Enthusiastic about dotterels

06 Jan 2022

Rare and sometimes spotted nesting amongst the sand dunes of Northland, the Coromandel Peninsula and the odd beach north of Tauranga, the northern New Zealand dotterel used to be a much more common sight throughout the North Island. While the beloved shorebird is classified as a “recovering” species, there only about 2,500 of them around at present. 

Local dotterel enthusiast, Hazel Shepherd, spotted a nest with three eggs resting in a hollow very close to the tide when she headed to Buffalo Beach in Whitianga for her daily swim on 30 November last year. Concerned the tide would wash away the nest, she called the Department of Conservation to alert them. DOC community and biodiversity ranger, Amy Blair, and Tanya Patrick of Thames-Coromandel District Council organised for the eggs and nest to be professionally relocated to the top of sandbags placed higher up the beach to prevent them from being washed away or possibly trampled by beachgoers. “I seem to have been there at the right place and the right time, it was amazingly fortunate,” said Hazel. “Especially considering that the nest was so well hidden and camouflaged among the sand. Dotterels are masters of disguise, it seems their eggs are too.

“I have been keeping an eye on the dotterels in Mercury Bay now for the past six months. I can’t help noticing them flit by, they are just so full of character. They now have become a part of my daily life as I head to the beach each day, I now just go to see them. That’s why I find it a shame that there are still dogs out of control, particularly on Buffalo Beach, despite the rules put in place to prevent harm to the birds.” 

Unfortunately, on 26 December, Hazel went for her daily outing to Buffalo Beach to find that the nest that was moved to sandbags higher up the beach had vanished. Both Hazel and Amy suspect that the disappearance of the eggs was not due to them hatching, but rather that the nest was disturbed. “We often don’t know why eggs disappear, in this case the most likely reason would be that the parents were so busy defending the nest from people and dogs that the eggs overheated in the sun and were then abandoned by the parents, or a predator got them. Nests at the wharf end of Buffalo Beach don’t seem to last long, as hard as the dotties try,” said Amy. “Just too many people and dogs.”

Often when dotterels feel threatened, they will try to draw an intruder away from their nest by leaving. However, this leaves the eggs or chicks in full sun, which may cause them to perish within minutes. They are also vulnerable to rain and other predators such as the black-backed gull in those brief moments of exposure. “We also recommend for cat owners to keep their cats inside at nighttime as they are also considered a threat to the birds,” said Amy. 

Amy said that everyone should always obey the TCDC dog rules of each beach they go to in order to protect the dotterels and keep them in the recovering species category rather than the “endangered”, or worse, “extinct” categories. “The rules can differ from beach to beach and dog owners should know the rules before they go,” said Amy. “People often say ‘my dog doesn’t chase birds’, but even a four-legged fluffy animal walking near a nest is very upsetting for dotterels and not to mention many other nesting birds.” 

DOC works closely with TCDC to fence off dotterel nests and install warning signage. However, DOC and TCDC have found that signage does not work alone to enforce the protective barriers and fines can accordingly be imposed if dog owners and other beachgoers break the rules in force at each beach. Dog owners who carry on disobeying the rules could face a hefty fine of up to $800 and if a dog causes the death of or injury to a protected bird, the owner is liable for conviction and imprisonment for up to 12 months, or a fine of up to $20,000.

Due to the Coromandel Peninsula being a holiday hotspot, Hazel is rightly worried about how the crowds impact the dotterels on the beaches. “I always respect these little birds’ space and although I like to check on them, I never get too close,” she said. “Many people unintentionally disturb them.”

Often nesting near the mouths of streams such as the Taputapuatea Stream (Mother Brown’s Creek) at Buffalo Beach, a popular spot for families, chicks will run away and hide when they feel in danger, causing them to die from heat exposure, predators or exhaustion because they cannot feed. “We ask the public to give them plenty of space and if you come across a dotterel making a lot of noise or acting injured, to quickly and calmly leave the area,” said Amy.

Hazel said she hopes for everybody on the beach to stay vigilant and responsible around the dotterel nesting sites this summer. “So that everyone can enjoy seeing the little birds as much as I do,” she said.

Pictured: Dotterel enthusiast, Hazel Shepherd of Whitianga.