As visitor numbers to Northland beaches increase with the warmer months, the Department of Conservation (DOC) asks you look out for Wildlife Refuge and Nesting Shorebird signs before you walk along the beach.
Alison McDonald, DOC Whangarei Shorebird Warden says, “Many shorebirds are now beginning the precarious task of nesting and raising chicks. These birds contend with not only predation from introduced pests, but also the very significant threat posed by beach users and their dogs.”
“Please adhere to the restrictions in place - dog owners will usually not have to go far to find suitable exercise areas. If in doubt, avoid letting dogs off the lead in areas where there is any indication of nesting birds or chicks and walk them below the high water mark.” Alison says.
“There is a lot of foot traffic over the summer months and so it is vital for beach users in general to stick to access paths and stay out of fenced off nesting zones. Above all, be vigilant – DOC has limited resources and only a tiny proportion of our breeding beaches can be monitored and fenced over the summer season.”
How beach goers and dogs can be a threat to shorebirds
Many people are unaware of the vulnerability of a shorebird nest and the threat they can unwittingly pose, simply by walking above the high tide line. While nest habitat varies slightly depending on the species most are difficult to spot and usually consist of little more than a scrape in the sand – large enough to accommodate 1-3 eggs and easy enough to stand on if you’re not careful.
A few precious reserves and refuges around our coastlines do not allow dogs within their boundaries but many birds breeding outside these areas still require our protection. In this case, the onus is on dog walkers to make sure they are vigilant about where they exercise their dogs. Even their presence within 200 metres of a nest can cause distress. Any perceived threat would usually result in the parent leaving incubation duties to ‘attack’ or lure away the intruders. Prolonged periods of stress can result in nest abandonment or death of the developing chicks due to eggs being exposed to the elements.
Signs you have entered a bird nesting area
Parents may display signs of a ‘broken wing’ and attempt to lure intruders away from the nest. This display is usually accompanied by loud ‘alarm’ calls. Some species will ‘dive-bomb’ intruders, flying low over their heads. Birds will become increasingly agitated and vocal. Retreat from the area until the birds stop reacting, watching carefully where you step.
What does all this mean for our native shorebirds?
For many the result is a poor reproduction rate and, over time, this can result in population numbers dropping dangerously low.
In fact, one of these species currently ranks as our most endangered bird: the New Zealand fairy tern (Sterna nereis davisae). Evidence suggests fairy terns were once found all around the New Zealand coastlines but over the year’s habitat restriction, predation and increased human disturbance have taken their toll. By 1950, fairy terns could only be found in the Northland region and in 1983, the population hit its lowest ebb when just three breeding pairs remained.
The recovery of this small but determined bird has been slow and fraught with difficulties as, unlike many of our endangered native species, the fairy tern cannot be raised in captivity or translocated to the safety of an island sanctuary. After nearly thirty years of intensive management the current population still sits precariously at 40 birds.
Without our help and an increased awareness, many of our native shorebirds may be heading down the same path as our fairy tern. Shorebirds require a unique environment in which to raise and feed their young and we must learn to adapt our behaviour accordingly or risk the permanent loss of these precious species forever.