New Zealand fairy tern
Image: Malcolm Pullman | ©

Archived content: This media release was accurate on the date of publication. 


DOC and New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) are working together to create safer nesting sites for the New Zealand fairy tern, one of the country’s rarest native birds.

Date:  23 August 2018

The total population of New Zealand fairy tern or tara-iti is around 40 birds with just 11 to 12 breeding pairs.

Critically endangered New Zealand fairy terns nest at just four breeding sites in New Zealand. One of these sites is a Royal New Zealand Air Force weapons range at Papakanui Spit, at the Kaipara Harbour.

“Having New Zealand fairy terns nesting at a Defence Force site helps protect the birds when they are breeding,” says DOC ranger Alex Wilson.

“New Zealand fairy terns nest on the sand and at public beaches their eggs and chicks are at risk of being disturbed by the public.”

“As a Defence Force site, Papakanui is a no-go area for the public. The Air Force provides further protection by avoiding weapon testing and staying well away from the spit during the New Zealand fairy tern nesting season.”

Now the Defence Force is doing the New Zealand fairy tern another favour by providing a Unimog and driver to move 12 tonnes of crushed oyster shell and sand to create areas that are safer for the birds to nest. 

DOC staff will use the sand and shells to create two large mounds at Papakanui.

“These raised areas will hopefully help protect New Zealand fairy tern nests from big high tides and storms that flood the nests,” says Alex Wilson. “And provide protection from high winds, which cover the eggs with sand, and the parent birds can’t find them,” says Alex Wilson.

“Having the Unimog and driver will make building the nesting mounds a lot easier and quicker.” 

“We appreciate the support the Defence Force provides DOC at Papakanui Spit to increase the Nrew Zealand fairy tern population,” says Alex Wilson.

Fairy tern recovery programme

Fairy tern used to nest on beaches right round the North Island coast and on the east coast of the South Island. Introduced predators (feral cats, rats, stoats, ferrets and weasels), habitat loss and human disturbance have brought them to the brink of extinction.

DOC works in partnership with the New Zealand Fairy Tern Charitable Trust to protect and manage the fairy tern breeding sites.

The birds nest on beaches during summer between October and February. They create a nest by scraping a small hollow in the sand. This means their eggs and chicks are very vulnerable. DOC and volunteers from the trust fence off the four nesting sites and erect signs asking the public not to enter the sites.

DOC also employs four summer rangers during the breeding season. A ranger is assigned to each breeding site to monitor and protect the fairy tern nests during the breeding season. They also control predators at each site and talk to the public about the need to protect these rare birds.       

Eggs are transferred between nests to maximise the productivity of the breeding pairs of adult fairy terns, with Auckland Zoo providing facilities to incubate the eggs;

Since this nest protection programme began the number of fairy terns has risen from a low, of just three breeding pairs in 1984, to 11 to 12 breeding pairs today. 


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