Nature conservation

Threatened species

Fairy Tern - profile

Indicative distribution

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The areas shown in pink and/purple are the sub-regions where the species or community is known or predicted to occur. They may not occur thoughout the sub-region but may be restricted to certain areas. ( click here to see geographic restrictions). The information presented in this map is only indicative and may contain errors and omissions.
Scientific name: Sternula nereis nereis
Conservation status in NSW: Not listed
Commonwealth status: Vulnerable
Profile last updated: 01 Dec 2017


A small piscivorous (fish-eating) bird, the Fairy Tern is approximately 22–27 cm in length, 70 g in weight and has a wingspan of 44–53 cm (Higgins & Davies 1996). The Fairy Tern is bulky and round bodied (Simpson & Day 2004).

The breeding plumage of both sexes is pale grey-white, with a black crown, nape, ear coverts and patch in front of the eyes (square to round in shape). The forehead is white and the bill is orange-yellow (Higgins & Davies 1996). Legs are dull yellow and the iris is dark brown (Lindsey 1986a).

There is also little sexual dimorphism in non-breeding plumage, with a black bill and a more mottled appearance to the crown (Marchant & Higgins 1990). Outer primary feathers are also less contrasting with no dark shoulder bar (Simpson & Day 2004).

Immature birds have blackish legs and bills (Lindsey 1986a). The crown is streaked dusky and buff with a dark ear patch. The outer wing is dark greyish and the inner wing is pale grey and white (Simpson & Day 2004).

The species is gregarious and often found in flocks of 50–150 birds. However the bird is also seen singularly or in pairs (Higgins & Davies 1996).


Within Australia, the Fairy Tern occurs along the coasts of Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia; occurring as far north as the Dampier Archipelago near Karratha. The subspecies has been known from New South Wales (NSW) in the past, but it is unknown if it persists there (Birdlife International 2010; Garnett & Crowley 2000).

Habitat and ecology

  • The Fairy Tern (Australian) nests on sheltered sandy beaches, spits and banks above the high tide line and below vegetation. The subspecies has been found in embayments of a variety of habitats including offshore, estuarine or lacustrine (lake) islands, wetlands and mainland coastline (Higgins & Davies 1996; Lindsey 1986a). The bird roosts on beaches at night (Higgins & Davies 1996).


Recovery strategies

Activities to assist this species

IBRA Bioregion IBRA Subregion Known or predicted Geographic restrictions region