Caring for precious balls of fairy tern fluff

The most endangered bird in New Zealand doesn’t get the luxury of a pest and people free island sanctuary. Instead fairy terns jostle for space on beaches north of Auckland. This season, with the help of rangers and volunteers seven chicks have survived. 

The hopes for New Zealand’s most endangered bird species are contained in seven little balls of fluff with toothpick-like legs closely watched over by six rangers and a group of volunteers.

There are fewer than 40 New Zealand fairy terns left and only nine breeding-age pairs. 

Last year they experienced the worst breeding season in 27 years with only two chicks surviving. This year there’s cause for cautious optimism. So far those seven have survived into the fluff ball stage,

Department of Conservation biodiversity ranger Ayla Wiles is one of the six rangers keeping a close eye on the chicks.

When they’re small she calls them “bumblebees on legs.”

With their nests being nothing more than small scrapes in the sand just above the high tide mark, ensuring there’s a transition from egg to bird is no mean feat. 

Storms, humans, dogs, vehicles, gulls and introduced predators all pose a risk. 

“At Waipu we lost one nest to predation. We suspect most likely it was a rat. We get issues with rats swimming across the estuary no matter how much predator control we do.”

One chick was lost to ill health, possibly due to conditions it had when it hatched. Another was abandoned by parents and attempts to hand-feed it were unsuccessful. 

Despite the losses it’d been a good year, said Wiles. 

“I feel like we're making progress towards saving the species. It’s very slow progress because there are so few of them but when we get years like this, which are very successful, it makes it worth it.”

In 1983 the entire population of New Zealand fairy tern had plummeted to 11, with just three breeding pairs.

It’s been a long and occasionally wavering journey from the absolute brink of extinction. 

The nests are usually spread over five different nesting sites including Waipu, Mangawhai, Pakiri, Papakanui Spit and Te Arai stream mouth. 

They’re nestled among shells on the sand, a great camouflage from the traditional airborne predators, but useless against feet, tyres, and introduced mammalian predators.

Spotting fairy tern chicks on a beach can be like playing Where's Wally? Photo: Supplied

Without human intervention to protect them from other humans, introduced predators and storms, they would likely have gone after that point. 

During the breeding season it’s a full time job. Wiles and the other rangers start their day around 7am with a check on each breeding pair to make sure they’re safe and feeding. Predator traps are checked, cleared and reset if necessary. 

After that, it’s a case of monitoring and guarding. People with dogs near the nests are talked to. If they’re being “particularly tricky” the rangers call in council dog control staff.

A return to Te Arai stream mouth

For the first time since 2016 a nest was made at the mouth of Te Arai stream. While a pair had spent time there previously, it’s the first time they raised eggs which belonged to the female. It’s suspected the male of the pair is infertile.

New Zealand Charitable Fairy Tern Trust convenor Heather Rogan said this year the female was spotted briefly with a different male bird before returning to her usual mate. Two eggs were laid.

Volunteers helped bolster monitoring of the nest. A hide was built, a roster was created and Rogan estimates volunteers spent around six to eight hours a day monitoring the birds split between morning and afternoon shifts.

“It’s been a mammoth effort from the volunteers.”

She said the area doesn’t tend to get much foot traffic. The main task for the volunteers was to observe that the chicks were being fed. Predator trapping in the area is an ongoing task funded by the trust.

“All the volunteers have thoroughly enjoyed it because it’s such a beautiful spot and they had this great view looking at the chicks.”

The happy story has a bittersweet ending. The latest update is the parent birds have abandoned the chicks. One of the two chicks has since died after attempts to feed it were unsuccessful. 

Rogan is concerned something has happened to the parent birds as it’s unusual for tern to abandon their chicks.

She said DoC rangers are working hard trying to ensure the other chick survives.

dam illegally constructed by the exclusive Tara iti golf course upstream of the mouth is in the process of being removed as a result of a court case the trust initiated. Rogan said this had immediately resulted in more water at the stream mouth where fairy tern feed. It's hoped over the coming years the damage that the dam and rocks placed on the stream banks are believed to have done to fish numbers in the stream will be reversed. 

Why don’t people care about fairy terns?

Even with six dedicated rangers there seems to be a case for fairy terns to cast a jealous side-eye to the help the more numerous kākāpō receives. 

Last year planes shuttled staff and helpers to three offshore islands housing kākāpō, food was carefully weighed and supplied, sperm was collected and sped by drone to recipients and a public donation drive helped with a battle against an outbreak of a fungal disease. It was a bumper breeding season with the survival of 70 chicks bringing the population to over 200. 

The kākāpō egg chart. Photo: Andrew Digby

The kākāpō egg chart stuck to the side of a freezer captivated kākāpō fans last year as the hopes for kākāpō survival played out egg-by-egg. 

Fairy terns wouldn’t need anything as big as a freezer or a poster to track egg progress. With so few left, a post-it note stuck to a toaster would suffice. 

Wiles wonders if fairy terns haven’t captured people’s imagination because, even though they’re rare, they’re not isolated on a special island.

“They’re actually on the beaches you’re on everyday.”

Then there’s the cuddle factor. Compared to fluffy kiwi, or chubby kākāpō, the sleek terns don’t inspire a hug reflex.

Kākāpō antics also draw attention to species. A video of a kākāpō attempting to have sex with a zoologist's head while Stephen Fry gleefully narrated the encounter has been viewed over 12 million times on YouTube. Fairy terns haven’t attempted a similar heady encounter but Wiles said they do have individual personality quirks.

The public, though, don’t appear to be swayed. Fairy terns won the annual Bird of the Year competition in 2014 with 1882 votes but their popularity has since plummeted. In last year’s competition fairy terns were the first pick for 572 of the 43,460 first pick votes - a dismal 1.3 percent.

Extinct birds are not eligible to enter the competition.

A fairy tern recovery group has been formed and it's understood a strategy is being worked on in the hope of saving the species.

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