New Zealand fairy tern
Image: Malcolm Pullman ©

Introduction

The New Zealand fairy tern/tara-iti is probably New Zealand's rarest breeding bird.

Highlights

New Zealand status: Native
Conservation status: Threatened–Nationally Critical
Found in: Lower half of the Northland Peninsula
Threats: Habitat loss, predation

Species information: Fairy tern on NZ Birds online

In this section

Did you know?

The New Zealand fairy tern is the smallest tern breeding in New Zealand, and the oldest known fairy tern was 18 years old.

New Zealand fairy tern conservation

With a population of around 45 individuals that includes approximately 12 breeding pairs, the New Zealand fairy tern is probably our most endangered indigenous breeding bird.

It is ranked as an endangered species, and carries a 'Category A' priority for conservation action. A Department of Conservation Recovery Plan is currently in action.

Records from the 19th century suggest that NZ fairy terns used to be widespread around the coast of the North Island and eastern South Island, but were not abundant in any one area.

New Zealand fairy terns are now confined to the lower half of the Northland Peninsula. Breeding is limited to four regular sites: Waipu, Mangawhai, Pakiri and the South Kaipara Head.

Two New Zealand fairy tern chicks in nest.
New Zealand fairy tern/tara-iti chicks in nest

Map showing the location of the four Fairy tern breeding sites.
Map of breeding sites (JPG, 63K)

Fairy tern chick in nest, among shells, Mangawhai. Photo: G.R.Parrish.
Fairytern construct their nests on exposed, low-lying areas of shell-covered sand. The nest is a simple scrape in the sand, set amidst the shells.

Threats

The most likely causes of population decline are:

  • Habitat depletion – The degradation of sand dune habitat caused by residential development, the planting of pine plantations, and pastoral farming.
  • Predation – Introduced predators such as rats, dogs, cats, hedgehogs and mustelids preying upon eggs and chicks.
  • Environmental events – High tides, floods, and storms destroying and washing away nests.
  • Death of embryos – Nesting birds are eaten or chased away by predators, and the embryos die from exposure.
  • Recreational activities – Beach activities disturb nests and scare birds away from their nests.

Protecting vulnerable nests

Nesting in a small scrape in the sand, these delicate sea birds are very vulnerable. Nest sites are roped off and signs erected to alert people to the area.

Department of Conservation staff and volunteers talk to people who use the beach. Fishermen are encouraged to bury fish remains because they can attract unwanted numbers of gulls to the area.

Nests are sandbagged against storms and high tides. Where necessary eggs are cross-fostered into other nests or removed for hand rearing. A programme of trapping predators around nests is vital to help protect the adults, eggs and chicks.

Footprints on sand.
Footprints inside a fenced-off area

New Zealand fairy tern. Photo © David-Hallet.
Parent with fish, and chick in sand

Previous conservation efforts

In 1983 the number of fairy terns at Mangawhai and Papakanui Spit dropped to an alarming all-time low of 3–4 breeding pairs.The Department of Conservation (then the New Zealand Wildlife Service) stepped in and initiated protection. A successful population turnaround resulted. This was probably due to the introduction of wardens and the fencing of nests.

Protection has continued until the present day. The number of pairs rose to 7 in 1993. Since 1997, between 6 and 9 pairs have bred each season until 2005. The numbers for the years following are:

  • 2006–7: 10–12 pairs
  • 2007–8: 10 pairs
  • 2008–9: 10–12 pairs
  • 2009–10: 8 pairs 
  • 2010–11: 9 pairs

Successful management techniques

Thankfully, additional funding in recent years has allowed for much greater protection and monitoring.

Full-time wardens offer an efficient response to emergency situations. In recent years a warden has been employed on a full-time basis at each of the breeding sites.

The duties of wardens include: monitoring breeding attempts, maintaining fences around nesting sites, nest translocation, predator identification and control (including video surveillance), egg and chick manipulation, public education, and law enforcement.

Volunteers play a big part in monitoring and surveillance to assist the wardens.

Recovery Plan in action

The Department of Conservation New Zealand Fairy Tern Recovery Plan was approved in 2005. The plan describes steps to promote the recovery of the tern. It also outlines different management options, and a work plan.

The long-term vision of the plan is:

  • 'To increase the population of NZ fairy tern, improve their conservation status from Category A (endangered) to Category B (threatened), and expand their breeding range back into parts of their former range.'

The short-term goals for the next five years are:

  • To prevent the extinction of the New Zealand subspecies.
  • To increase the breeding population by 25% by 2015.

You can help

NZ fairy tern monitoring

Volunteers can help monitor NZ fairy terns by recording activities of the birds and their chicks, any potential threats present, fishing sites and other observations that can help with our protection efforts.

Share your thoughts

We welcome any comments or suggestions you have about the conservation of the fairy tern. Send them to:

Mahurangi / Warkworth Office
Phone:   +64 9 425 7812
Email:   warkworth@doc.govt.nz
Address:   Unit 12
30 Hudson Road
Warkworth
Full office details
Whangarei Office
Phone:   +64 9 470 3300
Email:   whangarei@doc.govt.nz
Address:   2 South End Ave
Raumanga
Whangarei 0110
Full office details
Emergency hotline

Call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) immediately if you see anyone catching, harming or killing native wildlife. 

Help protect our native birds

When visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes
  • Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep them under control.
  • Check for pests when visiting pest-free islands.
  • Leave nesting birds alone.
  • Use available access ways to get to the beach. 
  • Avoid leaving old fishing lines on beaches or in the sea.
  • Follow the water care code and local navigation bylaws.
  • Don't drive on riverbeds, or keep to formed tracks if you have to.
Other ways to help
  • Get your dog trained in avian awareness.
  • Volunteer to control predators and restore bird habitats.
  • Set predator traps on our property.
  • Put a bell on your cat's collar, feed it well, and keep it indoors at dusk/dawn and at night.
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