Saving the critically threatened southern New Zealand dotterel

Rachel Hufton of Illuminate Ecology, reports following a cannon netting bird banding trip at Awarua Bay, Invercargill, an important wintering site for the South Island New Zealand dotterel. A Nationally Critical Threatened Species of conservation concern.

South Island Dotterel

above: South Island dotterel with South Island pied oystercatcher and a bar-tailed godwit at high tide roost site, Awarua Bay, Invercargill

The New Zealand dotterel is an endemic shorebird which was once widespread throughout NZ until the late 19th Century. Since then it has seriously declined in range and numbers and is now found in two distinct breeding populations. The two sub-species were first recognised in 1994; the North Island dotterel Charadrius obscurus aquilonius (Nationally Vulnerable) and the South Island Dotterel Charadrius obscurus obscurus (Nationally Critical).

The northern dotterel is more numerous, found on or near to the coast (mainly on the shores of the Eastern North Island). The southern dotterel was widespread but now only breeds on Stewart Island wintering here at the coast or at Awarua Bay in Invercargill (a popular wintering site for shorebirds) feeding on intertidal mudflats. It is generally a larger bird, with a heavier build than the northern dotterel and tends to be darker in colouration. Biometric measurements for bird (e.g. mid-toe) and egg are also different.

South Island Dotterel


South Island Dotterel

above: South Island dotterel Awarau Bay in breeding plumage and returning to basic plumage – Photography credit for both above Glenda Rees

The breeding habitat of the New Zealand dotterel is the most defining difference between the two sub-species. The North Island dotterel nests within an impression on beaches where as the South Island dotterel is more terrestrial nesting in the herb rich hills of Stewart Island, above the tree-line.

The population of South Island dotterel sub-species was at its lowest 25 years ago at 62 birds. Since then, considerable efforts targeting pest control have increased the population. The current population is now around 153 individuals. This is a decline from previous recovered population of 290 in 2009 as a result of a targeted cat (feral) control regime. This was however no longer solely effective and the population fell to 126 birds in 2016. The population appears to fluctuate and a slight increase is to be treated with caution as these birds are potentially at risk of extinction, especially in relation to further threats now identified by the NZ Dept. of Conservation (DOC) (highlighted below).

DOC Trail cameras installed at nest sites on Stewart Island have identified further threats to this critically vulnerable species such as the Australasian harrier, spur-wing plover and white-tailed deer, which have been observed taking eggs from nest sites. Accumulative threats have also resulted in a sex ratio imbalance, as males have been found to incubate eggs at night and therefore more susceptible to predation.

In light of historical population trends, DOC are now actively developing further conservation action planning for the South Island sub-species. This forms a ramp up on invasive predator control including new toxin targeted at cats, rat control, variety of kill traps and control of other predator species such as spur-winged plover. There will be active nest surveillance, cameras installed and field monitoring rangers. Further birds will also be colour banded to help monitor adult survival, abundance, site fidelity and to screen for disease such as avian malaria.

This work has started, and on 6 June 2017 additional South Island dotterels were captured at one of their wintering sites, Awarua Bay, Invercargill by a OSNZ cannon netting team working alongside DOC Invercargill. Below shows the cannon netting site set up where birds roost during high tide.

South Island Dotterel Cannon netting

above: Cannon netting site at Awarua Bay, Invercargill at low tide.

All birds (adults and juveniles) were colour banded, processed and screened to help provide a better understanding, aid monitoring and guide conservation management of this species. Colour bands provide a unique identification code and allow birds to be identified and monitored more easily in the field (*no birds were injured or harmed during cannon netting).

South Island Dotterel

above: Adult South Island dotterel with unique colour band identification. Note: wide bill, large eye and pale legs. High tide roost site in the background with bird observation optics

This article highlights the importance of species population monitoring to guide effective conservation management. With concentrated efforts in place from a broad alliance of conservationists, there is hope of saving this endemic New Zealand shorebird for future generations.

Images by Rachel Hufton and where stated Glenda Rees.

Carter, K (2017). Saving the Southern New Zealand Dotterel. Department of Conservation. Stewart Island. Presentation given at the OSNZ Conference Te Anau, June 2017.

Dowding, J, E (1994). Morphometrics and Ecology of the New Zealand Dotterel Charadrius obscurus with a description of a new sub-species. Notornis. Vol 1. Part 4.

“The Boss” and Edwin – a tale of two kea in Mt Aspiring National Park

above: "The Boss" of three kea resident near Aspiring Hut in the West Matukituki valley, Mt Aspiring National Park Mar 2017 ~  photo southern light
above: “The Boss” of three kea resident near Aspiring Hut in the West Matukituki valley, Mt Aspiring National Park Mar 2017 ~  photo southern light

A few weeks ago I was involved in the capture and subsequent banding of a young kea. Probably a male, but that is not a certainty with any youngster.

At the time while recording the banding with a camera, I was struck on how he took being held in his stride, and when relaxed started looking about the hut we were in, sizing it up with what seemed like a daunting intelligence.

The plastic band was coloured green and printed on this bling was the character “E” in white. So on the books he became “white E on green”. Since then he’s become quite my friend so I’ve named him Edwin. Time and again ‘tho he’s tried as one of a party of three, to enter the hut once more, perhaps feigning friendship to do so!

He showed his true colours for my camera on a rainy Sat. recently when three experienced trampers called by on their way out of the valley…

Edwin again
Edwin somewhat precociously approaches a tramper, and at this point he’s like a kid in a candy store challenged by many choices that engage his curiosity
Kea boss edwin 3
The game continues as the tramper moves off the deck
Edwin again 2
It’s game on – he knows all about hands (that held him gently and firmly), but these ones are different, and he’s not afraid to do a “beak” test on the consistency and texture
Kea boss edwin 2
Since the owner of the hand is well aware Edwin could draw blood, to Edwin’s satisfaction a wet boot and assisting lace is offered
Edwin again follows
As the trampers depart, perhaps fearful of their boot’s being eaten, Edwin decides to follow
Kea boss edwin 4
But Edwin returned! I think he knew his value as a “bad hair day” model! Either way he is an endearing character

So that’s an insight into Edwin’s personality, but what of the squadron of like minded kea he is a player in?

As it turns out the other two birds ignore him until his (superior) intelligence manifesting as curiosity finds him poking his nose into anything new.

Suddenly the others sit up and take notice and if the subject of his attention is deemed worthy, a much older kea brushes Edwin aside and takes ownership of the situation. Edwin is smart enough to back off from the aged and experienced beak of the bird I now call “the boss”. Anyway he (Edwin) has a greater purpose, and is soon off to the next phenomena demanding his attention.

New Zealand’s alpine parrot the kea, has the beak and has the brain, but that’s not enough

My favourite kea photo ~ why? I like the smug and comfortable look of confidence and happiness. Yes, kea can both recognise emotions and exhibit them ~ all photos by Southern Light
NZ juvenile kea
My favourite kea photo ~ why? I like the smug and comfortable look of confidence and happiness. Yes, kea can both recognise emotions and exhibit them ~ all photos by Southern Light

New Zealand’s alpine parrot cuts right across the aloofness of a landscape and weather that takes no prisoners, greeting us with life and curiosity that never fails to get us smiling; a feathered and garrulous court jester of our mountains.

The birds decline in numbers to under 5000 has been due to an historic century-long bounty, 120,000 having been paid out on by successive governments wanting to help the farming economy, and in more later years by them eating lead headed nails on high country shearing sheds and hut roofs, and being predated on by ever increasing numbers of stoats and other vermin.

Soon they’ll be extinct unless we keep up with widespread large-scale pest control, backed by a commitment to evolving and sound science, flavoured by innovation.

This post is a brief look at some of the current methodologies, and serendipitously while preparing it a friend in the US, Don Watson [check out his recent post on Owl Baiting by unscrupulous bird photographers], a supporter of this site, just sent this message on FaceBook:

Watched a very interesting documentary about kea’s and Caledonian crows. It was called “Beak and Brain, genius birds from down under”. Very interesting, the research going on and the problems that stoats and predators are bringing to the kea. The 1 hr. Video was on Netflix. Showed the predator trapping and a kea cave that was photographed with a stoat killing the female and her 2 chicks. Stuff that you deal with every day at Mt. Aspiring, but really interesting to see some of what you do there.

A link to the movie appears below. Meanwhile here are a few photos taken very recently in Mt Aspiring National Park, of highly skilled conservationists doing their job…

NZ kea being banded
This is one way to catch a NZ kea – something bright and interesting alongside a net wielded by a skilled person
NZ kea being banded
In the net! The previous “bait” was changed to something that would be less of a hassle in the net with the bird, in this case a tube of toothpaste as it’d be hard for the bird to fly off with it should the netting fail
NZ kea being banded
Held firmly in gentle hands our new friend amazes me as he calmly looks about with a distinct air of intelligence! At this point being a juvenile [yellow areas about the beak/eyes] gender is not known.
NZ kea being banded
Measurements are taken carefully for the future
NZ kea being banded
Bands being attached to both legs to aid future identification. They can live for up to 30 years. Check out those claws!
NZ kea being banded
Non plussed post release and in no hurry to depart, the new “bling” is examined and pecked at
NZ kea being tracked
The next stage in saving the kea is to catch females and attach radio collars. Then track them to their nests and install video cameras and/or surround the nest with traps. The kea on the ground is sadly no longer alive, but lives on to attract others for banding

Beak & Brain: Genius Birds From Down Under | Netflix

Whoever came up with the term “bird brain” never met these feathered thinkers, who use their claws and beaks to solve puzzles, make tools and more.

Source: Beak & Brain: Genius Birds From Down Under | Netflix

Thanks also to FMC ~ Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand for their recent article inspiring, often via choice of words, me to share my experiences 

NZ on Screen also has an excellent video >>

Lastly should you wish to help, then please donate to the Kea Conservation Trust >>

Kea glenfoyle

Bonding with a bird of the night ~ the ruru (morepork) is associated with the spirit world of the Māori…

above: an injured ruru / morepork found recently mid Feb. 2017 near Aspiring Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park
morepork / ruru
above: an injured ruru / morepork found recently mid Feb. 2017 near Aspiring Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park

A few weeks ago while sitting with one of my friendly companion kea outside Aspiring Hut enjoying the balmy evening with a cuppa and many moths, a dark shadow appeared about a meter off the ground winging towards my face. We all three of us shared a mutual silence while I processed how come another kea could arrive in such a non typical silence.

Kea hide n seek
One of my regular companion kea playing hide and seek

At the last second it swooped upwards and landed on the guttering above me, again in total silence, by which time I decided it might be a young kea as it seemed smaller, however a little light forth-coming from my torch revealed otherwise ‘tho, and I found myself being stared unblinkingly at by the large yellow eyes of a ruru (morepork).

While processing this new development in my nightly meditation, another shadow silently winged past, and was soon joined by my new unruffled friend, both more interested in the moth hatch I realised. My kea looked on non plussed as I plumbed the darker depths of the nearby beech forest, hoping for another sighting, as in Maori mythology, ruru are considered to be wise and represent protection or a warning, and are linked with tapu (spiritual restriction), guardianship, forewarning, grief and awareness.

There is certainly something other-worldly about ruru, New Zealand’s native owl, and their mournful cry, echoed by its name, and grief as mentioned above was to follow!

They also have soft fringes on the ends of their feathers which makes them the original stealth predator, flying silently through the forest. They also have forward-facing eyes, giving them binocular vision – perfect for swooping on prey. While this maybe limiting as to surrounding views they can swivel their neck through almost 270 degrees…

…which was quite unsettling when a few weeks later I gently stalked and captured an injured one, in the same vicinity as the hut [thanks to Will Jarvis for the heads-up and assistance]. The deed was done by gently wrapping the bird in the darkness of a soft towel, through which I immediately felt it’s talons – something I’d forgotten to factor in. However thankfully they simply gripped my hands with the same gentleness.

More pork injured
Dazed and alone with a broken wing – note the look almost backwards, such is the flexibility of the neck

A new journey then began as I transferred the patient into an appropriate cardboard box, and arranged transport [thanks Flo, for dropping all and driving up poste haste out of work hours on a Fri.] from the Dept. of Conservation in Wanaka , to a local vet.

During this time I think we developed a quiet bond as he settled, realising perhaps that safety was at hand. We made eye contact frequently, through various air holes in the box as he took quite an interest in transport arrangements. In between times he’d sit and rest, and through it all I thankfully could not detect any sense of shock or distress [see above header photo]. Just lots of curiosity…

The big yellow eyes were probably an inspiration to Maori carvers and in Maori haka and performances, and now I can see why. They’re compelling!

But sadly we were too late: The vet found the injury to the wing to be old and infected, and by the following evening despite antibiotics etc. my new ruru friend had passed on to the other realms alluded to above.

From various Fact Sheets on the Internet:

Stealthy fliers
Moreporks have soft fringes on the edge of their feathers, so they can fly almost silently and not alert potential prey. This also allows moreporks to hear the movements of their prey as they approach, rather than the noise of their own wings. They have acute hearing and their large eyes are very sensitive to light.

Able hunters
A morepork uses its sharp talons to catch or stun its prey, which it carries in its bill.

Moreporks nest in tree hollows, in clumps of epiphytes (perching plants), or in cavities among rocks and roots. The female lays up to three white eggs, usually between October and November, which she incubates for 20 to 30 days. During this time she rarely hunts, and the male brings food to her. Once the chicks hatch she stays mainly on the nest until the young owls are fully feathered. They can fly at about 35 days.

Black petrels (Taiko) return to Great Barrier Island (Aotea) natal colony ~ Rachel Hufton, Ecologist reports…

above: A male black petrel with attendant very strong bill and scratchy nails ~ photo Rachel Hufton
Male Black Petrel
above: A male black petrel with attendant very strong bill and scratchy nails ~ photo Rachel Hufton

Mt   Hobson   (Hirakimata) on Great  Barrier Island  at   621m,   is home to the largest breeding colony of black   petrel   (Taiko)   Procellaria  parkinsoni.

The  geologically and ecologically captivating slopes of Mt Hobson comprise semi-mature forest with remnants of ancient and precious  conifer forest.  The woodland assemblage combines endemics such as totara, rimu, kirks pine, and kauri. Diurnally the mountain is audibly dominated by the prehistoric raucous call of kaka, coupled with contrasting melodic tones of the grey warbler.

As dusk turns to night the summit of Mt  Hobson […] Read the whole article here >>