Week in Review

A tale of an abandoned fairy tern chick

The fine art of teaching a rare bird to fish. An extraordinary story of how an abandoned fairy tern chick, RY-BM, was saved from death and taught to fend for himself.

It all started on January 10 at the mouth of Te Arai stream. A closely-watched fairy tern nest was missing two important inhabitants. Both parent birds had vanished, leaving two five-week-old birds alone and hungry.

There are fewer than 40 New Zealand fairy tern left in the world. Their nests, shallow dents in the sand, are easy picking for predators in the sky and on the ground. Feet, vehicle wheels and dogs also pose a danger.

After an abysmal breeding season in 2018 when just two birds survived, the pressure was on. 

Department of Conservation biodiversity ranger Shelley Ogle said she was called with the news of the absent parents and asked how fast she could make it to the site. Without food, the two birds were likely to die. 

The hope was to save them, but it wasn’t going to be as easy as leaving a few dead fish around for the birds to snack on. Fairy tern are fussy. They prefer their fish still wriggling. 

At five weeks old, KM-WB and RY-BM - named after the colour of the bands placed on their legs - had learnt how to fly short distances, but hadn’t yet learnt how to fish properly. For their long-term survival they would need immediate food and to learn how to catch their own meals.

Ogle said staff had supplied extra fish to birds where one parent bird had disappeared before. Playing surrogate parent and survival tutor where both parents had vanished was uncharted territory.

“This is the first time we’ve actually had to teach the chick ourselves.”

DoC workers gathered paint trays, nets, buckets, chilly bins and even a child’s paddling pool.

It was hoped the paddling pool could be stocked with fish and the birds would eventually use it to learn how to dive. 

In the short-term, hopes were pinned on the paint trays as the best bet. Buried flush with the sand, the sloping ramp would mean the birds could walk in and peck out a fish. The ramp was painted grey to blend with the sand, and more sand was added to the ramp for grip. 

The clamshell pool was designed to encourage diving. The paint tray was set up so the birds could wade into it. Photos: Shelley Ogle

At first, the birds were not interested in the fish-filled trays. Rangers tried throwing fish toward the birds, but this just scared them. 

“They were kind of just cuddling up together and really scared of us.”

Ogle returned at 6.30am the next morning and found the smaller of the two birds dead. 

She said her reaction at the time was “stuff this”. She was determined to get the surviving chick to feed so he wasn’t lost as well.

“I started walking in a squat, I can tell you it’s very hard on your thighs, for about 20 minutes.” 

Keeping low, she managed to get within 5m of him. She threw a fish, but again he ran away. 

“I was so desperate that when he ran, I threw a second one. It flopped around on the ground a bit and he realised what it was and picked it up. Then he started running towards me with his wings out like they do to their mums.”

Ogle fed him several more fish that day. The following days, fish were thrown close to the trays to encourage him to investigate them. After an hour or so inspecting a tray with live fish in it, he jumped into the tray and retrieved it himself.

Eventually he was seen hovering over one of the trays - behaviour typical of feeding fairy tern. Things were looking up for RY-BM and his survival skills until the weather took a turn for the worse.

A cold storm and a warm place

“Unfortunately disaster struck again,” said Ogle, “We had a really bad weather event, it was very cold, very rainy.”

After a night of bad weather, she found RY-BM hiding under a shelter but very sluggish. By this point she and the other rangers had stopped throwing fish to the chick, as they wanted to discourage human attachment and encourage him to learn to fish for himself in the trays they had set up.

Worried about his condition, she broke the rules and tried throwing him fish. 

“He really struggled, he couldn’t pick them up.”

One fish he did manage to pick up, he couldn’t swallow. 

After a phone conversation with a technical advisor, she made the decision to pick him up to try and warm him.

On a windswept beach, with no warming packs in sight, Ogle made do with what she had.

“He went down my top. It’s a portable field brooder I guess.”

Towards the end of the six hours RY-BM was regaining his strength. Photo right: Michelle Jenkinson Left: Shelley Ogle

The bird stayed down Ogle’s top for six hours, slowly regaining body heat. Photos of the bird’s head peeking out of her shirt still grace the office refrigerator door, she says, and only now, six months later, have the jokes subsided.

But the unusually cold night took a toll on the bird.

“He struggled to fly after that. The amount of muscle atrophy he must have gone through overnight is pretty substantial.”

Over the next few days he slowly regained strength.

“He started hovering over the trays and started diving, then he started diving in the stream. Then one day he started hanging out with other fairy terns … one day he flew off and we didn't see him again for a month or so, five weeks.”

Eventually he was spotted in the Kaipara Harbour with a group of fairy terns.

How did that make Ogle feel?

“Like a proud mum. I imagine this is how mums feel.”

The happy story has a sad note. RY-BM was saved but the body of his mother was found at Omaha Beach not long after she failed to return to the nest. It was too degraded to establish a cause of death. There’s been one tentative sighting of the absent father by volunteers; Ogle hopes he’s not dead as well. 

“It would be devastating if he was. It’s quite awful to lose three fairy tern from one nest.”

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