That’s one fierce mama

Department of Conservation —  10/05/2020

Today, we honour Mothers all over New Zealand.  Here at DOC we are giving a special shout out to one group of mothers whose fierceness and tenacity is keeping its species going against all odds: the tara-iti/fairy tern. Its not every mother that poops on intruders’ heads to protect their young, or dupe misguided bachelors into providing food for their chicks!

Fierce tara-iti mum KpG from Te Arai, north of Auckland.
📷: Shelley Ogle

Tara-iti/fairy tern is one of our rarest native birds, numbering fewer than 40 individuals of which there are around nine breeding pairs. Found only between Whangarei in the north and Auckland to the south, on the cusp of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana, the reasons for their decline are the usual suspects of habitat loss and introduced predators. To compound this, they nest on shell and sandbanks just above high tide which leaves them vulnerable to disturbance by people, 4WD vehicles and dogs, as well as stormy weather and very high tides.

As if these challenges weren’t enough for the tara-iti mum, they have to contend with other native shorebird species such as tōrea pango/oyster catchers and tūturiwhatu/New Zealand dotterels, who share the same habitat. So, it’s just as well that, despite their diminutive size, tara-iti are fierce.

DOC ranger Shelley Ogle has spent the summer monitoring a tara-iti whānau nest in Te Arai. She witnessed tara-iti standing up to all kinds of intruders including other shorebirds, humans and even horses. And they have a particularly deft defence mechanism up their sleeve – dropping “poo bombs” on intruders. Shelley can advise from experience that they have incredible accuracy.

“Working with tara-iti and their very devoted human team is an absolute privilege. Watching the mother birds fearlessly defend their chicks against threats many times bigger than them was always a funny, but inspiring, sight; even if it did mean getting pooped on while trying to adjust sandbags or get to the hide. It’s difficult to fathom the damage that has been done to tara-iti populations when you see such tenacity from the parents to get the chicks to fledging.”

KpG-M’s two chicks running toward their mother (out of shot), calling because she was coming with fish.
📷: Shelley Ogle

Tara-iti mothers don’t stop there though. While both parents are devoted, females tend to take longer egg incubation shifts than the male and have been observed bringing back large quantities of fish for their chicks. This devotion is rewarded with obedient chicks – when a parent utters an alarm call, the chicks freeze in situ, blending into the beach to elude aerial predators such as hawks and gulls.

Tara-iti mums also have to contend with another rather delicate issue, and in characteristic style, resolve it to benefit their chicks. Currently there are more males than females in this small population. When the bachelors inevitably come a-knocking, usually with a fish to entice her away, the tara-iti mother shrewdly approaches the bachelor until just… close… enough… to steal the fish and feed it to their young. Free drinks at the bar anyone?

Once the chicks have fully fledged at about 30 days and left the nesting site, they are taught by their parents over the ensuing two months how to forage for themselves, usually at a nearby stream or estuary.

Juvenile tara-iti of KpG-M.
📷: Shelley Ogle

The breeding season of the tara-iti is one defined by struggle, but the parents are clearly up to the task. DOC’s Tara-iti Recovery Group, established in 2019, supports a dedicated team of rangers and community volunteers. They start in September, trapping for predators near nesting sites, fencing off nesting sites and preventing nesting birds from being disturbed by humans. The team then take shifts to monitor the birds and nests during the breeding season.  Educating the public about the plight of our rarest shore bird is also part of their work.

The Recovery Group is heartened by the number of chicks that fledged this season – a total of seven. This is an improvement from previous breeding seasons which numbers between two and five over the past two years. But, before this season’s bumper crop of fledglings can be counted as part of the total population, they will need to survive winter. There is no rest when it comes to species recovery.

DOC works with Patuharakeke, Ngāti Whāuta o Kaipara, Ngāti Manuhiri and Te Uri O Hau, Shorebirds Trust, The NZ Fairy Tern Charitable Trust, About Tern, Birds NZ, Waipu Trapping Group, Auckland Council and the New Zealand Defence Force to help protect this cool little bird.

You can help too. To protect nesting sites please follow these simple rules:

  • Stay out of taped off or fenced areas and always use designated walkways
  • Do not take dogs, vehicles, horses and drones into the nesting areas
  • Remove used bait, fish and rubbish from the beach to deter rats and other predators when fishing or using these sites.

The Hauraki Gulf Marine Park is a global sea and shorebird hotspot with a large number of species resting and nesting on predator-free islands and highly managed mainland areas.

Love it, restore it, protect it.

3 responses to That’s one fierce mama

    Peter Hallinan 10/05/2020 at 8:58 am

    Whoops! Autofill beat me to it – that’s Hallinan, not Hall…


    I agree with Saige – a wonderful parable for all mothers, be they avians, mammalian, or even reptilian… Thank you for sharing this, Shelley.

    Saige (formally, Jane) England 10/05/2020 at 8:12 am

    Beautifully written and informative piece on a feisty survivor who deserves to survive – just what I needed for Mother’s Day in the time of Covid.