Breeding boost for critically endangered fairy tern

Ask most people what a ‘fairy tern’ is and you’re likely to get an answer that relates to the latest moves on the television hit show ‘Dancing with the Stars’.

It is in fact a very rare bird as the fairy tern or tara-iti is New Zealand’s rarest indigenous breeding bird. There are only 45 fairy terns left - all in wildlife refuges on New Zealand's Northland coast.

Risks to the fairy tern include its diminutive size, and nesting habits – on sandy beaches where it is exposed to predators and accidental human intervention such as trampling on eggs.

For some years, local volunteers have been assisting conservation workers with a breeding project that is slowly boosting numbers. In 2013 10 fairy tern chicks fledged and a similar success is hoped for this year.

The birds are intensively managed by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC) which has two dedicated wardens on the job seven-days-a-week overseeing breeding colonies on the beaches of Waipu, Mangawhai, Pakiri, and Papkanui Spit.

Their focus is to increase the population of the shorebird by giving the fairy terns the best breeding environment.

Breeding pairs construct nests on exposed, low-lying areas of shell-covered sand. These nests are a simple indent in the sand amidst shells.

The wardens prepare nesting sites by laying down shells, monitor breeding attempts, and maintain fences around nests. They also help with public education, predator trapping and enforcing safety regulations. Volunteers also play a big part in monitoring, trapping and surveillance.

Fairy tern - history and habitat

New Zealand fairy terns were once widespread around North Island coastal areas and the eastern shores of the South Island, but their decline can be attributed to a combination of habitat loss, predation and disturbance at the breeding sites.

It is the smallest tern that breeds in New Zealand and the birds can be identified during the breeding season by their black caps, bright yellow beaks, orange legs, soft grey wings and white under parts. In non-breeding plumage the cap fades to a mottled black and white, and the bill and legs lose their brightness.

Nests are no more than small scrapes in the sand, camouflaged amongst shell and making breeding a hazardous process as the fairy tern can be very difficult to see and is therefore easily stood on.

Adult birds nest between October and February, and chicks hatch after 21 days. At 19 days old chicks are banded with unique metal and colour bands and sexed through DNA testing.

The main threats to the young are stormy weather and predators such as cats, rats, ferrets, stoats, weasels, hedgehogs, black-backed gulls and humans.

Shorebird support

As part of the fairy tern support programme, DoC Northland funds habitat restoration at Mangawhai Spit which has helped to create excellent nesting sites for fairy terns. Money is also invested in gaining advice from external specialists and scientists as well as purchasing field gear required for operational work.

Each season wardens are employed at each site to erect and maintain shorebird fencing and monitor breeding pairs and the eggs and chicks. The wardens are also involved in advocating and educating the local community and visitors to the area, with the support of volunteers.

DoC works closely with the NZ Fairy Tern Charitable Trust, About Tern, Ornithiological Society of New Zealand, the Waipu Trapping Group and Te Uri O Hau to help protect the New Zealand fairy tern.