Swallows of the sea


Tara and tarapirohe Ashley Estuary, Canterbury, New Zealand

“Sometimes they hover
motionless, high in a half-gale torrent of air

unmoved yet sustained by the stream that surrounds them
then,with no effort involved,
sudden and sharply they break
quick as a kite
when the string snaps
plunging down and across the sky” – an excerpt from The Pairing of Terns by Mark O’Connor


tarapirohe – adults in non breeding plumage and juveniles – take to the sky

Terns – the swallows of the sea. Elegant, swift, precise, bold and beautiful. I never cease to be in awe of them; they draw my eye and the focus of my lens at every opportunity.

My ‘bucket list’ ambition is to see and get good photographs of all of the terns that breed in, or visit, New Zealand. Considering there are some 14 or so species, and of these some are extremely rare visitors, or only occur on distant islands in our far-flung territorial seas, I have my work cut out for me. But it’s a worthy ambition!

Of the species recorded, one is classed as endemic and a few are endemic at the sub-species level. These latter include the rarest of our breeding terns, the fairy tern (Sternula nereis davisae), which has a ‘critically endangered conservation’ status and is, tragically, the most endangered of all of New Zealand’s endemic taxa.*

To date my bucket list of tern species seen and photographed has reached a total of five . . . only nine or so to go!


Tara – the white-fronted tern – Ashley Estuary

Tara – the white-fronted tern – Sterna striata – native – declining

I often encounter this tern in large numbers at the Ashley Estuary. When it does not have eggs or chicks, this is a very confiding bird allowing close human approach. They will happily carry on preening, feeding, courting, mating and roosting with a photographer within less than five metres. This all changes when they have eggs/chicks; then they are fierce defenders of their space and the photographer must be much more cautious to avoid disturbance.

Tara are the most common tern on the New Zealand coastline, at times occurring in flocks of many hundreds, even thousands of birds. It is mainly a marine species that is seldom found far from the coast.**



(left): Tara gathered on a jetty railing. Birds in such areas that are frequently visited by people become very tame allowing very close approach.
(right): Courting tara exchanging fish



tara breeding colony – Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere


A juvenile tara showing the striated plumage that gave this bird its species name

Taranui – the Caspian tern – Hydroprogne caspia – native – nationally vulnerable


I often hear this, the largest of our terns, before I see it. Its harsh croak is a distinctive sound of estuarine areas and around the huge but shallow Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere), which is a breeding stronghold of this species in New Zealand.


Taranui breeding colony – Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere

In spite of its size it is a timid tern, very difficult to approach. But it will often roost with its bolder, smaller, cousins and that seems to give it more courage. And, once in the air fishing, it will pass very close to the photographer indeed, if you can work out its fishing ‘beat’ and position yourself accordingly.


Taranui – non breeding plumage – Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere

The largest of all species of terns (the Maori name taranui translates as ‘big tern’) the Caspian is a large distinctive gull-like tern of shallow coastal waters and, particularly outside of the breeding season, inland lakes and rivers throughout New Zealand.**

bathing terns

Tarapirohe – the black fronted tern – communal bathing

Tarapirohe – the black-fronted tern – Chlidonias albostriatus – endemic – nationally endangered

Of the terns I encounter regularly in my home province of Canterbury on the South Island’s east coast, the tarapirohe is a favourite. In mating plumage the adults are strikingly beautiful, but that is not the only reason I find them particularly appealing.


An adult tarapirohe in full breeding plumage

I am a passionate advocate for the protection of our unique braided river ecosystems. This is a rare ecosystem globally and New Zealand is the world capital, with Canterbury containing some 60% of the total area of braided rivers in New Zealand.

The tarapirohe only breeds in the eastern South Island’s braided rivers. Indeed, while it overwinters on the estuarine coasts, it is effectively an inland tern. It is often seen hawking over pasture and its nests (a mere scrape) among the alluvial stones can be found in riverbeds at the very foot of our highest mountains.


a few sticks, a small scrape, a tarapirohe nests among the braided river stones


Until they move, tarapirohe chicks can be almost invisible among the round river stones 


A juvenile tarapirohe rises up from the water


Tarapirohe – non breeding plumage – with prey

The gull-billed tern – Gelochelidon nilotica – native – vagrant


As with its bigger cousin the Caspian, the first, and only, time I saw this large tern, I heard it first, it’s call so similar to that of the Caspian I thought it was this species until it came closer. I was on the wide mud flats of Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere), which is a site where gull-billed terns have been recorded semi-regularly, albeit in very small numbers. The birds (only four) circled me and were gone, but giving me just enough time to get a couple of shots.

Gull-billed terns are mainly birds of the Australian interior, appearing and breeding on temporary water left by floods. Gull-billed terns and other Australian wetland birds are often forced to find new habitats when the temporary wetlands are consumed by drought. It is during post-flood droughts that gull-billed terns are likely to reach New Zealand.**

The little tern – Sternula albifrons – native – uncommon migrant


I was photographing gulls and terns on the wide shallows of Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) when I heard a bird call distinctly different from the birds around me. There in the distance was a very small tern hovering over the water, calling constantly.

A fruitless stalk followed, the flickering ghost of a bird kept its distance hiding in the heat shimmer over the lake. So my first, and only, photo of a little tern is a heavy crop out of a much bigger picture, verging on pixilation. But it’s the only photo I have to record this encounter with such a dainty little visitor and it will remain in my collection until the chance to take something better comes along.

Although small numbers of little terns visit New Zealand every year, it took some time before they were recognised as being New Zealand birds. They are very similar to the now rare fairy tern, especially in the nondescript non-breeding and immature plumages most often seen in New Zealand. Careful observations led to the presence of little terns being confirmed on the Miranda coast, Firth of Thames in the 1950s. By this time, the fairy tern had become one of New Zealand’s rarest birds, and the little tern is now known to be the commonest small tern in the country over the summer. **

Angles of light

I often think of terns as angels of light. When you can capture them against the light of the sky or a rising or setting sun, there is a glory about them that no great painter of religious icons can replicate.


tara – white-fronted tern – an angel of light

*Birds of New Zealand – a photographic guide, Scofield and Stephenson.

** www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz




4 thoughts on “Swallows of the sea

  1. Uplifting blog. Loved the poetry and informative text to enhance the fantastic photographs. Really appreciated receiving this.

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