Every summer, a small team of dedicated rangers and volunteers goes into full alert at the slightest hint of a summer storm, or king tide, in order to protect our most endangered bird, the tara iti/fairy tern. With a population of just 40, every egg and chick counts.
This past summer was no different. When it was discovered the parents of two 5-week-old chicks had suddenly vanished, DOC ranger Shelley Ogle got to the nest at Te Arai (near Mangawhai, north of Auckland) as quickly as possible. On arrival she found the chicks, KM-WB and RY-BM (named for the colour of the bands placed on their legs) alone and hungry.
Typically, once the chicks have fledged, at about 30 days, they are taught by their parents how to forage for themselves at a nearby stream or estuary. At just 5 weeks, these chicks had learnt how to fly short distances, but had not yet learnt how to fish and would starve without help.
To date, the Tara Iti Recovery Group only had experience supporting chicks that had lost one parent. Becoming surrogate parents and teaching chicks to fish was a whole new ballgame, but Shelley and the team knew the stakes were high, so they jumped right in.
“The whole team knew the importance of saving every possible chick. We knew we needed to do everything we could, so we decided to start with what had worked in the past.”
The team amassed an array of equipment including paint trays, nets, buckets, chilly bins and a child’s paddling pool to emulate an environment where the chicks could learn to be independent. The paint trays were painted grey to blend in with the sand and then buried flush so the chicks could walk into them easily. The trays were filled with live fish, then sand was added to the ramp and grooves were carved into the inside of the tray to increase grip.
Among other efforts, rangers tried throwing fish toward the birds to lead them to the trays, but this just scared them. Finally, having to call it quits for the day, Shelley returned at 6.30am the following morning only to find the smaller of the two chicks dead.
“I was devastated. I had helped watch over these chicks since they were eggs, to have one of them die so late in their development was such a blow to the population and to our efforts. I definitely had a ‘moment’ for her that morning.”
This blow galvanised Shelley. She was determined not to lose the surviving chick, and immediately set about getting it to eat. She spent the next 20 minutes on her haunches (in agony) to appear less threatening to the chick, gaining distance to within 5 metres. She tossed a fish, which scared him, so in desperation quickly tossed another which wriggled, catching the bird’s eye. From that moment, when RY-BM saw Shelley, he ran to her like tara iti chicks run to their mothers (there was a quiet cheer from the group of volunteers who were watching from behind the fence – all feeling the same relief after he took that first fish).
Shelley fed him several more fish, and, on the following day, fish thrown close to the trays directed his attention towards his new feeding ground. Just an hour later, he caught his very first fish out of the paint tray – a big moment in his journey towards self-sufficiency.
In the days that followed, the team stopped throwing fish to the RY-BM to discourage human attachment as he learnt to fish for himself in the trays they had set up.
Then the weather took a turn.
After a very cold, rainy night, RY-BM was found underneath a shelter in a very sluggish state. Shelley broke with protocol and threw him fish but he could hardly pick it up, let alone swallow it.
Following a phone conversation with a technical advisor – and with nothing to lose – she made the decision to pick him up and warm him. Without a warming pack in sight she popped him in the most logical spot she could think of.
“He went down my top. It’s a portable field brooder I guess.”
RY-BM stayed there for six hours, slowly regaining body heat, but the unusually cold night had taken a toll on the bird.
After being released from the ‘portable field brooder’, RY-BM went to bathe in the stream. He used his minimal regained energy to fly in, but it became quickly apparent that he was struggling to get out of the water again. Without hesitation Finn McCool, the Mangawhai-based DOC ranger, who had come down the beach to check on progress, stripped to his shorts and waded to the bird. Shelley didn’t think quite as hard about it and ran into the waist-deep water, fully clothed, to scoop RY-BM out of the stream. RY-BM was lifted into the air and flew the short distance to the bank, drying himself off next to Finn’s clothes, leaving a cold and wet Finn to wait until RY-BM was good and ready to move back to the nesting area before he could get dressed again.
“There’s nothing our very dedicated team wouldn’t have done to look after any one of those birds. When the population is that small, every individual’s survival counts.”
Over the next few days, RY-BM slowly regained strength and was able to return to his fish trays.
It wasn’t long before he began to dive in the trays, then the stream, then was spotted hanging out with other tara iti. One day he flew off and five weeks later was spotted at Kaipara Harbour with a group of fairy terns.
Shelley says she felt like a proud mum the day he was spotted. Now, every time she opens the fridge door at work, she gets a visual reminder of her brief time as a tara iti mum, as a photo of RY-BM peeking out from under her shirt has been stuck to the door by colleagues (and yes, she has been teased mercifully).
Sadly, RY-BM’s real mum was found dead at Omaha Beach not long after she vanished, the body too degraded to establish a cause of death. There has been one tentative sighting of the father by volunteers which gives Shelley hope, saying it would be devastating to lose three birds from one nest.
All in all, seven chicks fledged last season including RY-BM. This is a great result for the small population, especially compared to the previous seasons where only 2 and 5 fledged respectively. 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.
“After a difficult, but rewarding, first season with the tara iti, I was lucky enough to be brought into the team permanently as the biodiversity ranger for Auckland Mainland. I am looking forward to overseeing more of the logistics for the upcoming season and hope to use this experience to learn and improve on future management of the species. I was the eyes and ears on the ground with RY-BM but couldn’t have done any of this without the support of the wider tara iti team including our iwi partners and local stakeholders.”
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 tenacious 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/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa 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.