Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Critically endangered seabirds have record breeding season

Fairy tern chicks. Photo / Rex Williams
Fairy tern chicks. Photo / Rex Williams

A population of critically endangered seabird whose welfare is at the centre of a Northland coastal development row has had a record breeding season - but there's disagreement over who should get the credit.

Backers of a coastal development at Te Arai say changes over the past 18 months - including the removal of pine trees to make way for a world-class golf course and small scale development - have proven the biggest difference in a breeding season where a record nine New Zealand fairy tern chicks survived to fledge at the neighbouring Mangawhai Wildlife Refuge.

But the Te Arai Beach Preservation Society, which opposes the development, argues the credit instead mainly belonged to predator control efforts by a local trapping programme.

Te Arai Coastal Lands Trust, which includes Te Uri o Hau's commercial arm, Renaissance Group, was last year granted consent to develop 46 luxury houses on the beach site, but the society has appealed the decision.

Backers say the development will enhance conservation, while objectors say it would mean the loss of the area's remote, natural and non-urban character.

Te Uri o Hau chief executive Deborah Harding said Forest and Bird, DoC and volunteers from the Ornithological Society, Dotterel Care Group, About Tern and the New Zealand Fairy Tern Charitable Trust, had all played a "vital role" in protecting the shorebird populations, while good weather had also been an important factor.

But she said the "single major difference" was changes which have occurred at Te Arai over the past 18 months.

"The removal of 150 hectares of pine trees has significantly reduced the cover for pests and predators - like stoats, rats, hedgehogs and cats - which threaten the shorebirds in the immediately adjacent Mangawhai Wildlife Refuge."

The development had also significantly increased resources available for predator control, and last year $70,000 was spent to markedly increase the intensity of hunting, trapping, and poisoning operations.

Forest and Bird's fairy tern project manager Mark Bellingham said the group strongly supported Te Uri o Hau's involvement in the fairy tern recovery programme, adding their trapping work over the last winter has significantly lowered predator numbers.

DOC said the clearing of pine forest had been positive for shorebird breeding, and did not expect the land use change from production forest to golf course would negatively affect shorebird breeding now or in the future.

But the society said that "by far" the greatest predator control effort and success was down to a trapping programme undertaken by chief trapper Reg Whale.

The programme, managed by the New Zealand Fairy Tern Charitable Trust, had been funded for the last two breeding seasons by grants from the ASB Trust, with further funding for trapping materials from the Mangawhai Endowment Fund.

"As a result of the trust's trapping programme on the wildlife refuge, no breeding birds or chicks have been lost to predators in the last two seasons at Mangawhai."

The society claimed the impacts from the partly-completed golf course had been "mostly adverse" to the environment and its threatened species.

NZ fairy terns at Mangawhai

2012/13: 3
2013/14: 6

Chicks fledged
2012/13: 3
2013/14: 9

Chicks fledged per pair
2012/13: 1.0
2013/14: 1.5

- NZ Herald

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