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A beautiful photo of a New Zealand fairy tern to mark the start of the all-important breeding season for this endangered seabird.

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How cute is this Christmas fairy tern. Unfortunately they won’t be as easy to spot this summer, given that there’s only 31 of them.

A fairy tern getting in to the Christmas spirit with coloured wings and Santa hat.

A fairy tern getting in to the Christmas spirit

If you’re around Mangawhai, Waipu and the Pakari River, have a read of these suggestions (they also apply to dotterel breeding areas as well):

  • Leave the dog at home/don’t take it to the beach, or at least have it on a leash.
  • Stay out of taped-off nesting areas, and don’t linger while parent birds are doing distraction displays or appear agitated – while they are preoccupied with you they are not tending to their eggs or chicks.
  • Fishermen should bury their scraps to avoid feeding and attracting black-backed gulls.
  • Walk below the high tide mark, to avoid standing on nests, which are higher up on the beach.
  • Motorbikes and four-wheel drives on beaches are not good for shorebirds, and prohibited in many places anyway.
  • Keep away from birds doing dive-bombs cause that means they’re agitated.
Fairy tern eggs playing hide and seek.

Fairy tern eggs playing hide and seek

Fairy tern is banded and released by DOC staff.

A fairy tern is banded and released by DOC staff

Alison McDonald from Whangarei Area Office has been closely watching the fairy tern drama in her area. She fills us in on the latest goss from the beach…

Fifteen years ago I watched David Attenborough’s ‘The Private Life of Plants’ and it transformed my perception of flora, from the benign green stuff I took for granted, into a complicated and surprisingly sophisticated world of intrigue.

Fairy tern and a breeding NZ dotterel on the spit at Waipu

Though I have long been an admirer of birds, it is fair to say that my short time spent working closely with our little tara-iti (New Zealand fairy tern) has had a similar effect.

Compared to the charismatic kea or the oddities of a kiwi, our wee fairy tern might seem fairly plain to look at, but having the privilege of ‘getting to know them’ (so to speak), has placed a spotlight on the scandal, drama and mystery of their daily lives which any soap opera would struggle to compete with.

When it comes to breeding just about everything counts against tara-iti—fertility, habitat, weeds, wind, sand, tides, people, dogs, gulls, hawks and every other introduced mammal—so with ten breeding pairs or less in a population of just 40 birds, there’s a lot riding on each and every nest. Last season saw just about all of the adverse elements take their toll, and by summer’s end only five fairy tern chicks had made it to fledging. Let’s hope this season will be a better one.

A fairy tern nest at Papakanui camouflaged amongst the shells

Waipu is one of the four remaining breeding sites, and this year it started off with a single pair of terns, which I dubbed Minnie and Pilgrim, (easier than repeating ‘M-Nil and Blue, Pale Green dash Metal’). These two were joined by a hopeful young male in his first breeding year who, much like a third-wheel, hung out with the couple rather cramping Pilgrim’s style.

Vulnerable nests: king tides at Waipu

For weeks and months our third-wheel hung around but eventually, as breeding season approached, I begun to see him less and less. In early November, on a routine check of possible nest sites, who did I find but our third-wheel stuffing a very gravid female full of fish at a new nest site. A quick check of bands revealed that our little stud had managed to procure himself a female—one who had previously been seen courting another male at the Mangawhai breeding grounds. The poor, ‘shafted’ male turned up regularly at Waipu and could often be found shuffling round the tip of the spit all alone for long stretches of time.

A week later I happily reported that Minnie and Pilgrim also had a nest and that we had a third pair who had been seen copulating in the area. That third ‘pair’ turned out to be none other than our already expectant mother, Minnie, and the lonely male. Minnie seemed only too happy to take the continued offerings of food from this male and let him perform his mating ritual before she flew back to relieve Pilgrim of his incubating duties. How long she can keep up with this double life remains to be seen…

Our little stud keeping his very gravid female well fed

I’m happy to report that, despite the drama, both nests have so far made it past king tides, strong winds and, more importantly, the fertility test! If all goes well with our two hatched chicks this season, Waipu can add two more fairy terns into the population mix.

The lonely male off on another search for his missing female