For once, fairy terns are having a good year. Photographer Richard Robinson revisits the birds he previously feared were doomed.

Written by       Photographed by Richard Robinson

Richard Robinson

The four little birds were not even three weeks old, but they were already trying to fly—careening around the predator-proof enclosure on their little legs, hopping and fluttering, catching a brief updraft then crash-landing onto the sand. Soon, though, they had the hang of things. When a chick made it over the fence for the first time, Department of Conservation ranger Alex Wilson watched anxiously. Would it return to safety, or just disappear? “The stakes are huge,” she says.

Tara iti, fairy terns, are New Zealand’s most endangered bird. There are fewer than 35 adults left, and only 10 breeding females. They nest on shelly beaches at Kaipara Harbour’s Pāpakanui Spit and along a strip of Northland coastline from Pākiri to Waipu.

Each pair rears just one or two chicks per season—and they hatch into a world of storms. Flooding. Cats. Rats. Dogs. Hawks. Bike riders. Horse riders. Joy riders. Illnesses. Inbreeding. In a typical year, four to six chicks will fledge. In a bad year, only one might make it. The total population has barely changed in a decade.

Rearing each bird in captivity took a little over a month, and many hands—here, DOC staff Les Judd and Kelsie Hackett collect eggs from nests in the wild at Mangawhai.
Finally, in mid-January, the transmitter-wearing birds were released, just before they learned to fly.

Four years ago, Richard Robinson spent six months photographing fairy terns for the feature ‘Fallen from grace’ (Issue 162). At that stage, he worried the species was probably doomed. “There wasn’t a huge amount of hope in my mind.”

Back then, hand-rearing didn’t seem like an option: as I researched that story, DOC staff told me that no one in the world had been able to successfully release hand-reared terns into the wild. But the following year, a single egg was rescued from a nest that had been abandoned.

So Auckland Zoo improvised a feeding programme, and it worked, sort of. They raised the chick, and released it. It stuck around for a few hours, then disappeared. Still, the potential was tantalising. By pre-emptively taking a few eggs into captivity—early in the season, so the birds re-lay—raising them at the zoo, and returning them to the flock, you could theoretically double the number of chicks fledged each year—and help the fairy tern claw its way back from the edge of extinction.

Early in December 2023, Auckland Zoo bird keeper Erin Grierson checked whether the four fairy-tern eggs were fertile and alive; a few weeks later, they’d all hatched—and at just a few days old, were already chowing down on fish.
The youngsters were off—joining with the wild flock to fly west for the autumn.

For the past four years, DOC and the zoo have been doing exactly that. “We want to make sure that they’re rearing some and we’re rearing some,” says Erin Grierson, the zoo’s bird keeper. But they’re all winging it: the whole thing is a thoughtful, nerve-racking, and frequently heartbreaking experiment.

The team figured out fairly quickly how to hatch these bonus eggs and feed the tiny chicks. They serve up fish fragments with tweezers, then whole fish swimming in a paint tray, until the young birds can catch the squiggling giant kōkopu, trout or salmon for themselves—up to 70 fish per day.

The hard part, Grierson says, has been figuring out how to release the teenaged terns so they can survive on their own and properly integrate into the wild population. “A lot of brains and sweat and tears and heart has gone into that.”

The team have tried several different tactics, including holding the birds in an enclosure at Te Ārai, north of Pākiri, for different lengths of time, and releasing them at the Kaipara once they were already strong fliers. None worked. The birds flew away and were never seen again.

This year, DOC and the zoo decided to do things differently—and Robinson was there, watching it all unfold. On December 23, he got his first close-up glimpse of the new season’s four fluffy pompoms, just a few days old. When he returned four days later, they’d already changed. “Every time I went along it was, like, ‘Whoa, you’re big!’ It’s pretty inspirational. It’s a massive effort for four little birds.”

Zoo staff Rebecca Nash and Geneva Chan feed and weigh chicks.

Transmitters had always been too big for the terns. But now the tech came in teeny-tiny—so the chicks could be tracked. “It gives you answers,” says the zoo’s curator of birds, Juan Cornejo. “Even if the bird dies, you know where he died and hopefully why he died.”

The chicks were kitted out with backpacks and leg bands at the aviary at Te Ārai—then the team opened the door. The birds were just two and a half weeks old, and the very next day they started trying to fly. Wilson and Cornejo kept paint trays replenished with fish, and even once the birds started flying outside the predator-proof area, they came back to feed.

“It went better than any of us could have hoped for, really,” says Grierson. “All of our stars aligned very well this year.” There were no storms, no injuries or illness, and, crucially, two adult fairy terns were hanging around in the nearby estuary. They helped to teach the youngsters to fish.

A few weeks later, the smallest chick had disappeared, probably dead. But the remaining three flew off with the adults. The satellite tag on the one nicknamed Blue transmitted for a while before the battery died. Then, in April, DOC staff sighted Blue and one other captive-reared chick, Green, foraging with the flock in the Kaipara Harbour. Remarkably, the wild birds managed to fledge nine chicks this season, too.

Juan Cornejo continued to provide fish for the teenaged terns inside the aviary.

It’s a vast improvement on previous years, and suggests the team are getting closer to nailing the method. At the same time, DOC and a tribe of volunteers have redoubled their efforts in the field. That includes stepping up predator control, public education, and dropping tonnes of seashells by helicopter to create attractive artificial nesting sites safely out of reach of king tides and storm surges. “We cannot afford to let them be,” says Cornejo.

DOC ranger Dayna McKenzie checked for a radio signal from the birds’ transmitters.

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