19 Feb 2019

A push to save fairy terns in Northland

3:24 pm on 19 February 2019

A trust set up by the American golfing billionaire Ric Kayne is funding genetic research on the country's rarest bird, the fairy tern.

There are only 40 fairy terns left.

Only two fairy tern chicks fledged this summer. Photo: Supplied

Mr Kayne built the Tara Iti Golf Course near Mangawhai and the beaches where the tiny birds nest each spring.

But despite intensive efforts to help them, with surveillance and predator control, it has been a disastrous breeding season.

Only two fairy tern chicks fledged this summer: the worst result in years for the critically endangered birds.

With a total population of around just 40 birds, the fairy terns have been teetering on the brink of extinction for decades.

The Te Arai and Mangawhai Shorebirds' Trust has announced it will put $150,000 this year into research on the birds' genetics.

The trust, founded by Mr Kayne, raises money every year with a charity golf event.

The funds will allow Canterbury University scientists and the Department of Conservation to investigate possible genetic factors in the birds' decline, according to trustee Peter Wilson.

"One of the things that's been coming through quite a lot is infertile males.

"So you're ending up with nests and pairs that produce an egg, and take up space and so on but the egg's infertile. And when you're getting down to a population of 42, it's the gene pool [that is limited]," Mr Wilson said.

Just north of Te Arai, the Mangawhai-based Fairy Tern Trust has been working to save the rare birds for 10 years, well before the Tara Iti Golf Course was built.

President of the trust, Health Rogan, said it was great to see research being funded but she believed there were more urgent measures the golf course could take to help the birds it was named for.

One action would be to remove a ford in the Te Arai stream in order to allow the birds' food source, whitebait, to move upstream.

"I think it's wonderful that they're putting money into research and I'm sure it's badly needed. But it would be really good for the birds if the ford could be taken out of Te Arai stream and the pressure on the birds would be reduced."

But a spokesperson for the golf course said the ford had a consented fish pass to allow whitebait to move up and down the Te Arai stream.

Ecologists who monitored the stream had found no adverse effects, he said.

DOC's science adviser on fairy terns, Tony Beauchamp, said the main reason for the poor breeding season was the obvious: weather.

The birds laid their eggs in sand and shell beds right on the beach and stood little chance against the sort of storms that battered the north in spring, Dr Beauchamp said.

"We actually had five major storms in a row and through that period of time we didn't get any re-nesting, or actually any nesting at all from the birds."

With climate change the fairy terns would become even more than vulnerable to the wild weather, he predicted.

"Most of the fairy tern losses are due to storms and weather conditions. If we move to a captive-rearing situation, the genetic research could be utilised within that framework."

But at present DOC did not have the technology needed to raise fairy tern chicks in captivity, Dr Beauchamp said.