fairy tern

There are three subspecies of the fairy tern; nereis breeds in southern and western Australia; exsul in New Caledonia; and davisae in New Zealand.

The fairy tern was first discovered in Bass Strait whence Gould described it in 1843. Potts first noticed it about 1869 on the Rakaia river bed not far below the gorge where it was breeding. He notes, however, that there were then in the Canterbury Museum two specimens from Canterbury. But it is Guthrie-Smith who waxes poetic about this, the smallest and rarest of our terns, as he does with so many of our birds.

“Of the little tern, Sterna nereis, I have seen but two breeding birds in my life. This pair had doubtless assessed the advantage to themselves of the proximity of the numerous sea swallow (white-fronted tern) population under whose aegis they had chosen to range themselves. Although, however, in a sense consenting to merge themselves in the larger alien community, their individuality remained intact. They were still Christians in Jewry, whites amongst coloured folk; in their estimation at least doves trooping with crows, for I can never believe but that each breed of birds is as fully convinced of its superiority over all other breeds as man is satisfied of his superiority to the anthropoid apes. At any rate by thus outwardly conforming to the manners and customs of the majority they gained the immunity conferred by numbers and noise. Small as these little tern might be, black backed gulls and harrier hawks dared not molest them in the crowd.

“After an hour’s search, I found the nest midway betwixt two sections of incubating sea swallow. Because of the ceaseless overhead flight of this species to and from their breeding grounds, it lay safe from marauders. It was well worth the discovery, eggs and environment a most delightful colour scheme, the whole so graceful and dainty that sight contracted fit it alone, the eye was content to view nothing else, to concentrate on one object only, to shut out the whole great world beside and revel in a microcosm of loveliness. On a wind-swept sand-clear, hard-set strip of dry beach the pair had elected to lay. It was one of those reaches often met with on windy shores where no loose sand but only conglomerated shell, tight packed, tight rammed, can remain. These huge aggregations chance tossed together by sea and tide in the past or gathered for food by Maori of old, form bases which often the wind seems not to erode or undermine. On them lie sparingly scattered similar shells of later date, dead indeed yet in death often still conjoined and occasionally at each juncture rimmed with purple or pink. On such a strip, sparsely sprinkled with little heaps of pebbles and surface shells in two and threes, lay the couple of eggs. These surface sea shells had been allowed to remain, as camouflage, untampered with, but from elsewhere had been also collected twenty or thirty other halves and wholes, showing deep lateral widths of purple and pink. Not a brilliantly tinted shell had been missed over the couple of acres I searched. The hen tern had then laid eggs to match the bivalves, the shells bright pink. I have never forgotten that nest, memory no doubt energised by the catastrophe that followed. A gale was glowing ...”

Department of Conservation Web site (Fairy-Tern)

Sub Species:

Other common names:  — 

Little tern

Description:  — 

Endemic bird

25 cm, 70 g. White steep forehead and rounded recess above the eye, black crown, nape and line to eye, yellow-orange bill, deeply forked white tail, underparts white, upper wing almost uniform pale grey, legs orange-yellow. In non-breeding plumage cap recedes to above eye and down nape. Immature, bill black with yellow base, legs brown.

Where to find:  — 

Papakanui spit, Kaipara south head area, Waipu estuary, In April and May Kaipara Harbour roosting sites.

Credit for the photograph: — 

Illustration description: — 


  Mathews, Gregory, The Birds of Australia 1910-28.

Reference(s): — 


Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.

Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.

Guthrie-Smith, H. Sorrows and Joys of a NZ Naturalist, 1936.

Department of Conservation (Fairy-Tern)

Page date & version: — 


Tuesday, 2 July 2019; ver2009v1


©  2005    Narena Olliver,    new zealand birds limited,     Greytown, New Zealand.