areas on dredged-material islands, gravel roofs, and even occasionally within infrequently-used gravel parking lots. Least terns have been documented nesting on the rooftop of Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium in Carteret County. Dubbed the Tern Turrett, the gravel rooftop has served as a tern nesting site for the 2017 and 2018 nesting seasons. Wildlife Commission staff, along with aquarium staff, are monitoring the chicks throughout the 2018 nesting season to collect data to determine how many pairs are nesting, how many nests have eggs/hatchlings and how many young terns fledge. Read more about the Tern Turrett.


The least tern is a nongame bird species with no open hunting season. The species is state listed as a Species of Special Concern. In North Carolina, a Species of Special Concern is defined as any species of wild animal native or once native to North Carolina that is determined by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to require monitoring but that may be taken under regulations adopted under the provisions of Article 25.

Listed species cannot be collected or taken except under a special permit issued by the Wildlife Commission’s Executive Director.

Protected Wildlife Species of North Carolina listings (PDF)




There are no reported problems with this species.

The Wildlife Commission and partnering organizations conduct coast-wide surveys for least terns and other waterbirds every couple of years in an effort to monitor population trends and nesting locations. They also participate in the Annual Atlantic Coast Survey of Least Terns, organzied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All coastal states — from Maine to North Carolina participate in the survey, which runs from June 1-15.
Additionally, biologists conduct the Colonial Waterbird Census every three years in which they survey all waterbird nesting habitat in the state.  

In addition to surveys Wildlife Commission staff post state-owned nesting sites during the breeding season to protect nesting birds from human disturbance. Many of these sites are on man-made dredge-material islands in the sounds. Least terns, like other waterbirds, face challenges to their survival. Among these challenges are human activites, such as dogs not properly leashed while on the beach and trespassing through posted areas. Loss and modification of habitat also play key roles in population declines.

How you can help least terns:

  • Keeping dogs on a leash at all times. Dogs may chase and harass birds, as well as trample nests, killing chicks or crushing eggs.
  • Driving only on the lower beach and driving slowly enough to avoid running over chicks.
  • Taking trash with them when leaving the beach, including bait and scraps from cleaned fish — all of which can attract predators, such as gulls, raccoons, feral cats and foxes.
  • Discarding fishing line or kite string in an appropriate receptacle. When left on the beach, these materials can entangle and kill birds and other wildlife.
  • Not feeding gulls on the beach. Gulls are a major predator of young chicks and eggs.