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February 2019 Issue

The northern subspecies of the NZ dotterel is adapting to a changed environment

They are the roadrunner of New Zealand’s avifauna: small birds that scurry, legs moving comically fast. An abrupt halt, an alert glance around, and then they’re off again, running over the beach like a cartoon character. Although classified as ‘threatened’, the northern subspecies (Charadrius obscurus aquilonius) is commonly seen on the beaches of Northland, Auckland, the Bay of Plenty and parts of the East Cape. It’s less common in other parts of the North Island, but is occasionally seen.

The New Zealand dotterel, also known as the red-breasted plover or tuturiwhatu, is a plump bird with a stout bill and long legs. Males have a distinctive brown-red plumage on the chest. The birds nest just above the high-tide mark, and are often heard before being seen. Ornithologist Paul Schofield describes their call accurately as ‘a penetrating, reedy cherp, or cher-cherp.’

While vehicles on beaches, introduced pests and careless humans have all taken their toll on the endemic birds, they seem to be adapting. In many places, their nesting areas are now fenced off to avoid accidental damage to nests or chicks, and pest control is making a difference too.

Recently, I had the pleasure of photographing the critically endangered southern subspecies (Charadrius obscurus obscurus) on the bleak, peaty mountain sides of Rakiura’s Tin Range, the only place where they still breed. Within 10 days, I was watching the northern subspecies at the white sands of Tawharanui Peninsula beside a lapping blue sea, with red-bloomed pohutukawa overhead. The habitats could hardly have been more different.

Here are five places to see the northern subspecies.

1 Mimiwhangata Coastal Park, Northland
Mimiwhangata is a delightful sandy bay, fringed by rocky headlands. It has a campground, lodge and
walking tracks, plus opportunities to see dotterels and other native birds.

2 Tawharanui Regional Park, Auckland
Tawharanui is one of Auckland’s best regional parks. Regenerating forests, secluded shores, and open farmland make it an interesting place to walk, with tracks ranging from five minutes to a full day. Dotterels nest around the shoreline, and are doing well thanks to pest control and a predator-proof fence.

3 Miranda, Firth of Thames
Miranda is world-famous for its shorebirds, where dozens of species congregate on the rich tidal mudflats. There’s a visitor centre with accommodation and lots of excellent information.

4 Whangamata Beach, Coromandel Peninsula
New Zealand dotterels breed at Whangamata, one of the Coromandel’s most popular holiday hotspots.

5 Whakatane River estuary, Bay of Plenty
This accessible estuary is another place where dotterels live, and pest control efforts by locals have helped to buoy-up breeding success of the birds.

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