Once widespread across New Zealand, the dotterel is a small shorebird now considered endangered, with an estimated population of about 2000 individuals.
Development on their coastal habitat, introduced predators and disturbance during their breeding season are factors which have caused a gradual decline in the population of a species found on coastal beaches, sandspits and estuaries.
Dannika Tukua, a Community Ranger with the Department of Conservation (DOC) in Waikato, says the dotterels’ nests can be easily disturbed or destroyed by human activity on the beaches where the birds are found.
“Coastal environments are fragile, and since that is the habitat for the dotterels, we’re asking beach-goers to be particularly cautious,” she says.
“There are a few things the public can do to help us protect these birds on our west coast beaches – keep dogs under control if those pets are allowed on the beach, avoid leaving old fishing lines lying around, and avoid using vehicles such as quad bikes and 4WDs above the high-tide mark.”
Some known dotterel nesting sites along the Waikato’s west coast will be roped or fenced off to protect the birds – including Port Waikato spit, where the Port Waikato Beachcare group will install a fence around the dotterel’s nesting area.
Dannika Tukua says other known dotterel locations in the Waikato include Kawhia Lagoon and the Aotea Harbour spit.
“These are particularly sensitive sites where we know the dotterels will be nesting – so we really need extra caution from members of the public enjoying recreation in those locations,” she says.
Dotterels demonstrate a certain behaviour when they’re nesting or have chicks, dragging a wing as if it is broken.
“If people see that sort of behaviour from a dotterel it’s a sure sign there are nests, chicks or eggs nearby,” Dannika Tukua says. “The longer the adult birds aware distracted and away from their nests, the longer their eggs are exposed to predators and the sun.”
Nests are difficult to see as they are just a scrape in the sand, and the eggs are the colour of wet sand. Two to three eggs are laid and incubated for around 28 days.
Once the chicks hatch they scurry around on the beach and feed themselves. Their diet is aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates, such as sandhoppers, and they sometimes take small fish and crabs. It takes six to seven weeks before the chicks can fly.
Kawhia resident and amateur ornithologist Michael Lellman started monitoring the dotterels in Kawhia and Aotea in 2005, identifying and keeping an eye on the birds’ nests and supporting DOC’s work to protect the species.
He says while most visitors to the beach adhere to the dotterel habitat warning signs, a major problem is people taking vehicles on to the beach.
Despite the challenges of protecting the birds and their habitat, Michael Lellman says there have been success stories in recent years. He has successfully trapped 500 predators around dotterel nesting sites over the years, and seen a number of chicks fledge.
“It’s an uphill battle, but last season we had seven chicks successfully fledged, and overall we’ve had at least 48 chicks fledge in the last 15 years.”
People who see harm being done to wildlife or habitats can phone 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) to pass on any information.