NZ fairy tern

By: Chirs Gaskin

It’s not often one can say, “I saw New Zealand’s rarest bird from the back deck of our house”. But last weekend, that’s what happened. We live in Whangateau, Tramcar Bay to be exact. I was inside when I heard a tern calling and grabbed a pair of binoculars, and headed outside. It didn’t sound like a white-fronted tern and definitely wasn’t a Caspian tern with its harsh call. Right above us was a NZ fairy tern. My wife Karen was in the garden and we thought we heard another, before it flew out towards the harbour. Fortunately, the tide was out so headed out across the flats with a camera and binoculars to track it down. After much searching, we located it on a tidal bank at the edge of the main channel, bathing itself.

There are only around 40 NZ fairy terns in existence – that’s the total world population – and that’s a maximum figure as they are difficult to keep track of and count accurately. The bird we saw was banded enabling it to be identified – a two-year-old male bird. He was probably on the prowl for an unattached female, of which sadly there are none.
Fairy terns feed mostly on gobies and juvenile fish such as flatfish and eels, also shrimps, all of which they catch by diving. In these northern estuaries they feed along mangrove-lined channels, a vital feeding habitat – behaviour that emphasises the much-maligned mangroves importance as a nursery and habitat for a wide-range of creatures. Once the birds have finished nesting in the Hauraki Gulf they move to the Kaipara Harbour where they spend the winter, feeding in the rich mangrove-lined creeks and inlets.

NZ fairy terns are only found in the north, with nesting sites at Mangawhai, Pakiri, Waipu and Papakanui Spit (South Kaipara Head) on the west. Their decline has been in response to habitat deterioration, disturbance by people during breeding, and predation from cats, stoats and other mammalian predators, also from black-backed gulls. They nest in the open, on beaches, which makes them extremely vulnerable. Increasing storm events from climate disruption adds another layer of risk for nests built close to the water.

And then on top of all that, they have to deal with thoughtless vandalism from people crushing eggs or chicks, or those who value dogs’ rights to roam and create havoc over that of our native wildlife. The future is not looking great for our nation’s rarest bird.

At the recent Hauraki Gulf Forum seminar ‘Taking Flight’ held at the Auckland Museum (6 September) a young conservationist, Mahurangi College student and fellow Tramcar Bay resident, Garla Emmerton, gave a moving speech about the NZ fairy tern and her efforts to raise funds to support conservation efforts for this embattled little seabird. Check out her presentation at

Chris Gaskin


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