A group has been set up to pull New Zealand's most endangered bird back from the brink of extinction.

With fewer than 40 birds, the critically endangered fairy tern, or tara iti, has been struggling to survive since the 1970s.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) said a recovery group is needed to provide direction on preventing the extinction of the species which has three of its four breeding in North.

While tara iti roost around Whangārei Harbour and other sites, they breed at only four places - Pakiri Beach, the Waipū and Mangawhai sandspits and the Papakanui spit north of Muriwai.

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"With only six pairs attempting to nest last season, and a population of approximately 40 birds, the plight of the tara iti is critical," said Troy Makan, leader of the Tara iti Recovery Group.

"DOC is taking a collaborative approach with a newly-established Tara iti Recovery Group which includes Ngāti Whatua O Kaipara, Patuharakeke Te Iwi and Te Uri o Hau. It will be supported with dedicated DOC science staff and increased research.

"These precious birds have been hanging onto the brink for too long. The recovery group enables us to give the tara iti the chance to once again flourish on our shores.''

The new group had its first meeting in Whangārei on Wednesday.

New Zealand Fairy Tern Recovery Group.
New Zealand Fairy Tern Recovery Group.

Its recovery programme will be based on a 2017 review which made 22 recommendations. Fifteen recommendations are currently being implemented, with the remaining seven to be actioned by the new group. That will involve developing new techniques and management strategies.

Significant site management of the breeding and roosting sites already includes avian and mammalian predator control, development of nesting sites with fencing, chick protection and monitoring with onsite public advocacy and compliance to keep the breeding areas undisturbed.

"There's fantastic community support and DOC works closely with several community groups and trusts to raise funding to support [the birds] along with providing and coordinating volunteers on the ground," Makan said.

"These include Birds NZ, Forest and Bird, Mangawhai About Tern, the Mangawhai Harbour Restoration Society, the NZ Fairy Tern Trust, the Te Arai and Mangawhai Shorebirds Trust and Waipu About Tern.''

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DOC is joining forces with the Te Arai and Mangawhai Shorebirds Trust, Boffa Miskell Ltd, Te Uri o Hau Settlement Trust (TUOH) and the New Zealand Fairy Tern Charitable Trust to fund key research and predator control.

As well as the new management strategies, work will include genetic research into pedigree and infertility, and new tools and techniques for nest protection including using trail cameras and year-round predator control at Mangawhai spit.

 A DOC sign visible from the inland side of the dunes and estuary at Waipu Cove.
A DOC sign visible from the inland side of the dunes and estuary at Waipu Cove.

The small birds nest on shell and sand banks just above high tide, making them vulnerable to rats, stoats and other predators, disturbance by people, vehicles and dogs. They are also at risk from storms and high tides. They can't be transported to predator-free islands because they are particular about where they nest, and the chicks can't raised in captivity.

The total population is estimated to be 35-39 birds. Last summer, six females laid eggs. Two chicks hatched at the Pakiri and Waipu breeding sites but one of the six breeding females died due to an internal rupture of an abnormal egg.

In total, there are approximately 9-10 breeding age females with the potential to pair and breed. Not all pairs produce fertile clutches due to non-fertile males pairing with breeding females.