New Zealand fairy tern
PHOTO: Malcolm Pullman ©


With a population of around 36 individuals that includes only ten breeding pairs, the New Zealand fairy tern/tara-iti is probably New Zealand's rarest breeding bird.

In this section

With a population of around 45 individuals that includes approximately 12 breeding pairs, the New Zealand fairy tern is probably New Zealand's most endangered indigenous breeding bird.

It is ranked as an endangered species, and carries a 'Category A' priority for conservation action. A Department of Conservation Recovery Plan is currently in action.


The New Zealand fairy tern/tara-iti is the smallest tern breeding in New Zealand, with adults measuring around 250 mm in length, and weighing a mere 70 grams.

During the breeding season NZ fairy terns are easily picked out by their black caps (coming around in front of the eye), soft grey feathers, white chest, yellow bill and orange legs.

In non-breeding plumage the crown fades into a mottled black and white, the bill fades to a dull orange-brown and the legs fade to a dull orange colour.

Two New Zealand fairy tern chicks in nest.
New Zealand fairy tern/tara-iti chicks in nest

Map showing the location of the four Fairy tern breeding sites.
Map of four breeding sites (JPG, 63K)

Fairy tern chick in nest, among shells, Mangawhai. Photo: G.R.Parrish.
Fairytern construct their nests on exposed, low-lying areas of shell-covered sand. The nest is a simple scrape in the sand, set amidst the shells.

Ecology and habitat

The NZ fairy tern is often confused with the Eastern little tern, a bird that visits New Zealand every summer, and looks very similar to the fairy tern in non-breeding plumage.


NZ fairy terns regularly live up to 10 years or more, however, several birds have been sighted 11 - 13 years after being banded. The oldest known fairy tern is 18 years old.


Their diets consist of mainly small fish. Although they have been observed feeding on gastropods, crustaceans and plant matter in Australia. This has not been seen in NZ.


NZ fairy terns hunt over shallow estuaries, and just beyond the surf zone. They construct their nests on exposed, low-lying areas of shell-covered sand. The nest is a simple scrape in the sand, set amidst the shells. These shells camouflage eggs from predators.

Population and range

Records from the 19th century suggest that NZ fairy terns used to be widespread around the coast of the North Island and eastern South Island, but were not abundant in any one area.

NZ fairy terns are now confined to the lower half of the Northland Peninsula.

Breeding is limited to four regular sites: Waipu, Mangawhai, Pakiri and the South Kaipara Head.

The wintering range of the birds extends over the Kaipara Harbour. Outside of the breeding season fairy terns form flocks on the harbour, often around Tapora in the Kaipara Harbour. 


The most likely causes of population decline are:

  • Habitat depletion
    The degradation of sand dune habitat caused by residential development, the planting of pine plantations, and pastoral farming.
  • Predation
    Introduced predators such as rats, dogs, cats, hedgehogs and mustelids preying upon eggs and chicks.
  • Environmental events
    High tides, floods, and storms destroying and washing away nests.
  • Death of embryos
    Nesting birds are eaten or chased away by predators, and the embryos die from exposure.
  • Recreational activities
    Beach activities disturb nests and scare birds away from their nests.

DOC's work

The rarest mainland species, the NZ fairy tern, has less than ten known breeding pairs. These delicate sea birds nest over the summer period on the rugged West Coast beaches and at two sites on the east coast of Northland. Nesting in a small scrape in the sand, these birds are very vulnerable. Nest sites are roped off and signs erected to alert people to the area.

Department of Conservation staff and volunteers talk to people who use the beach. Fishermen are encouraged to bury fish remains because they can attract unwanted numbers of gulls to the area.

Nests are sandbagged against storms and high tides. Where necessary eggs are cross-fostered into other nests or removed for hand rearing. A programme of trapping predators around nests is vital to help protect the adults, eggs and chicks.

Footprints inside a fenced-off area.
Footprints inside a fenced-off area

New Zealand fairy tern. Photo © David-Hallet.
Parent with fish, and chick in sand

Fairy tern flying, Pakiri, near Warkworth. Photo: A. Hogan.
Fairy tern flying in Pakiri, near Warkworth

Previous conservation efforts

In 1983 the number of fairy terns at Mangawhai and Papakanui Spit dropped to an alarming all-time low of 3-4 breeding pairs.The Department of Conservation (then the New Zealand Wildlife Service) stepped in and initiated protection. A successful population turnaround resulted. This was probably due to the introduction of wardens and the fencing of nests.

Protection has continued until the present day. The number of pairs rose to 7 in 1993. Since 1997, between 6 and 9 pairs have bred each season until 2005:

  • 2006-7: 10 - 12 pairs
  • 2007-8: 10 pairs
  • 2008-9: 10 - 12 pairs
  • 2009-10: 8 pairs 
  • 20010-11: 9 pairs

Successful management techniques

Thankfully, additional funding in recent years has allowed for much greater protection and monitoring.

A successful management technique utilised in the conservation of the NZ fairy tern is the employment of full-time wardens. Wardens offer an efficient response to emergency situations. In recent years a warden has been employed on a full-time basis at each of the breeding sites.

The duties of wardens include: monitoring breeding attempts, maintaining fences around nesting sites, nest translocation, predator identification and control (including video surveillance), egg and chick manipulation, public education, and law enforcement. Volunteers play a big part in monitoring and surveillance to assist the wardens.

Recovery Plan in action

The latest Department of Conservation New Zealand Fairy Tern Recovery Plan was approved in 2005. The plan sets in place a series of steps that will promote the recovery of the tern. It also outlines different management options, and a work plan.

The Long-term vision of the plan is:

  • 'To increase the population of NZ fairy tern, improve their conservation status from Category A (endangered) to Category B (threatened), and expand their breeding range back into parts of their former range.'

The short-term goals for the next five years are:

  • To prevent the extinction of the New Zealand subspecies.
  • To increase the breeding population by 25% by 2015.

You can help

Sharing the beach

Shorebirds usually nest and raise chicks between August and March. You can help keep eggs and chicks safe:

NZ fairy tern feeding its partner.
NZ fairy tern feeding its partner

  • Stay out of the fenced areas and used designated walkways 
  • Avoid shorebird nests and chicks 
  • Follow Wildlife Refuge regulations (no dogs, horses, vehicles, firearms or fires, remove bait or fish remains to deter scavengers) 
  • Encourage other people to respect wildlife

NZ fairy tern monitoring

Volunteers can help monitor NZ fairy terns by recording activities of the birds and their chicks, any potential threats present, fishing sites and other observations that can help with our protection efforts.

Share your thoughts

We welcome any comments or suggestions you have about the conservation of the fairy tern. Send them to:

Mahurangi / Warkworth Office
Phone:   +64 9 425 7812
Address:   Unit 12
30 Hudson Road
Full office details
Whangarei Office
Phone:   +64 9 470 3300
Address:   2 South End Ave
Whangarei 0110
Full office details
Emergency hotline

Call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) immediately if you see anyone catching, harming or killing native wildlife. 

Help protect our native birds

When visiting parks, beaches, rivers, and lakes
  • Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep them under control.
  • Check your gear for mice and rats when visiting pest-free islands.
  • Use available access ways to get to the beach. 
  • Leave nesting birds alone.
  • Follow the water care code.
  • Avoid leaving old fishing lines on beaches or in the sea.
Other ways to help
  • Get your dog trained in avian awareness.
  • Volunteer with DOC or other groups to control predators and restore bird habitats.
  • Set traps for stoats or rats on your property. Get more information from your local DOC office.
  • Put a bell on your cat's collar, feed it well, and keep it indoors at dusk/dawn and at night.
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