New Zealand's most endangered bird is getting another helping hand to keep it off the knife edge of extinction.
Northland community groups, commercial enterprises and the Department of Conservation (DoC) have pooled resources in a new gambit to give the New Zealand fairy tern, or tara iti in Māori, a better chance of survival.
Along with killers such as storms, high tides and predators, the small seabirds are their own worst enemy, making shallow scrapes in sand on exposed beaches.
To entice them off the beach, an exercise this week created three new nesting sites in sand ''craters'' on the Waipu sandspit. This is expected to improve the breeding success of the two pairs and a bachelor bird known to nest on the spit.
The programme involves DoC, the Te Arai and Mangawhai Shorebirds Trust, community-based fairy tern conservation groups under the wing of the Tara Iti Recovery Group formed earlier this year and Patuharakeke Te Iwi Trust. Skyworks Helicopters is also supporting the trial.
Over two days this week, a helicopter has dumped 130 tonnes of sand and locally sourced shell, one tonne at a time in a bucket, into deep hollows in the dunes between the Waipu estuary and ocean beach. The surfaces and ridges that form inside the sheltered hollows will make an ideal, secure nesting habitat.
DoC biodiversity ranger Ayla Wiles said fairy terns liked to be in a high position so the mounds inside the ''craters'' are expected to work well. The white and brown shells' light cover provides perfect camouflage for the eggs, she said.
Peter Wilson, from the Shorebirds Trust, said if the new nesting habitats at Waipu work, the scheme will be rolled out to the other fairy tern locales over three years. There are only five breeding sites — at Waipu, Mangawhai, Te Arai and Pakiri on Northland's east coast, and Papakanui Spit north of Muriwai.
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Linda Guzik, also from the trust, said that other than predator control, habitat enhancement is the most important effective action to ensure the birds' survival.
''We are collaborating and supporting these two priority management strategies and believe they will have the positive impact on the breeding success of the tara iti population,'' she said.
Fairy tern guardian and Waipu resident Robyn Davies is convener of Waipu About Tern. She said the group's volunteers have hands-on experience creating better nesting sites; filling sugar bags with shells from the beach and carrying them into one of the hollows used over successive years by one of the two local pairs of fairy terns.
Davies said Waipu About Tern, which has a Mangawhai counterpart, ''monitors the birds during the breeding season to see if the nests have survived, the eggs have survived, the parents are feeding the chicks, the chicks learn to fly ...''
DoC provides year-round trapping and other predator control support, and employs six fairy tern summer rangers over the five sites, backed up by volunteer community groups.
The Te Arai and Mangawhai Shorebirds Trust hatched out of the development of former Te Uri o Hau land at Te Arai into the exclusive Tara Iti Golf Club.
The club holds an annual, mega-priced golf tournament, the proceeds of which go to Te Arai and Mangawhai Shorebirds Trust to support the golf resort's namesake, the tara iti.