The Private Lives of Fairy Terns

Ali McDonald from DOC Whangarei writes:

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

Fifteen years ago I watched David Attenborough’s ‘The Private Life of Plants’ and almost overnight it transformed my perception of the flora that surrounded me, from the benign green stuff I took for granted into a complicated and surprisingly sophisticated world of intrigue. Though I have long been an admirer of birds it is fair to say 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.

Vulnerable Nests: King Tides at Waipu

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 summers end only five fairy tern chicks had made it to fledging. Let us hope this season will be a better one.

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’).

Our little stud keeping his very gravid female well-fed

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.

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.

. Above: Pilgrim (background) pictured with the duplicitous Minnie who is looking down at her three day old chick

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.

Our little stud keeping his very gravid female well-fed (left) and the Lonely Male, (below), off on another search for his missing female.

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 this double-life remains to be seen…

A close up of Minnie and Pilgrim’s little fairy tern chick

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.


Ali McDonald
Ranger Cadet Whangarei Area Office
Department of Conservation | Te Papa Atawhai
8A Kaka Street, Whangarei | PO Box 147, Whangarei 0140
Ph: 09 470 3304 | Fax: 09 470 3361

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