The private life of fairy terns

Department of Conservation —  09/01/2012

Alison McDonald from Whangarei Area Office has been closely watching the fairy tern drama in her area. She fills us in on the latest goss from the beach…

Fifteen years ago I watched David Attenborough’s ‘The Private Life of Plants’ and it transformed my perception of flora, from the benign green stuff I took for granted, into a complicated and surprisingly sophisticated world of intrigue.

Fairy tern and a breeding NZ dotterel on the spit at Waipu

Though I have long been an admirer of birds, it is fair to say that my short time spent working closely with our little tara-iti (New Zealand fairy tern) has had a similar effect.

Compared to the charismatic kea or the oddities of a kiwi, our wee fairy tern might seem fairly plain to look at, but having the privilege of ‘getting to know them’ (so to speak), has placed a spotlight on the scandal, drama and mystery of their daily lives which any soap opera would struggle to compete with.

When it comes to breeding just about everything counts against tara-iti—fertility, habitat, weeds, wind, sand, tides, people, dogs, gulls, hawks and every other introduced mammal—so with ten breeding pairs or less in a population of just 40 birds, there’s a lot riding on each and every nest. Last season saw just about all of the adverse elements take their toll, and by summer’s end only five fairy tern chicks had made it to fledging. Let’s hope this season will be a better one.

A fairy tern nest at Papakanui camouflaged amongst the shells

Waipu is one of the four remaining breeding sites, and this year it started off with a single pair of terns, which I dubbed Minnie and Pilgrim, (easier than repeating ‘M-Nil and Blue, Pale Green dash Metal’). These two were joined by a hopeful young male in his first breeding year who, much like a third-wheel, hung out with the couple rather cramping Pilgrim’s style.

Vulnerable nests: king tides at Waipu

For weeks and months our third-wheel hung around but eventually, as breeding season approached, I begun to see him less and less. In early November, on a routine check of possible nest sites, who did I find but our third-wheel stuffing a very gravid female full of fish at a new nest site. A quick check of bands revealed that our little stud had managed to procure himself a female—one who had previously been seen courting another male at the Mangawhai breeding grounds. The poor, ‘shafted’ male turned up regularly at Waipu and could often be found shuffling round the tip of the spit all alone for long stretches of time.

A week later I happily reported that Minnie and Pilgrim also had a nest and that we had a third pair who had been seen copulating in the area. That third ‘pair’ turned out to be none other than our already expectant mother, Minnie, and the lonely male. Minnie seemed only too happy to take the continued offerings of food from this male and let him perform his mating ritual before she flew back to relieve Pilgrim of his incubating duties. How long she can keep up with this double life remains to be seen…

Our little stud keeping his very gravid female well fed

I’m happy to report that, despite the drama, both nests have so far made it past king tides, strong winds and, more importantly, the fertility test! If all goes well with our two hatched chicks this season, Waipu can add two more fairy terns into the population mix.

The lonely male off on another search for his missing female

2 responses to The private life of fairy terns


    Loved this, really brings the birds stories to life! We hear so little of these wee birds, and it’s great to see awareness being raised in such a cool way!

    Kevin Carter 13/01/2012 at 9:27 pm

    Hey Ali,

    Great post! I was scrolling through and the photo of the camouflaged nest caught my eye. I thought to myself, that’s Ali’s photo!

    Great to hear things are going well, fingers crossed for the next breeding season. Keep up the hard work.