That’s right: endangered gulls. They may walk and squawk like a standard seagull, but the black-billed gull has the unfortunate status of being the most threatened gull species in the world.
Black-billed gulls – or tarāpuka are an inland gull, nesting mainly on braided riverbeds in the South Island. Only around five percent of the population are found in the North Island. For the past three years, the Taupo colony has made a nuisance of itself at its nesting site near the Tokaanu Power Station. Not only are the gulls noisy and messy, but when their chicks arrive in December they are extremely aggressive.
The local Department of Conservation (DOC) team devised a plan to avoid the same issue again this season, working with the Department of Corrections at Rangipo to fabricate a colony of plaster decoy gulls, which were laid out on the Tongariro River delta to encourage the birds to nest at this more ideal habitat.
Audio equipment was set to play gull calls morning and night, and the site was monitored over the following weeks as a few pairs started to show interest in the fake gulls. Rangers did, however, remain puzzled as to where the rest of the birds were nesting.
The mystery was solved when the colony of more than 150 was discovered unexpectedly by a passing ranger at Motuoapa in early December 2016. Despite DOC’s best efforts to steer them to the delta, the fickle birds had decided to take up residence on a gravel pile at the marina construction site instead.
The Motuoapa Marina redevelopments are being carried out by the Department of Internal Affairs. The Department’s Harbourmaster Philip King met with the contractor and DOC on-site in December to develop a plan to protect the new arrivals and their fledglings whilst ensuring redevelopment work can continue.
“These are New Zealand's only endemic gull and the most threatened gull species in the world. Internal Affairs and DOC are working together to ensure the safety of the birds is not compromised while they are nesting here,’ Mr King said.
The gulls are expected to leave the site soon after their chicks fledge in February. For the interim the area has been cordoned off, and the contractor Seay Earthmovers have identified the birds as a hazard in the site safety plan.
Black-billed gulls are identifiable by their long, thin black beaks, easily distinguished from the shorter, bright red beak of the red-billed gull. They can also be seen on the Taupō Lakefront, in the Turangi town centre and at Kinloch, but should absolutely not be fed. Our food can be harmful to the gulls whose diet is made up of mainly insects and small fish such as smelt.
This is a reminder to take a closer look and not dismiss the black-billed gull as just another noisy seagull, but rather a special bird found only in New Zealand – just like our kiwi or kākāpo. Stronghold populations of this endemic species have rapidly declined by as much as 80%, resulting in its threat status being upgraded from Nationally Endangered to Nationally Critical in 2013.