COVID-19: Woman breaches Auckland border, car gets stuck in endangered native bird's nesting site

Fairy tern/tara iti are New Zealand's most endangered native bird.
Fairy tern/tara iti are New Zealand's most endangered native bird. Photo credit: File

A woman who breached Auckland's strict regional boundary was later rescued from a wildlife refuge after her vehicle became stuck at a nesting site for New Zealand's rarest endemic bird.

In a statement on Thursday, the Department of Conservation said the first fairy tern/tara iti egg of the 2021/2022 breeding season has appeared at Papakānui, one of their four nesting sites located north of Auckland.

The fairy tern/tara iti is regarded as New Zealand's rarest breeding bird. Its conservation status has been listed as threatened-nationally critical due to predation and habitat loss.

While the Department of Conservation is rejoicing at the first egg of the season, rangers have expressed concern about behaviour at another breeding site in Mangawhai, which occurred at around the same time as the egg was laid at Papakānui.

Craig Deal, the operations manager for the Department of Conservation's Whangarei branch, said an Auckland woman and her dog were forced to stay at the reserve overnight after her car became stuck in the soft sand. She was eventually escorted out of the dunes and the police were notified.

It's understood the woman allegedly breached Auckland's alert level 3 boundary, which remains in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.

"Last weekend we came across a vehicle with an occupant and a dog parked in the dunes at the base of the wildlife refuge at Mangawhai. The person had breached the COVID-19 alert level 3 border restriction to enter the area and had got her vehicle stuck in the soft sand and had to stay overnight," Deal said on Thursday.

"She was escorted out of the reserve and police were notified. This will also be followed up with our DoC compliance officers for entering a wildlife refuge (breaching the Northland reserves bylaws) with a vehicle and a dog. Both are prohibited and may result in a $800 infringement notice.

"It’s concerning to see such a blatant breach of wildlife refuge and COVID-19 border rules, especially with the tara iti/fairy tern breeding season just starting."

Fairy tern chicks at a nesting site.
Fairy tern chicks at a nesting site. Photo credit: Department of Conservation

With less than 40 birds remaining in the country, the tara iti has teetered on the brink of extinction since the 1980s despite intensive management and conservation efforts.

Tara iti nest on shell and sand banks, sometimes just above the spring high tide mark, which makes them vulnerable to stormy weather that coincides with high tides and strong winds.

Tara iti are also vulnerable to predation and disturbance by people and vehicles, with all nest sites fenced off as a precaution. 

A dedicated team of seven rangers focused on tara iti conservation have been working alongside community organisations and volunteers since September to prepare for the breeding season, including traping predators near the nesting sites, fencing the sites off, and preventing nesting birds from being disturbed by humans. The rangers and volunteers will continue to monitor the birds and their nests during the breeding season.

Once widespread around the North Island and eastern South Island, tara iti now only breed at the four main nesting sites - Papakānui Spit, Pākiri Beach, and Waipū and Mangawhai sand spits.

The department works closely with Patuharakeke, Ngāti Whātua o Kaipara, Ngāti Manuhiri, Ngātiwai and Te Uri O Hau, The Shorebirds Trust, The NZ Fairy Tern Charitable Trust, About Tern, Birds NZ, Armourguard and the Waipū Trapping Group to help protect the native bird.

To protect tara iti at their nesting sites, people are advised to follow these rules:

  • stay out of taped-off or fenced areas and use designated walkways
  • follow dog and vehicle bylaws
  • remove bait and rubbish from the beach to deter rats and other predators.