Fallen from grace
The rarest bird in this country is the fairy tern, with perhaps 36 adults left in existence. It’s got everything going against it: weather, cats, its own DNA, and the fact that humans love the white-sand beaches where it raises its young. Only a small group of people, many of them volunteers, stand between it and oblivion. What will we lose if it vanishes altogether?
It’s 7am on a cool morning between Christmas and New Year, and Department of Conservation (DOC) ranger Keven Drew is loading up the back of a light utility vehicle with the tools of the fairy tern trade. Spade, mallet, binoculars, telescope, tripod, butterfly net and a small aluminium baseball bat. “That’s for hawks and rats,” he says. In case he’s trapped any and has to finish them off. This vehicle is one of only two allowed in the wildlife refuge at Mangawhai, a coastal community just over 100 kilometres north of Auckland. As we cross the sandhills to the beach, Mangawhai’s giant sand dune glows blond against dark clouds, and a pair of tōrea (variable oystercatchers) fly close, with warning cries.
“Caspian tern with this year’s chick,” says Drew, pointing out a hulking youngster that’s begging its mother for food. Nearby, a tūturiwhatu (New Zealand dotterel) runs on light feet along the sand and takes off. “The way she’s flying, I wonder if she’s hatched her chicks.”
It’s breeding season for many shorebirds. During the same long days when Aucklanders spill out of the city and onto Northland’s white-sand beaches, eggs are hatching and chicks squawking. As we zoom along the beach, Drew keeping carefully to yesterday’s tyre tracks, we pass flocks of bar-tailed godwits and white-fronted terns, and a huddle of ruddy turnstones and lesser knots. Pipits scurry by on invisible legs.
The bird we’re here for, though, is this ecosystem’s rarest: tara iti, the New Zealand fairy tern. In fact, it’s the country’s rarest bird. There are an estimated 36 adults in existence, and they nest on a handful of beaches north of Auckland—at Pakiri, Te Arai, Mangawhai and Waipu on the east coast, and Papakanui Spit on the Kaipara Harbour in the west. While the plight of other threatened birds—such as the more numerous takahē or kākāpō—is often in the national spotlight, the vanishingly rare fairy tern remains hidden in plain sight on some of Northland’s most popular beaches.
Hiding is a fairy tern specialty, and in order to watch them we need to conceal ourselves as well. Drew leads me up to his hide, a small wooden box overlooking a flattish shell patch in front of the dunes. We stoop to go through the door, then sit down. The surf roars behind us, and ahead, across the estuary, the rising sun reflects off walls of glass—the flash waterfront baches of Mangawhai.
Five pairs of fairy terns are raising chicks here, but at first I can’t see any of them. Then an adult comes swooping in—marigold-yellow bill, orange legs, white-grey wings tapering to a dainty point, and a rakish black patch like a highwayman’s mask across its head and eyes. It drops down to a shallow dent among the shells. Drew lets me look through the scope, and mosaic splotches of cream-dun-ash-tangerine resolve into the fluffy form of a chick. It gulps down the goby offered by its parent, gives a little shake, then settles down into its camouflage, appearing to merge with the shells.
Drew scribbles in a notebook, its pages held open by a rubber band: “7.49am, chick feed.” He has deeply tanned legs, grey stubble and light blue eyes. He has always loved birds—an interest passed down from his father, who grew up hungry during the Depression and collected wild blackbird eggs to eat. A generation later in Wainuiomata, young Drew collected the illustrated bird cards that came with packets of Gregg’s Jelly. “I hate jelly, but I always got Mum to buy it. She wouldn’t give me the cards until I ate the jelly.” He climbed trees and stole eggs from nests, carefully blowing out their contents and attaching a label with the species’ name. At 19, that love of the outdoors led to a job at Manaaki Whenua—Landcare Research. He spent at least 200 days of the year in the bush, camping on the ground in all seasons, monitoring black robins in the Chatham Islands and penguins in Antarctica. Now 60, he’s spent the past three summers keeping an eye on tara iti.
We watch the parents come and go with their offerings of food. When a black-backed gull (karoro) approaches, the terns suddenly ascend so that it won’t know where their nests are, then tumble in synchrony like fighter planes, driving a white-fronted tern from their territory. More drama comes in the form of a teenage male fairy tern—one of a number of juvenile delinquents that occasionally show up to interfere, pecking brutally at the chicks. There’s currently an imbalance in the population, with more males than females, so these horny youngsters may never find a mate. Drew follows the intruder with his scope. “I think it’s red-dash-yellow-metal. He’s one of these teenagers that keeps pecking… Come on, show us your leg… Oh my god, it is too. Red-yellow-metal. He’s a pain in the arse, that guy.”
If the juvenile starts hurting the chicks, Drew jumps out of the hide and rushes, shouting, into the breeding area to scare him away. “In a healthy population, with this behaviour, you’d lose a few chicks but it wouldn’t matter. Now, it’s dire.”
During the breeding season, rangers and volunteers are rostered to keep the birds company seven days a week, so there’s plenty of time to get to know them. Each one is banded with a unique combination of colours when it’s about 20 days old.
“When you get into such small populations, you’re dealing with individuals,” says Tony Beauchamp, DOC’s technical advisor for fairy terns. “It’s more about understanding their individual behaviours, and that’s why we put the rangers out there every day—to get a consistent record.”
For those with a ringside seat, every fairy tern breeding season is a rollercoaster of hope and heartbreak. Sometimes king tides take out the nests, wind buries the eggs in the sand, predators pounce on chicks, or the birds lay eggs in unsuitable places. Over the 2018–2019 summer, a litany of disasters (mainly weather-related) resulted in only two chicks surviving to adulthood. This season, there are only nine breeding pairs, one of which is infertile.
But this year is shaping up to be much better. Nine chicks hatched—five here at the southern part of the Mangawhai spit, one up the north end, two at Te Arai, one at Pakiri. But then an egg was eaten overnight by a rat at Waipu. And, on Christmas Eve, another blow. Drew was watching a nest site at Mangawhai, where two chicks—siblings—were huddled behind a bit of wood. One wasn’t moving much. Drew had noticed that its mother had only been giving fish to its sibling.
“It was on its dying legs, really. I thought, full money, it was going to die, so I put it in my pocket. I thought, ‘If you’re going to die, you might as well die in comfort’.” He wrapped it in a clean cloth and put it in his chest pocket—and after about an hour “the bloody thing came round”.
He spent that afternoon and Christmas Day juggling his regular work with chasing single male terns out of the nesting site and fishing for gobies to feed the sick chick. But, on Christmas afternoon, the chick was running out of energy. It ate three fish, but vomited most of them up. Drew went to have a shower and make a coffee, and when he came back it was dead. “You don’t like it, but that’s what it is. You can’t do anything more than try. That’s all you can do. At least at the moment we’re on a good score. This is the best year we’ve had in ages—we’ve still got eight.”
A century ago, fairy terns were all over the country. They bred on coastlines around the North Island, and inland on South Island riverbeds. Today, predators, human disturbance, and destruction of their habitat—dams in rivers, pine plantations along the coast, people accidentally trampling nests—have reduced their numbers to almost nothing. Though they’re closely related to the fairy terns in Australia and New Caledonia, tara iti is a subspecies that exists only in New Zealand.
Gwenda Pulham fell in love with fairy terns in 1976, when she was helping take care of her widowed sister’s kids at Waipu. The family lived right on the shore of the estuary, and that’s where Pulham started observing the birds closely. In those days, there were no rangers, no volunteers, no trapping. When she witnessed picnicking families unwittingly destroy some of the nests on the sandspit, she was troubled. “Something struck me as not quite right, that humans could just invade their habitat and cause such destruction. On the part of the humans it wasn’t intentional, because they didn’t know, but I thought, ‘Surely our wildlife have the right to a bit of peace and quiet to raise their young, continue the species’.”
There began four decades of devotion to the “tenacious little birds”, and in 2006 she was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal for her voluntary efforts to save them. “I suppose I got bitten by a bug. I just got hooked. But it’s a pretty healthy addiction.”
A children’s dental nurse, Pulham wanted a hobby that would keep her challenged and outside. Now in her seventies, she lives in the Auckland suburb of Birkenhead, strategically chosen because it’s a 90-minute drive from every fairy tern breeding site.
She is filled with admiration for the tiny birds. Every other tern species, she tells me, nests in a colony for protection. Safety in numbers. Fairy terns nest all alone on the beach, so they rely on camouflage, choosing shell patches that match the colours of their plumage. “Usually the ground has to have a little bit of black on it, and grey, and white, and a sliver of orange.”
When parents give an alarm call, the chick freezes, foiling aerial predators that hunt by sight, such as hawks and gulls. “They hunker down so the top of their body is absolutely flush with the beach, and therefore they do not create any shadow. To me, it’s just awesome. Here’s a little bird denied all the ways of surviving other terns have, and so they’ve evolved all these other strategies.
“It’s just that the very strategy that’s enabled them to survive in New Zealand works against them when you start adding a whole lot of people and bikes and horses and mammals into the environment in which they’re trying to breed.”
Things have changed since the 1970s. Fairy tern nesting sites are roped off and signposted. Dogs, horses, bikes and cars are banned on the Mangawhai spit. Dozens of volunteers work alongside the rangers to monitor nests, record behaviour, help with banding, educate the public, and keep track of individual birds during the winter when no rangers are on duty. Most importantly, the volunteers take on predators. “We say to each other, ‘If the birds are prepared to keep on trying, well, it’s up to us to keep on trying, too,’” says Pulham. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re taonga. I believe that every creature that the Lord put in our world has the right to survive. I don’t care if it’s a red ant or a kauri tree or a fairy tern. If it’s an innate part of our environment and our world, it’s there for a purpose. It has a role to fulfil in our ecosystem, and it has a right to survive.”
Drew and I have been watching the Mangawhai terns for about an hour when there’s a knock on the hide door. It’s Reg Whale, a retired dairy farmer and cabinet-maker, and long-time volunteer for the New Zealand Fairy Tern Charitable Trust. Waiting patiently in Whale’s vehicle is his 12-year-old conservation dog, Ken, a tiny silky terrier with twigs of gorse tangled in his fluffy golden fur. The terrier flushes wild pigs out onto the beach, running rings around them until Whale can catch up and shoot them. Ken also sniffs out, and occasionally kills, feral cats. Cats are a particular problem for fairy terns, as they eat eggs, chicks and females on the nest. Huge feral felines haunt the nearby forestry block, says Whale. One he caught weighed 10 kilograms.
“Can you kill people’s domestic cats?” I ask.
“If they’re out here, they’re feral,” says Whale. “Simple as that.”
Every day over the past two months, except Christmas, Whale and Ken have been out chasing predators and checking traps along the stretch of coast between Te Arai and Mangawhai.
“These birds wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for Reg and his cat-trapping,” says Drew. “Cats can do so much damage, and he gets 50 a year.”
The wind’s come up now, and sand stings our legs as we stand near the high-tide line.
“We had bloody bikes going into the nesting area again, under the tape,” Whale tells Drew.
“I had a bike up here yesterday,” says Drew. “And two horses last week.”
Both men regularly confront people who have misunderstood or ignored the prohibitions.
“You say, ‘Do you realise the most endangered bird in New Zealand is here, and you’re threatening it?’ And they go, ‘So what?’” says Whale.
A horse rider told Drew she should be allowed on the spit because her horse was organic. Dog owners insist their pet would never harm a bird. But a horse’s hooves can easily crush camouflaged eggs and chicks. And dogs? “Dogs are hunters,” says Whale. “Even Ken, for all his training, you’ve still got to keep an eye on him, because he’s basically a five-year-old. Five-year-olds don’t always do what they’re told.”
Once, the fairy tern population tripled within three decades, from just 10 birds found in 1983 to 30 birds in 2001, and 40 in 2008. In 2007, DOC disbanded its Fairy Tern Recovery Group. It had set the goal of increasing the fairy tern population to a hundred by 2021, and in 2005 it had laid out a plan for doing so, with 34 actions to be taken. (DOC was not able to tell New Zealand Geographic in time for our deadline how many of these actions had been carried out, as performance against these goals wasn’t tracked.)
Now, after a string of disastrous breeding seasons, numbers of fairy terns have dropped. Rangers raised the alarm that things weren’t going well, and a DOC review in 2017 led to the reinstatement of the recovery group in 2019.
The reasons for the birds’ breeding failures are complicated—and controversial.
One reason may be that humans are affecting the fairy terns’ food supply. Some researchers and volunteers believe the removal of a stand of mangroves from the Mangawhai Harbour in 2015 caused a drop in the numbers of the small fish that fairy terns eat. A 2014 study found fairy terns often forage close to mangroves, though a link hasn’t been proved between mangrove removal and the failure of fairy terns to raise chicks. Today, some groups in Mangawhai are pushing to remove more mangroves.
Even if the connection isn’t clear, says Beauchamp, it’s not worth the risk. “We can’t afford to mess with this system, because we don’t understand it enough to know whether there’s going to be an impact that’s more than minor.”
Especially because this tiny territory is home to more than half the breeding pairs in existence.
“Mangawhai is the beating heart of the fairy tern world,” says Ian Southey, a long-time volunteer and fairy tern researcher. “My feeling is that, when the fairy terns lose Mangawhai, we lose fairy terns.”
Meanwhile, Whale and others in the charitable trust have spent years battling council, government, and the invitation-only Tara Iti Golf Club over an illegal weir. United States mogul Ric Kayne bought the land from Northland hapū Te Uri o Hau in 2012 and named the high-end links after the fairy tern. The developers built the weir on nearby public land in the Te Arai stream, allowing them to draw fresh water for their fairways, but the blockage stops the passage of saltwater up the stream, and stops small fish such as īnanga (whitebait) from breeding, reducing the food available for fairy terns. (A pair bred at the stream mouth this year, and it is an important flocking site, where most of the fairy terns gather each year after breeding.)
In October 2019, the issue went before the Environment Court. Judge Jeff Smith found that “it was clear the weir prevents the passage of fish” and that this could affect fairy terns. He expressed surprise that various government departments hadn’t taken action sooner. Due to confusion over which agency should be in court, Smith said he was unable to order anyone to do anything, but recommended action be taken with “utmost urgency”. Three months later, the golf club reduced the height of the weir by half a metre. (A representative says it will dismantle the rest before May 2020.)
The main reason fairy terns are struggling, according to DOC ecologist Troy Makan, is the weather—the loss of nests to tide and wind. “All the climate-change predictions say we’re going to have sea-level rise, and increasing storm frequency and intensity, and maybe we’re already seeing that,” he says. “Those predictions don’t bode well for fairy terns.”
Makan is the head of DOC’s brand-new Tara Iti Recovery Group, established in 2019, which has since embarked on a number of experimental projects. Last winter, to combat the risk of sea-level rise and storm surges, 130 tonnes of sand and shell were hauled into Waipu by helicopter and formed into three man-made nesting sites, which are more protected from waves and wind than some of the places the birds had chosen in the past. The birds seem to approve. “At Waipu, the infertile pair did lay eggs on one of the shell patches we created,” says Makan. “That’s encouraging—I didn’t expect we would have an egg there in the first year.”With the help of the Defence Force, DOC created two more patches on Papakanui Spit—but the pair there are young, and didn’t breed this year.
New research is also underway into the birds’ DNA. University of Canterbury conservation geneticist Tammy Steeves and doctoral student Jana Wold will analyse fairy tern genomes to determine whether New Zealand fairy terns are different enough from their Australian and New Caledonian relatives to be considered a separate species. They’ll also trace the whakapapa of the existing population, draw up a detailed family tree for the current breeding pairs, and investigate the problem of male infertility.
Recent studies have shown that sometimes bird eggs deemed to be infertile have actually been fertilised, but the embryo dies very early. “As a geneticist, that’s really interesting to me,” says Steeves. That would mean the problem could lie with the female, or with a genetic incompatibility between the pair—and each scenario would raise different conservation questions. If the Waipu male is proven to be infertile, for example, “Do we keep them as a foster pair, because they have more to offer tara iti as really good foster parents? Or do we want to think about different ways to encourage that female to pair with somebody else? Would we be that bold?”
Scientists often play matchmaker when it comes to threatened species, and that’s the case with two other birds that Steeves works with—shore plovers on the Chatham Islands, and kakī (black stilts). Meanwhile, fairy terns are basically still hooking up with whoever they meet down at the pub. The team will need to consider whether to get more hands-on when it comes to who mates with who. “For the other species, we’re effectively Tinder for birds,” says Steeves.
The genetic study, a management study and the shell patches at Waipu are all funded by the Tara Iti Golf Club through a non-profit it created, the Shorebirds Trust. (The non-profit was a condition of the purchase of the property when Kayne applied to the Overseas Investment Office.) Over the past three years, it has spent $300,000 on fairy tern activities, and it’s now working with Auckland Council to develop a predator-controlled buffer zone stretching from Mangawhai to Pakiri.
Unlike Whale (and other volunteers I spoke with), Pulham is positive about the golf course and the associated development, which will include 46 luxury homes across 600 hectares along the coast. She believes the low number of dwellings is an improvement on an earlier iwi proposal to build up to 2000 houses, which would have increased the number of people passing through the wildlife refuge: “Long term, this could be a win-win.”
“You buckled in?” Drew asks.
We bounce over a small rise at the northern end of the Mangawhai spit, and into a new landscape of bedraggled pīngao, yellow dandelions and a pair of small lakes. The fifth Mangawhai pair are nesting on a shell patch between the lakes and the harbour. “This is where nature meets bloody mayhem,” says Drew, as we walk up a dune to another hide. “It’ll be a madhouse out there.”
Sure enough, the harbour is a picture of summertime fun. Kayakers glide and jetskis zoom across the water between the sandspit and the town. Kids fall, shrieking, off a sea biscuit. Meanwhile, the two fairy terns in front of us carry on as they’ve always done. The male chases away an intruding juvenile. “This guy defends so much,” says Drew. “He’s a good male.”
Their chick is nestled in the seashells, among the furry pompoms of dune grass, and both parents come and go with food. One brings a particularly big fish, and the chick struggles to gulp it down. “Eyes bigger than its belly.” Drew chuckles.
A week later, rangers are reminded not to count their chicks before they fledge. The new terns have got to survive the winter before they’re officially counted part of the population. The two sibling chicks at Te Arai had already started flying when both their parents suddenly disappeared. The team decided to try to feed the chicks themselves, filling paint trays and a pool with water and small fish. Within a day, the younger chick had died, but the other one had eaten fish thrown to it by the rangers, and figured out how to feed itself from the trays.
Breeding fairy terns in captivity is often suggested, especially because DOC does this for many other threatened species. But, says Makan, no one in the world has been able to breed terns in captivity and have them successfully join a wild population. After fairy tern chicks leave the nesting site, they spend up to two months learning to fish alongside their parents. We don’t know if it’s possible for chicks to learn on their own, or from other fairy tern adults.
“The chick’s being quite remarkable, actually,” says Beauchamp. “It’s recovered its strength and used the stream to learn to feed for itself.” If, against the odds, it survives, this season will have produced seven chicks.
It’s not long before the rangers discover what happened to one of the chick’s parents. Another week or so later, the missing mother bird turns up dead on Omaha Beach. The loss of a precious breeding female is “a real disaster when you have these low numbers,” says Makan. “It’s also a reality of threatened species recovery. We accept there will be losses along the way. The encouraging thing is, when you look at the age structure of the population, there are still females out there that are younger that haven’t actually started breeding yet. And, if you get a fairy tern away through the first year, they can live to 20.”
This summer I came across the work of Australian philosopher Thom van Dooren, an associate professor at the University of Sydney. Writing about albatrosses, van Dooren draws attention to the sheer effort that goes into bringing each new generation into the world. “This thing we call a ‘species’ is an incredible achievement,” he writes in Flight Ways. “It is through these arduous processes, full of obstacles and often fraught with danger, that albatross species have persisted through the vastness of evolutionary time.”
One of the Waipu volunteers, Susan Steedman, a former teacher, told me she enjoys watching fairy terns partly because “they’re good parents”. Fairy terns, like albatrosses, have laboured every season for millennia to ensure the survival of the next generation.
When I call van Dooren, he points out that every extinction represents the end of a unique way of life. “We talk a lot about extinction, and we have these lists of endangered species, but I’m not sure we always really grasp that each of these names is a way of life—a distinctive evolutionary lineage that’s come to be over hundreds of thousands or millions of years.
“If we’re going to save them—or even if we’re not—there’s an obligation to be honest, and to reckon with what is actually being lost.”
Perhaps, if we can hold that enormity in our minds—that whakapapa stretching back across aeons—at the same time as we pay attention to the day-by-day striving of an individual pair of fairy tern parents trying to keep their chick alive, we might start to take a bit more responsibility, says van Dooren. “To hold open space in the world for other species.” And not just the spaces that might be convenient for us.
Van Dooren also introduces me to the concept of philopatry, or love of place. “Biology is often accused of being unromantic,” he says. “But [philopatry is] such a beautiful term.” When animals return again and again to a particular site, just as fairy terns return to the Mangawhai spit each spring, “It is in many ways a storied place to them. It’s a place that has built up meanings. So the idea that they ought to just move somewhere else, or that somebody’s right to walk their dog or ride their horse should trump that… I guess I’m hopeful that a deeper understanding of the significance of that place attachment for these birds will help people to make more room for them.”