New Zealand fairy tern/tara-iti

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

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

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.

Facts

The New Zealand fairy tern/tara-iti is the smallest tern breeding in New Zealand, with adults measuring around 250 mm in length, and weighing a mere 70 grams.

During the breeding season NZ fairy terns are easily picked out by their black caps (coming around in front of the eye), soft grey feathers, white chest, yellow bill and orange legs.

In non-breeding plumage the crown fades into a mottled black and white, the bill fades to a dull orange-brown and the legs fade to a dull orange colour.

Read stories and find videos about New Zealand fairy tern/tara-iti.

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.

Ecology and habitat

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

The NZ fairy tern is often confused with the Eastern little tern, a bird that visits New Zealand every summer, and looks very similar to the fairy tern in non-breeding plumage.

Lifespan

NZ fairy terns regularly live up to 10 years or more, however, several birds have been sighted 11 - 13 years after being banded. The oldest known fairy tern is 18 years old.

Diet 

Their diets consist of mainly small fish. Although they have been observed feeding on gastropods, crustaceans and plant matter in Australia. This has not been seen in NZ.

Habitat

NZ fairy terns hunt over shallow estuaries, and just beyond the surf zone. They 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. These shells camouflage eggs from predators.

Population and range

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.

NZ 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.

The wintering range of the birds extends over the Kaipara Harbour. Outside of the breeding season fairy terns form flocks on the harbour, often around Tapora in the Kaipara Harbour. 

Fairy tern flying, Pakiri, near Warkworth. Photo: A. Hogan.
Fairy tern flying in Pakiri, near Warkworth

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.

DOC's work

NZ fairy tern sitting on a nest.
NZ fairy tern sitting on a nest

The rarest mainland species, the NZ fairy tern, has less than ten known breeding pairs. These delicate sea birds nest over the summer period on the rugged West Coast beaches and at two sites on the east coast of Northland. Nesting in a small scrape in the sand, these 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.

Footprints inside a fenced-off area.
Footprints inside a fenced-off 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.

Read updates from New Zealand fairy tern breeding seasons:

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:

  • 2006-7: 10 - 12 pairs
  • 2007-8: 10 pairs
  • 2008-9: 10 - 12 pairs
  • 2009-10: 8 pairs 
  • 20010-11: 9 pairs

Successful management techniques

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

A successful management technique utilised in the conservation of the NZ fairy tern is the employment of full-time wardens. 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 latest Department of Conservation New Zealand Fairy Tern Recovery Plan was approved in 2005. The plan sets in place a series of steps that will 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

Sharing the beach

Shorebirds usually nest and raise chicks between August and March. You can help keep eggs and chicks safe:

NZ fairy tern feeding its partner.
NZ fairy tern feeding its partner

  • Stay out of the fenced areas and used designated walkways 
  • Avoid shorebird nests and chicks 
  • Follow Wildlife Refuge regulations (no dogs, horses, vehicles, firearms or fires, remove bait or fish remains to deter scavengers) 
  • Encourage other people to respect wildlife

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.

Find out about DOC's fairy tern volunteer project in Pakiri

Contact

The Department of Conservation welcomes any comments or suggestions you may have about the conservation of the fairy tern. These can be directed to

Mahurangi / Warkworth Office
Phone:      +64 9 425 7812
Email:   warkworth@doc.govt.nz
Full office details
Whangarei Office
Phone:      +64 9 470 3300
Email:   whangarei@doc.govt.nz
Full office details

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Related links

 

Find out more

Learn more

New Zealand Birds Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand birds

Contacts

DOC's 24 hour emergency hotline:

0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)

Call to report sick or injured wildlife, and whale or dolphin strandings.