While these fairies won’t leave money under your pillow after losing a tooth or convert your outfit into a gown fit for a ball, they are just as special. Read on to find out about Adelaide’s precious fairy terns.

flock of fairy terns-credit Tony Flaherty
A flock of fairy terns. Photo: Tony Flaherty.

Fairy terns (Sternula nereis) are a vulnerable bird species found along the Adelaide coast. They’re mostly white with blue-grey wings and a distinct black head. They grow to around 25 cm long and are the smallest tern in Australia, tied in first place with the little tern (S. albifrons).

Find out all about them – including how you can help – below:

Where do fairy terns nest?

Fairy terns, like hooded plovers, nest in a shallow scrape in the sand. Unlike hoodies, they’ll sometimes decorate their nests with seaweed and small shells.

Fairy terns aren’t restricted to nesting on the beach. They’ll also get comfy on a sandy spot among rocks or even on a rocky flat (an area with large flat rocks).

Their fave spots to hang out are beaches, and on mini islands where sand pokes up from the sea. A couple of unusual spots that these birds are sometimes seen are salt ponds and sewage farms.

When is the breeding season?

The fairy tern breeding season runs from September to March. During this time, the male and female take turns keeping the eggs at the perfect temperature and, when they hopefully hatch, looking after their offspring.

Each couple will only have one lot of chicks (known as a brood).

Fairy terns nest in large colonies of birds.

A fairy tern hatchling and egg-credit Greg Johnston.
A fairy tern hatchling and egg. Photo: Greg Johnston.

What do fairy terns eat?

Fish is pretty much the only thing that fairy terns eat – and they swallow it head first! They like small bait fish, like anchovies, pilchards and blue sprats.

They may indirectly consume greenery or a snail here and there, but that’s generally only if it’s in the stomach of their prey.

A fairy tern chick and one of its parents-credit Tony Flaherty.
A fairy tern chick and one of its parents. Photo: Tony Flaherty.

Why are fairy terns vulnerable?

The South Australian fairy tern population is declining. Across the entire state, we only know of 16 sites where these birds breed. Among those sites is one just off the coast of Adelaide.

While this site is home to a large breeding colony, the number of fledglings (chicks who make it to flying stage) each season is low.

Fairy terns are also found in Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia and very rarely New South Wales. Breeding success across (the number of chicks that fledge) is a problem across all of South Australia and Victoria, with the birds considered vulnerable in Tassie and WA.

What are the biggest threats to fairy terns?

The biggest threat to our fairy terns is foxes. Rats, silver gulls (aka seagulls) and pacific gulls like to steal their eggs and chicks, and humans can be a problem too if we accidently scare them during breeding season.

Fairy tern chicks are not able to confidently fly until they are around 25–27 days old (3.5+ weeks old), which makes them easy prey for other creatures, especially if disturbances take away the focus of the parents protecting them.

Understanding conservation ratings

In South Australia, fairy terns are considered endangered but under the federal government’s conservation status listing (the EPBC Act), they are listed as vulnerable.

Under the EPBC Act, animals that are not of concern are thought to be ‘secure’, while all others come under one of these categories:

  • extinct
  • extinct in the wild
  • critically endangered
  • endangered
  • vulnerable
  • conservation dependent.

Sometimes animals can be classified differently globally but in this instance, fairy terns are also considered vulnerable at the global scale.

What’s being done to help fairy terns in Adelaide?

To help keep the one Adelaide breeding site safe, volunteers and staff are working to get rid of local foxes. We’re also trying to keep the habitat at this site healthy for these birds.

Each breeding season staff and volunteers monitor the birds regularly to see what habitat they’re using, how successfully they’re breeding and to keep an eye on threats. The birds are monitored from a distance using a spotting scope or binoculars to make sure they’re not disturbed.

Cameras set up at the site also give great insight into the lives of these fairy terns.

An adult fairy tern-credit Tony Flaherty.
An adult fairy tern. Photo: Tony Flaherty.

How you can help

You can help fairy terns and other beach-nesting birds:

  • Pick up rubbish where safe to do so (not just on the beach) and recycle or dispose of it properly. This will help reduce the amount of rubbish ending up in the ocean.
  • Give beach-nesting birds space to raise their families by staying away from fenced or signed areas, and only walking on the wet sand (below the high tide line) at the beach.
  • Spread the word about birds living on the coast.
  • Don’t feed seagulls – it allows them to thrive and raise more of their own families.
  • Report fox den sightings to your local council and through FoxScan – an exact GPS point is needed to be effective.

And if you’re already doing all of that, why not sign up as a Beach-nesting Bird Volunteer? Contact BirdLife Australia and Green Adelaide’s Sharing our Shores with Coastal Wildlife Coordinator Kerri Bartley to register your interest.

Main image courtesy of Tony Flaherty.

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