Extinction appears closer for New Zealand’s rarest bird, but DOC says help is on the way. David Williams reports.

A disastrous breeding season has plunged one of the world’s rarest birds even deeper into crisis.

The critically endangered fairy tern/tara iti, the country’s rarest native bird species with fewer than 40 individuals, has had only three chicks hatch this season.

New Zealand Fairy Tern Charitable Trust convenor Heather Rogan says one chick has gone missing, which could make this the worst breeding season in at least 27 years.

The Department of Conservation maintained yesterday all three chicks were alive and well. If that’s the case and they all fledge, this would still be the worst season since 1996-7, the last time three chicks fledged.

More worrying than the lack of chicks, Rogan says, is that breeding pairs have been decimated. She estimates there are only five pairs left across breeding sites on beaches north of Auckland – when over the last decade there have been between eight and 10 pairs.

She describes the season as “disastrous”. “I would say that this is a crisis year.”

Melanie Scott, who lives near Mangawhai and is a member of the group Save Te Arai, says: “We’re on the verge of losing this bird.”

Promising start

The season started promisingly.

The Department of Conservation put out a press statement on December 17 about the first chick of the season hatching at Pakiri, north of Warkworth. (Up the coast at Mangawhai, the nests were built earlier than had ever been seen.)

DOC technical adviser Tony Beauchamp said: “Although it is early days for the chick and the risks are high, we are hopeful they will continue to do well and fledge later in summer.” However, he worried that high winds had disrupted the birds, which would lead to fewer chicks than the six that fledged the previous year.

Fairy terns are small, shy, solitary birds. They build nests away from each other, in shell and sand banks just above the high tide mark. That makes them vulnerable to predators and people, as well as stormy weather and high tides.

Rogan says a mysterious blue substance appeared at Waipu last year, which is thought to have poisoned some birds. The female of one breeding pair there disappeared, presumed dead. The remaining pair are known to produce infertile eggs, but are good foster parents.

To that end, this breeding season one of two eggs from the only viable nest – of three – at Mangawhai was taken to Waipu, to be fostered. A chick hatched there and Mangawhai.

Rogan: “But, very sadly, just in the last few days, that [Mangawhai] chick has disappeared.”

Two breeding pairs have frequented Papakanui, but the female of one pair died and the other pair have disappeared. The other chick to hatch this year was at Pakiri.

Rogan says she’s not qualified to discuss the fairy tern’s biological problems, such as infertility in species with a small gene pool. But a number of controllable factors appear to have conspired to spur the recent decline: “More human disturbance, more development close to nesting sites, more helicopters in the air, more people and dogs.”

The luxury Tara Iti Golf Club has been built nearby and exclusive housing developments are planned in the old Mangawhai Forest, bought by Te Uri o Hau in its Treaty settlement. As part of the developments, a public reserve is to be created.

Rogan: “It just seems one thing after the other has been piling pressure on.”

Bounced back from the brink

Fairy terns could once be found around the North Island coast and at South Island river mouths, New Zealand Birds Online says. But in the early 1980s, when only three breeding pairs and 11 individual birds could be found, the New Zealand Wildlife Service stepped in.

Nest sites at Mangawhai and Papakanui Spit were protected in 1983, and at Waipu the following year. A 1991 study put most of the blame for the loss of fairy terns at Pakiri and Te Arai beaches “to increased residential development and an increase in the number of day visitors”.

After intense management the birds bounced back, with the population plateauing at about 40 individuals in recent years. But the species’ stabilisation couldn’t have been done without the help of volunteers, who carry out trapping and monitor birds on DOC staff’s day off. The Fairy Tern Trust pays up to $40,000 annually for year-round predator trapping.

“We are setting a recovery strategy in place because we believe that we have to make sure that this species survives – and thrives.” – Fathima Iftikar

Despite the dire breeding season, DOC is putting on a brave face.

Fathima Iftikar, the manager of DOC’s terrestrial ecosystems unit, tells Newsroom it is establishing a recovery group to hatch a strategy for fairy terns. The group, recommended in a 2017 review of fairy tern management, should be in place by March. DOC’s representatives have already been decided. Out of an agreement signed with local interest groups, some research has been started to try and understand the causes of the fairy tern’s decline, she says.

“We are setting a recovery strategy in place because we believe that we have to make sure that this species survives – and thrives,” Iftikar says.

It appears, however, that DOC has dropped the ball. A 10-year fairy tern recovery plan was produced in 2005 but the recovery group was disbanded before the term was finished.

Rogan: “If all the things that were in there had been followed, we might be a bit better off.”

(Iftikar didn’t know why the group was disbanded.)

Slow progress

Progress also seems slow. DOC called a meeting of interested groups in March last year to discuss some of the strategies and priorities for saving the fairy tern. A recovery group was one of the top priorities, yet it’s still not established.

Looking back five years, the Fairy Tern Trust, set up in 2008, must have been ecstatic. Its trapping seemed to be doing the trick and 12 chicks fledged, including nine at Mangawhai. (DOC’s total figure for that year is 11.)

But the most that have fledged in a breeding season since has been six.

The trust is prominent in its local communities, attending fairs and events to promote the cause, but it can only do so much.

“I think we need a nationwide campaign to make everyone aware of the fairy tern’s plight,” Rogan says.

Scott, of Save Te Arai, says she’d like to see better signage in fairy tern habitat, better education for beach-goers, and enforcement against dog walkers on what are meant to be dog-less beaches. Breeding grounds need round-the-clock protection, she says.

Rogan tries to be sanguine. She credits DOC with a change of attitude under the Labour-led Government and says it appears to be taking the fairy tern’s plight more seriously. Re-establishing a recovery group is a good sign, she says.

But she adds: “I hope they’re not too late.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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