The endangered New Zealand dotterel was once widespread and common. Now there are only about 1,700 birds left, making dotterels more at risk than some species of kiwi.
NZ dotterels are shorebirds, usually found on sandy beaches and sandspits or feeding on tidal estuaries.
They are mostly pale-grey on the back, with off-white underparts which become flushed with rusty-orange in winter and spring. They have a prominent head, large dark-brown eyes and a strong black bill.
Their camouflage colours make them difficult to see when standing still, but their habit of running quickly and pausing to feed makes them easy to identify. Their 'chip-chip' call is often heard before they are seen.
Where to find them
The NZ dotterel is now confined to two areas.
Southern NZ dotterel (C.o.obscurus)
A population of about 250 birds survives on Stewart Island and nests on mountain tops.
Northern NZ dotterel (C.o.aquilonius)
Found in suitable habitat from Taranaki northwards on the west coast, and from North Cape southwards along the east coast of Northland, Auckland, the Coromandel Peninsula and Bay of Plenty, and as far south as Mahia Peninsula.
Within the Auckland and Northland regions, they nest on beaches including:
- Te Arai Stream
- Poutawa Stream
- Pakari River mouth
- Omaha Spit
- Papakanui Spit
- Beehive Island
- Gulf Harbour
- The Wade River mouth
- Beaches south of Auckland city
- Waiheke and Great Barrier islands
On the Coromandel peninsula their major breeding sites are Opoutere Beach, Matarangi and Pauanui. They also nest on the waste rock embankment at Newmont Waihi Gold’s Martha Mine in Waihi and the Lakes Resort Golf Course near Pauanui.
They can also be found at Onemana, Whangamata, Whiritoa, as well as rocky beaches on the Thames Coast.
Chicks look like bumble bees on legs
Northern NZ Dotterel on the beach in Tawharanui
In late summer, the birds leave their breeding sites and congregate in post-breeding flocks at favoured estuaries for the autumn and early winter. These flocks are socially important; birds which have lost partners during the breeding season can find new ones, and young birds pair for the first time.
Some areas where these flocks occur are at Mangawhai (150 birds), Waipu (30-40 birds), Omaha (70-80 birds), Tapora (40-45 birds), Wade River (20-25 birds), and Whangapoua Estuary on Great Barrier (40-50 birds).
From mid-winter onwards, pairs begin to move back to their nesting territories, which they defend vigorously against other pairs.
Nesting usually begins in September. Two or three well-camouflaged eggs are laid in a scrape in the sand, commonly among shells and driftwood just above the high tide mark.
Because they are so hard to see, nests are sometimes crushed by people, vehicles, horses or stock.
NZ dotterels commonly try to distract intruders near their nest by pretending to be injured – they will even fake a broken wing - all the time leading the intruder further from the nest.
If the eggs are lost to predators, or to natural factors such as storms or big tides, the birds will re-nest up to four times in one season.
Eggs are incubated for about a month and the newly-hatched chicks, looking rather like bumble bees with long legs, are quickly active. The parents guard them, but they must find all their own food. When danger threatens, the chicks run to the nearest cover and freeze, crouching low keeping still until the parents sound the all-clear.
Chicks can usually fly by the age of six or seven weeks. This time may be extended if their feeding is reduced by continual disturbance.
Young dotterels wander the coastline for the first 12–18 months of their lives. Most of them breed for the first time at two years of age.
The impacts of coastal development on habitat, introduced predators and disturbance during breeding seasons are all factors in the drop in numbers.
Tides and storm surges
New Zealand dotterel nest in open sites, typically low-lying sand or gravel banks and sandbars close to beaches and lagoons.
Nests just above high tide mark are easily lost to strong storms and very high spring tides.
Habitat destruction and degradation
New Zealand dotterel often nest close to residential or developed areas. Their breeding habitats are at risk to development and subsequent erosion.
On the beach, their nests are easily destroyed by careless feet, dogs and off-road vehicles.
When adults are disturbed while incubating and leave the nest, the eggs are at risk of overheating. When young chicks are disturbed, they can die from exhaustion as they cannot eat in time, or get to their feeding grounds at the water’s edge.
Cats, stoats, hedgehogs, and rats are the most common predators of eggs and chicks.
Hedgehogs are a major predator as they can move up to 2 kilometres in one night, eating eggs from each nest along the way.
Cats and stoats also kill some adult birds, especially during the breeding season. Cats hunt at night, preying on dotterels that are incubating nests. Unfledged chicks are easy prey for cats.
Dogs are known to kill chicks. Uncontrolled dogs running through nesting areas can crush eggs and disturb adults as they are incubating eggs.
In some areas, other birds are threats. Black-backed gulls and harrier hawks are two common predators.
How are they controlled?
Hedgehogs and stoats are controlled by trapping. Traps are baited alternatively with eggs and dried rabbit meat. During the nesting season, these are checked regularly by rangers and volunteer dotterel minders.
In some areas, live cat traps are used in the area surrounding prime breeding sites. These traps are baited with dried rabbit meat and are checked regularly.
For birds of prey, an effective form of protection is plastic buckets laid on their side and dug into the sand to form small caves that several chicks can hide in.
Dogs should always be controlled when near nesting sites. Many beaches have dog restrictions and owners should be aware of these - respect and obey them.
On the beach, NZ dotterel face problems such as competition with humans for nesting habitat, damage and disturbance of nests, and the effects of predators. Department wardens at key sites inform the public of nesting areas, which are also roped off and sign posted.
DOC staff and volunteers participate in predator control and regularly check traps during the nesting season.
NZ Dotterel Recovery Plan
In 1993, tDOC published a national recovery plan for the NZ dotterel. This plan was reviewed and a new national recovery plan is now in place, covering the period 2004 - 2014.
This plan lists the goals that are required to bring about an increase in the population, and to ensure this population is self-sustaining. Predator control, community involvement and research are key components of this plan.
Management recommendations for the southern NZ dotterel species include research into alternative sustainable predator control options, and an annual population census.
For the northern subspecies, recommendations include establishing management programmes on selected west-coast sites, continue with or expand management units at existing/new sites, undertaking monitoring and a national census, and actively submit against planning applications that will impact on nesting sites with a given criteria.
Community involvement is an important part of the recovery programme, and vital to the long-term conservation of the NZ dotterel. The plan aims to build on community partnerships that have already evolved, with a view towards promotion, coordination and support of at least 15% of the northern subspecies by 2014.
As a result of research undertaken from the first plan, the North Island population is now known to include at least two sub-populations – continuing research into identifying additional sub-populations is recommended, as is further research into predator control.
New Zealand Dotterel Recovery Plan, 2004-2014 (PDF, 215K)
NZ Dotterel Watch Programme
DOC in partnership with Newmont Waihi Gold actively manages New Zealand dotterel on the Coromandel Peninsula.
Read about the NZ Dotterel Watch Programme on the Coromandel Peninsula.
Matakana Island dotterel project
Matakana Island has become the home of an excellent dotterel breeding programme due to its innovative community approach.
Find out more about the Matakana Island dotterel project.
You can help
You can help by following the signs and staying out of nesting areas
People, their pets and vehicles pose a major threat to NZ dotterels.
- Stay out of roped-off areas and keep dogs and vehicles off beaches and sandspits when dotterels are present. Watch out for ‘Birds nesting’ signs.
- Use accessways onto beaches where they are provided.
- If you see a NZ dotterel feigning injury (it may ‘drag’ a wing as if it is broken), it has a nest or chicks nearby. Move away from the area quickly - birds will not return to incubate until you have gone and eggs can overheat or become chilled quickly.
Help protect New Zealand's native birds
- Volunteer with DOC or other groups to control predators and restore bird habitats.
- Don’t throw rubbish into water ways or storm drains.
- Set traps for stoats or rats on your property. Get more information from your local DOC office.
- Put a bell on your cat's collar, feed it well, and keep it indoors at night.
- Plant a range of native plants that provide food year-round to encourage birds into your garden.
When visiting parks and beaches
- Only take dogs to areas that allow them, and keep your dog under control.
- Prevent the spread of pests. Check your gear for mice and rats when visiting pest-free islands.
- Use available access ways to get to the beach. Stay out of fenced-off areas. Leave nesting shore birds alone.
- Get your dog trained in avian awareness, and help save forest birds like kiwi and weka.
- Follow the water care code. Keep water craft speed to 5 knots within 200 metres of the shore.
Learn more about New Zealand dotterel on NZ Birds Online.
Find out how you can help to protect NZ dotterels in your area by contacting your local DOC office.
Around Northland, survival of the New Zealand dotterel is mainly thanks to individuals and community groups.
In the Auckland region you can get involved in the Omaha shorebird Protection Trust.
On the Coromandel peninsula, get involved in the New Zealand Dotterel Watch Programme.