Desperately clinging to a handful of shallow scrapes and sandbanks on windy beaches, the NZ fairy tern represents what James Russell calls a "quintessential species conservation problem".

That this tiny, delicate species somehow hasn't been shunted into oblivion is remarkable.

Russell, a University of Auckland conservation biologist, feels the effort to save New Zealand's most threatened bird – with a population of just 40 – has been left tragically too late.

Last season, only six pairs attempted to nest at their storm-exposed coastal habitats near Auckland and Whangarei, even with the careful oversight of a Department of Conservation-led recovery programme.

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SEABIRDS ON THE BRINK