New management techniques for New Zealand's rarest endemic bird, the New Zealand fairy tern (tara iti), are offering a hope for the future of the species, with a chick hatched and reared at Auckland Zoo, transferred to an offsite aviary then released into the wild.
The Department of Conservation is working alongside Patuharakeke, Ngāti Whāuta o Kaipara, Ngāti Manuhiri and Te Uri o Hau to protect the tara iti using a range of approaches. This season, a partnership with Auckland Zoo gave specialist keepers and rangers the opportunity to captive-hatch the chick and raise it at the zoo before taking it to a purpose-built aviary close to a breeding site.
"When a population is so tiny, so overwhelmed by a host of threats and so precariously perched on the brink of extinction, we need every tool in the conservation toolbox," Auckland Zoo's head of animal care and conservation Richard Gibson said.
"The opportunity this breeding season for Auckland Zoo to begin developing a hand-rearing and head-starting protocol with DOC colleagues is an essential first step towards a future programme of intensive population augmentation to help reverse the fortunes of this plucky little bird."
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The zoo's birds team leader, Carl Ashworth, said he and his team were delighted to be able to utilise their collective bird husbandry skills and collaborate with DOC to give the chick a fighting chance.
"We were able to replicate the same climatic and environmental conditions the chick would have experienced in the wild, including an intensive feeding schedule that with DOC's great support included providing a natural diet of live fish. These factors were critical to successfully rearing this chick for release, and are going to stand us in great stead for future tara iti efforts," he said.
"Captive rearing would not have with possible without a team of dedicated experts - our DOC rangers and technical experts, iwi, zoo keepers, volunteers and other stakeholders. Rearing a bird in captivity this season opens the door for more options in the future for the tara iti, and we hope to see the chick return in the summers to come and breed themselves," senior DOC ranger Alex Wilson added.
Once the chick was transferred to the aviary, it was cared for by on-site DOC rangers for about a month while it learned to fly and hunt on the wing before being released into the wild by simply opening the aviary doors. Although it had not been seen since it was released, rangers were hopeful that it would return next breeding season.
Meanwhile four tara iti fledged in the wild this breeding season, but with fewer than 40 adult birds the species is classified as nationally critical, and despite intensive management has teetered on the brink of extinction since the 1970s.
Tara iti nest on low lying shell and sand banks, which leaves them vulnerable to weather events, native and introduced predators, disturbance by people, 4WD vehicles and dogs. Once widespread around the North Island and on the eastern South Island, it now breeds only at Papakanui Spit, Pakiri Beach, Waipū and Mangawhai sandspits.