#ThreatenedSpecies of the Week: Fairy Tern

Could this be a Fairy tail ending?

The Fairy Tern is a bird small in stature and has a wingspan of 44-53 cm with its distinctive black cap, yellow-brown bill and white forked tail.

Although it has a global distribution, the Australian subspecies, Sterna nereis nereis can be seen along the Australian coast from Victoria to as far north as the Dampier Archipelago near Karratha.

This small piscivorous (fish-eating) bird Sterna nereis nereis, more commonly known as the Fairy Tern can generally be seen on sheltered sandy beaches above the high tide line.

However, flocks have also been recorded in a variety of environments including offshore and estuarine habitats, preferring to roost on beaches at night.  Individuals feed almost entirely on small bait sized fish including Anchovies and Pilchards, often scavenging from shoals of feeding predatory fish.

A Fairy Tern sits on its nest scrape. Picture: (DPAW)
A Fairy Tern sits on its nest scrape. Picture: (DPAW)

In Australia, Fairy Terns generally breed in colonies of various sizes of between two to 400 pairs between October until February, however breeding times can vary between locations.

Nests can be seen on open sandy beaches, estuaries and continental islands usually with a clear view of the water and in sandy locations.  Nests are can be lined with small shells and vegetation, often being abandoned after one year regardless of breeding success.

The Fairy Tern is currently listed as Vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and under the Western Australian Wildlife Conservation Act 1950.

The Fairy Tern’s exposed nesting behaviours make it particularly susceptible to threats and the recent decline in its population size has attributed to the vulnerable status.

Disturbance and predation are thought to be the main threats to the Fairy Tern population in Australia with predators ranging from foxes, dogs, cats and a variety of bird species including Silver Gulls, Pacific Gulls and Ravens.  Disturbance is another major threat to the population and can be a direct result of human activities including bikes, horses and vehicles.

However, breeding colonies can also be vulnerable to weed encroachment, extreme weather events and incorrect water management in waters surrounding breeding sites.  Disturbance may cause the direct destruction of eggs or the abandonment of nesting sites by the birds resulting in egg predation or the chilling or overheating of eggs.

In Australia, subspecies nereis may have fewer than 5 000 mature individuals at up to 170 sites with less than 1 600 pairs in Western Australia.  To help inform decisions on a local scale, the Conservation Council of Western Australia will lead a South West Fairy Tern project that will include a series of conservation workshops and field days.  Participants will have the opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge to effectively collect valuable information on this species and contribute to the development of up to six local conservation strategies.

Two workshops will be held within the Northern Agricultural Region in the upcoming months in both Jurien Bay and at the Abrolhos Islands.  To find out more or to get involved please contact your local Coastal and Marine Project Officer.

Information Source: Government of Australia, Department of Environment and Birdlife International, Conservations Council of Western Australia

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