Gaviotín Enano/Least Tern/Sternula antillarum

Sternula antillarum

Nombre en español: Gaviotín Enano

Nombre en ingles: Least Tern

Nombre científico: Sternula antillarum

Familia: Laridae

Foto: Nick Athanas

Canto:  Frank Lambert

El charrancito americano (Sternula antillarum), también denominado charrán mínimocharrán chicocharrán menudogaviotín chico borealgaviotín enanogaviotín pequeño y golondrina marina mínima,​ es una especie de ave caradriforme de la familia Sternidae que cría principalmente en Norteamérica y migra para pasar el invierno en América Central, el Caribe y el norte de Sudamérica.


El charrancito americano mide entre 22–24 cm de largo, y tiene una envergadura alar de unos 50 cm. Pesa entre 39–52 g. Las partes superiores son de color gris claro bastante uniforme y mientras que las inferiores son blancas. Su cabeza es blanca excepto el píleo que es negro como la línea que conectando con el pico atravesando los ojos. Su frente en blanca, ampliándose en invierno. Su pico es amarillo con la punta negra en verano y completamente negruzco en invierno. Sus patas son amarillentas. Sus alas son principalmente gris claro, aunque tiene las primarias exteriores negras.

Se diferencia de charrancito común en que su obispillo y cola son grises, no blancos, y tiene una llamada diferente, más chillona. Se diferencia del charrancito amazónico por ser más claro en las partes superiores y tener la punta del pico negra y se diferencia del charrancito peruano también en que tiene las partes superiores más pálidas y las partes inferioes blancas (no gris claro) y tiene la parte negra de la punta del pico más corta.


Fue descrito científicamente por el naturalista francés René-Primevère Lesson en 1847. Inicialmente se lo consideró conespecífico del charrancito común.

Se reconocen tres subespecies:

  • Sternula antillarum antillarum (Lesson, 1847). Cría e la costa atlántica de Norteamérica, desde Maine hasta las costas del sur de Estados Unidos, el Caribe, Bermuda y Venezuela. Pasa en invierno en el sur, llegando hasta el norte de Brasil.
  • Sternula antillarum athalassos (Burleigh y Lowery, 1942). Cría en la cuenca de los ríos Misisipi, Brazos, Trinidad y río Bravo.4​ Pasa el invierno en el sur llegando hasta Brasil.
  • Sternula antillarum browni (Mearns, 1916). Cría en la costa pacífica de Nortamérica, desde California central hasta México. Pasa el invierno principalmente en América Central.

Least tern

The least tern (Sternula antillarum) is a species of tern that breeds in North America and locally in northern South America. It is closely related to, and was formerly often considered conspecific with, the little tern of the Old World. Other close relatives include the yellow-billed tern and Peruvian tern, both from South America.

It is a small tern, 22–24 cm (8.7–9.4 in) long, with a wingspan of 50 cm (20 in), and weighing 39–52 g (1.4–1.8 oz). The upper parts are a fairly uniform pale gray, and the underparts white. The head is white, with a black cap and line through the eye to the base of the bill, and a small white forehead patch above the bill; in winter, the white forehead is more extensive, with a smaller and less sharply defined black cap. The bill is yellow with a small black tip in summer, all blackish in winter. The legs are yellowish. The wings are mostly pale gray, but with conspicuous black markings on their outermost primaries. It flies over water with fast, jerky wingbeats and a distinctive hunchback appearance, with the bill pointing slightly downward.

It is migratory, wintering in Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America. Many spend their whole first year in their wintering area. It has occurred as a vagrant to Europe, with one record in Great Britain.

It differs from the little tern mainly in that its rump and tail are gray, not white, and it has a different, more squeaking call; from the yellow-billed tern in being paler gray above and having a black tip to the bill; and from the Peruvian tern in being paler gray above and white (not pale gray) below and having a shorter black tip to the bill.


The differences among the three subspecies may not be as much as had been thought.

  • S. a. athalassos – (Burleigh & Lowery, 1942): Breeds on the rivers of the Arkansas River, Mississippi River, Brazos River, Trinity River, and Rio Grande basins;[2] winters south to northern Brazil.
  • S. a. antillarum – (Lesson, 1847): nominate, Breeds on the Atlantic coast of North America, from Maine south along the east and south coasts of the United States, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Venezuela; winters south to northern Brazil.
  • S. a. browni – (Mearns, 1916)California least tern. Breeds on the Pacific coast of North America, from central California south to western Mexico; winters mainly in Central America.
  • An unknown subspecies was found in 2012 nesting on the Big Island of Hawaii 

Conservation and status

S. a. antillarum

The population is about 21,500 pairs; it is not currently considered federally threatened, though it is considered threatened in many of the states in which it breeds. Threats include egg and fledgling predators, high tides and recreational use of nesting beaches.

S. a. athalassos

The interior subspecies, with a current population of about 7000 pairs, was listed as an endangered subspecies in 1985 (estimated 1000 breeding pairs), due to loss of habitat caused by dams, reservoirs, channelization, and other changes to river systems.

S. a. browni

The western population, the California least tern, was listed as an endangered species in 1972 with a population of about 600 pairs. With aggressive management, mainly by exclusion of humans via fencing, the Californian population has rebounded in recent years to about 4500 pairs, a marked increase from 582 pairs in 1974 when census work began, though it is still listed as an endangered subspecies. The California subspecies breeds on beaches and bays of the Pacific Ocean within a very limited range of southern California, in San Francisco Bay and in northwestern Mexico. While numbers have gradually increased with its protected status, it is still vulnerable to predators, natural disasters or further disturbance by humans. Recent threats include the gull-billed tern (Sterna nilotica), which can decrease reproductive success in a colony to less than 10%.

Nesting and breeding behavior

The least tern arrives at its breeding grounds in late April. The breeding colonies are not dense and may appear along either marine or estuarine shores, or on sandbar islands in large rivers, in areas free from humans or predators. Courtship typically takes place removed from the nesting colony site, usually on an exposed tidal flat or beach. Only after courtship has confirmed mate selection does nesting begin by mid-May and is usually complete by mid-June. Nests are situated on barren to sparsely vegetated places near water, normally on sandy or gravelly substrates. In the southeastern United States, many breeding sites are on white gravel rooftops. In the San Francisco Bay region, breeding typically takes place on abandoned salt flats. Where the surface is hard, this species may use an artificial indentation (such as a deep dried footprint) to form the nest basin.

The nest density may be as low as several per acre, but in San Diego County, densities of 200 nests per acre have been observed. Most commonly the clutch size is two or three, but it is not rare to consist of either one or four eggs. Adults are known to wet themselves and shake off water over the eggs when arriving at the nest. Both female and male incubate the eggs for a period of about three weeks, and both parents tend the semiprecocial young. Young birds can fly at age four weeks. After formation of the new families, groupings of birds may appear at lacustrine settings in proximity to the coast. Late-season nesting may be renests or the result of late arrivals. In any case, the bulk of the population has left the breeding grounds by the end of August.

Feeding and roosting characteristics

The least tern hunts primarily in shallow estuaries and lagoons, where smaller fishes are abundant. It hovers until spotting prey, and then plunges into the water without full submersion to extract meal. The most common prey recently for both chicks and adults are silversides smelt (Atherinops spp.) and anchovy (Anchoa spp.) in southern California, as well as shiner perch, and small crustaceans elsewhere. Adults in southern California eat kelpfish (most likely giant kelpfish, Heterostichus rostratus). Insects are known to be eaten during El Niño events. In southern California, least terns feed in bays and lagoons, near shore, and more than 24 km (15 mi) from shore in the open ocean. Elsewhere, they feed in proximity to lagoons or bay mouths.

Adults do not require cover, so that they commonly roost and nest on the open ground. After young chicks are three days old, they are brooded less frequently by parents and require wind blocks and shade, and protection from predators. In some colonies in southern California, Spanish roof tiles are placed in colonies so chicks can hide there. Notable disruption of colonies can occur from predation by burrowing owls, gull-billed terns and American kestrels. Depredation by domestic cats has been observed in at least one colony. Predation on inland breeding terns by coyotes, bobcats, feral dogs and cats, great blue herons, Mississippi kites, and owls has also been documented.

Sternula antillarum



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