Khaki-clad ‘fairy godmothers’ Alice Fairs and Mailee Stanbury have had a very important role this summer – they’re DOC fairy tern wardens tasked with protecting New Zealand’s most critically endangered bird during its breeding season.
Once widespread across the country, the fairy tern, or tara-iti, came close to extinction in the 1980s, when numbers dropped to an all-time low of 3-4 breeding pairs. DOC stepped in with a protection plan and there are now 40 fairy terns, including ten breeding pairs. They are confined to the lower half of the Northland Peninsula and breeding is limited to four wildlife refuges in Waipu, Mangawhai, Pakiri and Papakanui.
Fairy tern wardens Alice and Mailee work tirelessly to protect the birds from predators, human disturbance and the elements during the summer breeding season. A key part of their role is educating beach-goers about just how vulnerable the birds are. Fairy terns build their nests in ‘scrapes’ among shell strewn patches along the sand and can be almost impossible to see.
“One of the greatest challenges of working with these birds is educating people not to ride motorbikes or walk their dogs on the beaches where the fairy terns are breeding,” says Mangawhai warden Mailee Stanbury. “Even the sight of a dog on a lead can scare the birds and cause them to abandon their nests. We’ve also had instances where people have stood on chicks. Fairy tern nest sites are cordoned off by fencing tape and we’re trying to educate people how important it is not to cross any of these barriers.”
The wardens’ job also includes protecting vulnerable nests from sand and rain storms, banding each bird so they can be identified and responding if a parent bird is unable to look after the eggs or chicks adequately. Abandoned fairy tern eggs are taken to Auckland Zoo where they are incubated in the same facility which rears Kiwi eggs.
In Mangawhai five scrapes have produced two surviving chicks so far this season. The breeding season started early at Waipu this year, with the first egg being laid in late October and a second a few days later. The eggs hatched in November.
Fairy tern warden Alice Fairs says the birds at Waipu are intriguing to observe. “Because there are three males and only one female, some of the males have been competing for the female’s attention by courting her with fish, which she has been using to feed her chicks, she’s clever!”
DOC works collaboratively with Te Uri o Hau, The Te Arai and Mangawhai Shorebirds Trust, Birds NZ, The New Zealand Fairy Tern Charitable Trust and About Tern, whose volunteers recently helped to avert a crisis in Waipu when one of the males started acting aggressively towards the chicks. Mailee says volunteering is a great way to learn more about fairy terns. “They are really interesting birds with distinct personalities.”
DOC’s goal is to increase the fairy tern population to 100 by 2021 and if we all play our part, Alice and Mailee are hopeful that these gutsy little birds will have a fighting chance.