Need to protect breeding bird colonies

Story and photos by Steve Attwood


Royal spoonbills at Te Waihora. Photo courtesy Steve Attwood

Royal spoonbills at Te Waihora. Photo courtesy Steve Attwood

One of the dilemmas of conservation is how much publicity is too much?

Raising public awareness, and encouraging people to get a real-life experience of our remarkable plants and animals is crucial to building support for conservation. It’s important that people understand the vital role biodiversity and a healthy environment plays in the wellbeing of our natural, social, cultural and economic worlds.

On the other hand, sometimes publicity can put species at risk, especially at crucial times such as during the breeding season; then, over enthusiastic humans can actually cause harm.

This is the issue that authorities are dealing with on Te Waihora right now, with three nationally significant nesting colonies on the lake that all involve threatened and/or uncommon birds.

The lake is host to a colony of more than 6000 tara (white-fronted tern – Sterna striata), about 250 taranui (Caspian tern – Hydroprogne caspia), and several hundred kotuku-ngutupapa (royal spoonbill – Platalea regia). All three colonies are among the biggest for their species in the country and that alone makes them hugely important for the future of these beautiful birds.

Disturbance during the breeding period is a serious risk factor for these birds. Spoonbills and Caspian terns, in particular, are very sensitive and have been known to abandon whole colonies as a result of being stressed by people getting too close. Free-running dogs, horse riders and people in off-road vehicles can also stress these colonies.

Even if nesting is not abandoned, when these birds are frightened off the nest opportunistic predators, such as the karoro (black-backed gull – Larus dominicanus) can quickly move in and take chicks. That’s important when you consider that the tara and the taranui are listed as ‘declining’ and ‘nationally vulnerable’ respectively. The spoonbill is not regarded as threatened but it is probably the most vulnerable of these three species to disturbance stress and, once abandoned, sometimes colonies never return to that area.

White-fronted terns. Photo courtesy Steve Attwood.

White-fronted terns. Photo courtesy Steve Attwood, Christchurch.

For this reason we are not saying in this article where the birds are.  Lake Ellesmere is a huge space and the birds are in areas not readily visible or easily accessed and we want to keep it that way. It’s one of those occasions when the desire to give people a good conservation experience is outweighed by the need to protect birds from harm at a crucial stage in their life cycle. All three species can be seen at the lake year-round so there are always plenty of opportunities to see them before breeding starts and after it is completed.

These colonies are being watched and studied. Traps to control introduced mammalian predators are also in place, but you can do your bit too. If you’re kayaking, bird watching, fishing or even simply walking around Te Waihora and observe nesting birds, please keep a good distance away and make sure dogs are on a tight leash. It’s highly recommended that from around late September through to about the mid-to-late January, vehicles should be kept off the lake area altogether. But if you are off-roading, respect the birds by slowing down around them and keep your distance.

When breeding gulls and terns (especially the Caspians) come to you and wheel over your head (or vehicle) calling loudly and dropping faeces, it’s a sign you’re much too close. That’s the time to back off and put some distance between you and the colony.

Caspian tern and chick. Photo courtesy Steve aTTWOOD.

Caspian tern and chick. Photo courtesy Steve Attwood, Christchurch.

Spoonbills behave differently and you might not realise at first that it is a stress response. A group of ‘sentries’ will fly toward you and land nearby. They don’t call out and fly around you like gulls and terns, or engage in ‘broken wing’ displays the way many shore birds do. Instead they parade up and down acting ‘innocent’ and even seeming somewhat foolish with their exaggerated posing and preening.

People might think, ‘gosh these birds are really tame’ and feel encouraged to get even closer. But it’s actually the spoonbill way of saying “back off!” If you ignore this warning and keep approaching, the whole colony can rise up, risking predation of the chicks and even breeding abandonment.

This is so important we even had to think about whether to publish this article. Would it risk raising people’s curiosity and encourage them to go looking for the colonies thinking “it’ll be alright, I’m responsible.” On the other side of the argument is that uninformed people might accidentally stumble upon the colonies and, not knowing the rules, unintentionally do harm

So, please don’t rush out and look for these birds right now. They and their fledglings will be on the lake in January and February; plenty of summer time left, then, to go for a walk and get some photos. But, right now, encourage your off-roading friends to stay away and if you are walking on the lake for any reason and the birds tell you that you’re unwelcome, then respect their wishes and back off. That way there will always be these magnificent birds on the lake for us and future generations.

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