Coastal Development Threatens New Zealand's Rarest Bird

AUCKLAND, New Zealand, April 28, 2006 (ENS) - The last 36 remaining New Zealand fairy terns are now threatened by a proposed subdivision near their habitat, according to the country's largest environmental group, the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand.

Mangawhai Heads

Mangawhai Heads shelters the last population of New Zealand fairy terns. (Photo courtesy Magical Mangawhai)
The subdivision is planned for Mangawhai Heads, a popular getaway for many people located an hour and a half's drive north of Auckland.

Forest and Bird North Island Field Coordinator David Pattemore said promises by developers that cats would be banned and dogs restricted to leashes, while well-intentioned, are not enough to protect the terns from predation.

"It would be impossible to enforce the restrictions on pets in such a large settlement and, given the terns’ critically low numbers - just 10 breeding pairs remaining - just one cat or dog could do enough harm to condemn the birds to extinction," Pattemore said.

Mangawhai's sand dunes, inhabited by the rare fairy and Caspian terns and other rare birds, are administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Aside from a general warning that dogs and cats are a significant threat to native wildlife, the agency has not responded by the concerns expressed by Forest and Bird.


The fairy tern is New Zealand's rarest breeding bird, with a population of around 36 individuals and only 10 breeding pairs. (Photo courtesy DOC)
The DOC does say that the most likely causes of population decline are the degradation of sand dune habitat caused by residential development, the planting of pine plantations, and pastoral farming as well as introduced predators such as rats, dogs, and cats preying upon eggs and chicks.

New Zealand fairy terns may be the most critically endangered bird in New Zealand, and perhaps even the world’s rarest tern, new DNA evidence suggests.

Research by Auckland University that suggests New Zealand fairy terns have unique DNA characteristics heightens concerns that a proposed subdivision of up to 2,000 houses near Mangawhai Heads poses a serious threat to the terns’ survival.

The genetic research by Auckland University confirms unique genetic features among the New Zealand fairy terns, which shows they comprise a distinct population, with characteristics different from Australian and New Caledonian populations of fairy tern, and do not breed at all with their overseas relations.

Further research may confirm the New Zealand fairy tern as an entirely separate species, which could earn it the dubious honor of being the world’s most endangered tern species, overtaking the Chinese crested-tern, which has a similarly low population of fewer than 50 birds.

Records from the 19th century suggest that 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. Fairy terns are now found only on the lower half of the Northland Peninsula. Breeding is limited to three regular sites: Waipu, Mangawhai, and the South Kaipara Head. The wintering range of the birds extends over the Kaipara Harbour.