It's taking quite a village to raise New Zealand's most endangered bird, and every now and then the big guns — really big guns — get called in to help.
The bird that has hundreds of people fighting for its life is the tara iti, New Zealand fairy tern, a lovely but rather silly creature that would be its own worst enemy if it didn't have other much worse enemies.
The villages - community and conservation groups - committed to saving the tara iti, which translates as 'little gull', also nest on the coast at Waipū, Mangawhai, Te Arai and Pakiri on Northland's east coast, and at Papakanui Spit on the west coast.
To protect this most fragile population of birds, even the most gentle of people in these coastal parts have turned into killers in a bid to rid sandspits and dunes of rats, cats, possum, mustelids and other predators. Stray or free-running dogs in the nesting areas are not in as much immediate danger when it comes to being trapped and dispatched — but look out owners, if they get caught.
At Papakanui Spit near the Kaipara Harbour's South Head, about 70km as a crow might fly from the closest east coast breeding site at Pakiri, war is also being raged at the only other tara iti habitat in New Zealand.
Wind, tides and heavy rain can destroy the birds' shallow nests, which are mere scrapes in shelly sand, often midway up the beach. And although one brave parent always stays on the nest while the other goes fishing, pushy, more aggressive and bigger sea and shore birds can spend hours trying to grab a meal of tara iti egg or chick.
Slow learners, even after a year or three of not managing to raise a family of their own, these usually life-partnering birds will seek out their mate come the next breeding season and start the bloody tragedy all over again.
Even surrounded by danger as they are, the tara iti doesn't help itself much; over millennia the species doesn't seem to have developed any evolutionary nous, seems not to have overcome its predilection to extinction.
To keep the need for effective human-made protection in perspective as this breeding season gets under way, let's stress that 36 birds survive across all five sites.
Of those three dozen specimens, there are only about seven breeding pairs and, just to sharpen the edge of extinction, among the tiny number on which the future depends, there is an alarming proportion of infertile males. That's possibly due to cross-breeding, which a DNA and fertility study at the University of Canterbury seeks to clarify.
But the male birds are not the only things firing blanks in the story of the fairy tern. That west coast Papakanui Spit habitat is quite close to the NZ Defence Force's weapons testing range.
It's hard to believe the armed forces have a soft spot for the fairy terns when they're blasting the hell out of the birds' habitat. But, dropping bombs is one way to keep unwanted visitors away, says DoC — which means the few resident tara iti couples and their pathetic little nests rarely get disturbed by humans. It's one big bang theory, anyway.
But in recent months the concept of the Defence Force shelling the Papakanui habitat has taken on a new significance.
Meanwhile, the tara iti's 2019 mating season might have started early this year, if the annual arrival of thousands of godwits from the Arctic circle is anything to go by. Well before the usual month of September, godwits began arriving on Northland coastal strips and estuaries.
Things needed to get cracking, if the weather would allow, on a plan hatched by Department of Conservation (DoC), community care groups like About Tern in Mangawhai and Waipū (the 'villages'), other groups under the wing of the Tara Iti Recovery Group, the Te Arai and Mangawhai Shorebirds Trust, Patuharakeke Te Iwi Trust and, failing having the Royal New Zealand Air Force being about, the community-minded Whangārei-based Skyworks Helicopters.
To entice the birds off the edge of the world and improve the breeding success of the two pairs and a bachelor bird known to nest on the Waipū spit, a big exercise created three nesting sites in sand 'craters' well behind the beach.
First DoC specialist rangers such as Ayla Wiles scoped the scape, identifying craters where tara iti had before and might again nest in shelter, in a predator-free zone well away from the reach of the sea. But, despite their tendency to nest on exposed soft sand, the contrary birds are unlikely to nest in sandy-bottomed dune craters. They like to roost, to see what's going on around them.
About Tern and fellow carers have a great record of predator control and bird monitoring, and are the on-site year-round eyes and ears for DoC, so they were on hand to help; and Patuharakeke blessed and oversaw the collection of 130 tonnes of shell from the hapu's Marsden Point rohe.
Then over two days in late August, a Skyworks helicopter dumped that 130 tonnes of shell, a one-tonne bucketful at a time, into chosen hollows in the dunes between the Waipu estuary and ocean beach. The high, shelly, flat topped mounds built within those hollows are expected to make an ideal, secure nesting habitat.
It's hoped the birds will have enough smarts to spot the best location while they're doing their fly around the neighbourhood.
If successful, similar relocations will be tried at Mangawhai, Te Arai and Pakiri next year.
Meanwhile, over on the west coast at remote Papakanui Spit, DoC, kaitiaki of Ngāti Whātua o Kaipara, two RNZAF Seasprite helicopters and a Unimog truck delivered 50 tonnes of crushed oyster shells to similar dune scapes.
Tara iti were once widespread around the North Island coast and South Island river mouths. They forage by hovering daintily 5-15m above the water surface, before diving but not totally immersing their body.
In 1983, the number of fairy terns dropped to an all-time low of three or four breeding pairs. DoC (then the New Zealand Wildlife Service) began a protection programme resulting in a population turnaround, albeit a still precarious one 37 years later.
The return of the kōkako - a conservation success story
Many people who live in or near Northland's native forests, the visitors and bird-lovers can take pleasure and pride in the rescue of the kōkako.
Identified in 1987 as a seriously threatened species, the kōkako now only lives in areas of sustained pest control. All unmanaged populations are extinct.
But 60 pairs were identified living in the Waipoua and Mataraua forests in 2017, the largest population outside the Central Plateau.
The total New Zealand population has increased from about 330 pairs in 1999 to around 1595 in 2017, due to pest control at key sites, and translocation.
To hear and see this rare, large song bird in the wild is truly something special. Male and female both have a extraordinary, haunting and melodic song and male and female North Island kōkako frequently sing as a duet.
Their blue-grey plumage is lovely, and a striking black mask and small, rich blue wattles that rise from the base of the bill to sit under the throat are spectacular.
To bring this bird back to the two dense, high Northland forest, intensive predator trapping was carried out, resourced by the Northland Regional Council and the Department of Conservation (DoC), and led by the Wekaweka Landcare Group Trust. Volunteer group, Pupurangi Nature Sanctuary carried out a lot of trapping last year and Reconnecting Northland and a local project called He Ripo Kau are also working on kōkako monitoring and rodent monitoring in the South Hokianga.
Kauri Coast DoC biodiversity ranger ranger Matt Calder is a great believer in the collaborative approach.
Calder can take a lot of credit for pushing and leading DoC's and partners' programme to protect and research the small local kōkako population.
In 2009, led by Sarah King, DoC reintroduced kokako into the lowland podocarp forest of Whirinaki in the Central Plateau. Calder was inspired to see the same thing happen in south Hokianga.
Translocation and stepped-up defences by community groups and DoC also resulted in a small population of kokako in Puketi Forest.
It is likely the vast majority of Northlanders will never see or hear one of these beautiful, people-shy, deep-and-high forest dwellers about which someone wrote in the late 1880s that ''kōkako seemed to retreating before the advancement of man on the landscape''.
But the repopulation of kōkako in Northland, the bird being pulled back from near extinction, is one the region's great conservation success stories. It is also one of the factors that makes the indigenous forests of this region even more wonderful and precious.
New Zealand Conservation Week is on September 14 -22