Jobs at DOC: Fairy Tern Team

Department of Conservation —  07/03/2017

Come behind the scenes and into the jobs, the challenges, the highlights, and the personalities of the people who work at the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Today we profile the Fairy Tern Team…

Last week we farewelled this team for the 2016/2017 breeding season and thanked them for their hard work and dedication.

The Fairy Tern Team.

The Fairy Tern Team

The team comes together for a short period of time each year for a specific purpose – the breeding season of the New Zealand fairy tern/tara-iti. They started in October 2016 and finished last week.

The New Zealand fairy tern/tara-iti is probably our most threatened bird with approximately 40 remaining. During this breeding season five birds fledged. 

The team

Team name: Fairy Tern Team.

Team Leader: Eliane Lagnaz.

Ayla Wiles.

Ayla Wiles

Fairy Tern Wardens: Ayla Wiles, Sarah Pearson and Laura Patience.

Supervisor: Dave Bolland.

Technical Advisors: Tony Beauchamp, Dave Wilson (not pictured) and Nigel Miller (not pictured).

Office: The team is based out of the Whangarei District Office, but monitors fairy terns at nesting sites at Papakanui South Head (Ayla), Pakiri (Eliane), Waipu (Sarah) and Mangawhai (Laura).

What is one interesting fact about each team member?

Sarah interviewed for the warden job while in Cambodia and Laura was on Anchor Island with kākāpō. Ayla worked with a new species of lizard while at university and this year was Eliane;s 10th year working with fairy tern. All the other wardens came new to the roles in October 2016.

What are your team’s favourite things?

Dave: Guitar.

Ayla: Dog Lily.

Eliane: Liquorice tea.

Sarah: Swimming in the ocean. This summer I managed the trifecta – swimming in an ocean, lake and river on the same day.

Laura: Being outside in nature.

Tony: Peace and quiet.

What are your team’s pet peeves?

Dave: Dogs.

Ayla: Littering.

Tony: People who, despite our best efforts to inform them how to keep fairy terns safe, still ignore signage and barriers to let dogs run loose or walk through the breeding sites. The damage dogs can do is devastating and long lasting. One of our main jobs is to educate dog owners – not only for fairy tern, but kiwi and other species.

Hard at work

What’s your team’s role at DOC?

We are fairy tern 24/7! We started in October and finished at the end of February.

We do nest protection, advocacy and education, media, reporting, collection of data, volunteer management, and trapping. Basically, we keep an eye on the birds and everything associated with them.

Sarah keeping an eye on the fairy terns.

Sarah keeping an eye on the fairy terns

How does this help DOC achieve our goals?

The diversity of our natural heritage is maintained and restored. We look after what is probably our most threatened bird, one that is on the verge of extinction, for future generations. The work we do on the ground also benefits the surrounding habitat and species with advocacy, trapping and so on.

What guides you in your work?

The weather and the tides! Birds 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 and is very susceptible to storms and tides. Our work is heavily guided by what the weather throws at us during the breeding season.

What is the hardest part about your team’s work?

Each of the four breeding sites face different challenges, but the weather and tides are hard, along with trying to get the general public aware of the challenges and how to help or, at least, not hinder.

What is the best part of your job?

Imagine getting to be part of an endangered species breeding process – we get to watch it all happen. The before (getting the nest ready), the eggs and the fledgling. How often does this happen? That is incredibly special and undoubtedly the best part of the job.

Fairy tern at Mangawhai. Photo: Laura Patience.

Fairy tern at Mangawhai. Photo: Laura Patience

Main threats to fairy tern

Breeding area of the fairy tern.

Breeding area of the fairy tern

Habitat depletion

The degradation of sand dune habitat caused by residential development, the planting of pine plantations, and pastoral farming.


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.

Sarah watching at Waipu.

Sarah watching at Waipu