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Successful Breeding Season Brings Hope for NZ's Rarest Bird

Updated: Feb 28

New Zealand's rarest bird, the tara iti, also known as the NZ Fairy Tern, is experiencing a remarkable breeding season after a devastating year in 2022-23. With only around 40 individuals left in the world, the recent success brings renewed hope for the survival of this critically endangered species.

Photo - Darren Markin

The breeding season for 2024, has seen five fledglings already taking flight, and up to eight more chicks are expected to follow suit. This comes as a significant boost for the tara iti population, especially considering the losses suffered last season when Cyclone Gabrielle claimed the lives of five adults and all but one chick.

Neil Thorsen, a generous donor and Vice Patron for the conservation project, has expressed his joy at the positive outcome.

"It's great to see the results of so much work with a good crop of Tara iti youngsters. The results have exceeded my expectations. Please pass on my grateful thanks to all those who have toiled so hard to save this vulnerable and beautiful little bird," Thorsen said.

The successful breeding season is a much-needed morale boost for volunteers and Department of Conservation staff looking after the birds and Shelley Ogle, a supervisor from the Department of Conservation (DOC), has shared insights into the breeding efforts and challenges faced by the tara iti.

"Last year we had Cyclone Gabrielle come through right at the end of the season, and we lost a massive portion of the population, which was pretty devastating. But luckily, we're putting a lot into them to try and protect them and bring those numbers up," Ogle explained.

Photo - Darren Markin

The tara iti breeds in only four locations in New Zealand, facing threats from predators, human disturbance, and environmental changes. The key problem facing tara iti is that they liked the same environments as humans - sandy beaches with dunes and estuaries. They nest in sand banks above the high tide mark on popular beaches, which makes them very vulnerable to predators , four-wheel drives and dogs. To help them survive, DOC staff, volunteers, and local communities are actively involved in predator control, nest monitoring, and habitat enhancement to ensure the survival of this unique species.

This year, thanks to donations from our supporters, Tāngaro Tuia te Ora - The Endangered Species Foundation, was able to fund the production of 3D dummy eggs. During times of risk (including storms and weather events) the real eggs are removed by DOC rangers and the 3D egg put in their place. Within a few minutes the birds will return to the nest and resume incubation on the 3D eggs, none the wiser. The real eggs are then held temporarily overnight, taken to Auckland Zoo for incubation, or moved to another safer nest nearby. Once the risk has passed the 3D eggs are taken out and the real eggs put back in, often just days before they hatch.

These are used to replace any eggs that are vulnerable in storms or other weather events so that the replaced eggs can be safely incubated at Auckland Zoo, then returned once threats are passed.

"All the feedback we’ve had is the new dummy eggs have worked really well and have been used to hold nests during egg swaps, and after egg loses," says Ayla Wiles, Ranger, Tara iti | Kaitiaki-Kanorau Tara iti at Te Papa Atawhai.

The photo on the left is a real egg (left) and 3D egg (right).

"We put the 3D egg in after the 2nd egg was found to be clear (undeveloped) and it held the space until we could move another real egg in. The parent birds had no idea," says Wiles. 

This second photo shows two 3D dummy eggs holding a nest at Mangawhai.

‘DOC is really lucky to have the support of ESF to produce these 3D eggs which are a crucial management tool used to save tara iti. They allow us to improve productivity and save nests without losing real eggs in the process.’ Ayla Wiles, Ranger, Tara iti | Kaitiaki-Kanorau Tara iti, Te Papa Atawhai

Despite the current success, Shelley Ogle emphasizes the ongoing challenges and the need for continued efforts to protect the tara iti.

"It would be amazing if we didn't have to monitor every single site they nest at every single summer, which would mean that they're doing it on their own and they don't need our help. And that's the ultimate goal - to put ourselves out of a job because they can do it themselves," she said.

The tara iti's critical status on the Endangered Species Foundation's list underscores the importance of conservation initiatives, public awareness, and support from individuals and businesses like Bennetto's hot chocolate who are also helping to spread awareness of our native birds and ensure the survival of the tara iti.

"We always have small education pieces on the insides of all our chocolate wrappers, and with this box, we have written about the Fairy Tern and the Dotterel to help people understand more about these endangered birds, where they live, and how to protect them," said Lucy Bennetto, Founder of Bennetto's Chocolate.

Every purchase of Bennetto's hot chocolate featuring the tara iti on the packaging contributes to the Endangered Species Foundation, with 10% of profits donated to help profile endangered species and protect their habitats.

How you can help

You can help by joining a local bird protection group, purchasing Bennetto's Hot Chocolate and donating to our campaign.

Your donation will help to:

  • Advocate for protection measures

  • Highlight issues and solutions

  • Educate and engage people to take action 

  • Support the conservation work of DOC and volunteers

  • Stop sea bed mining and destructive fishing practices across Aotearoa.

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