High flying help for our most endangered bird

Department of Conservation —  25/08/2020

Before the Auckland region went into Alert Level 3 COVID-19 response, that limited our conservation field work, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) swooped in to help us (Department of Conservation) DOC rangers, and the New Zealand fairy tern/tara iti, by supporting the creation of man-made shell nesting sites in Mangawhai and Papakanui, north of Auckland.

Fairy Tern
📷: Darren Markin

Some of you may be asking why tara iti need help with their nests? The answer is that tara iti commonly nest in exposed, low-lying areas of shell-covered sand. High winds can cover the eggs making it difficult for the parents to find them, while king tides can wash the nests away. The new nesting sites have been situated at the rear of the dunes to offer more protection to tara iti and their chicks.

The exercise is part of a long-term development plan to investigate the preferences of tara iti. Three nest areas were created last year and one pair successfully nested and laid an egg. While this may seem like a small success, DOC Biodiversity Ranger Ayla Wiles puts it into context.

Fairy tern on beach , sitting on eggs.
📷: Malcolm Pullman

“When you are talking very small numbers of birds, one success, like using a safer nest to breed, is a huge step forward. Other than predator control, habitat enhancement is the most important action that can be taken to ensure tara iti survival,” she says.

To build on this small milestone, the NZDF delivered 50 tonnes of locally sourced shell to create two new nesting sites, while three others were enhanced. Bringing new shell in to existing sites will hopefully encourage more pairs to use these areas.

Fairy Tern Shell Operation at Mangawhai.

It’s all very well to drop shell from a helicopter, but a mountain of shell isn’t going to entice this fastidious little bird. So, once it was deposited, a team of rangers from DOC, along with kaitiaki/guardians from Ngāti Whātua o Kaipara, spread the shell out into more natural patches in Papakanui. Over at Mangawhai a team of five kaitiaki from Te Uri O Hau, as well as Ayla spread the shell.

Joint effort to make shell patch operation work.
📷: DOC

With phase one achieved, it’s a game of wait and see. The new nests are prime real estate for tara iti with ideal foraging and close proximity to existing nesting sites. With this shell being sourced from a dredge site near Marsden Point, the team is learning along the way what colours and density of shell tara iti prefer.

The exercise was a win-win situation for the NZDF. They used the operation as a training opportunity, while the operation itself was funded by The Shorebirds Trust. A big shout out to those who supported the operation including the local, eponymous, Tara Iti Golf Club, the Pallet Company in Glendene, Ngāti Whātua o Kaipara, Te Uri o Hau and Ngāti Manuhiri.

NZDF Seasprite in action.
📷: Shelly Ogle

“Support for our most endangered bird by community groups and local hapu and iwi is essential for survival. I would like to acknowledge the contribution of The Shorebirds Trust and those who partnered with them to fund the new shell nests we have created, and the ongoing, tireless work of the recovery group,” says Ayla.

DOC ranger Ayla Wiles watches over NZDF dropping the shell.

The total population of New Zealand fairy tern/tara iti is fewer than 40 birds, making them critically endangered.

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.

Tara iti / Fairy tern feeding.
📷: Malcolm Pullman

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.

2 responses to High flying help for our most endangered bird


    It’s great to see such a joint effort action to help the New Zealand Fairy Tern. Just FYI: Your photo caption mentions “NZDF Seasprite in action”, when the helicopter is actually an NH90.


    wonderful to read, living now in Dorset Uk things like this bring NZ closer great and thank you so much for all the hard work, and patience