Dotterels defy developers at Snells Beach

Michele has nicknamed a breeding pair of dotterels at Snells Beach, Donald and Miss Dott.

A pair of nesting dotterels has survived hell and high water, thanks to a new perch built by a group of Snells Beach residents, led by seabird photographer Michele MacKenzie.

Michele says the dotterels were stuck between a rock and a hard place when developers built a retaining wall ahead of a king tide, blocking the birds’ access to higher ground.

“We measured where the tide was going to reach and the nest would have been completely underwater,” she says.

She hatched a plan to build a box to raise the nest by half-a-metre and called on the Warkworth Men’s Shed, which helped her build it in a day.

Michele says dotterels decorate their nests with shells and sticks, and the nest had to be meticulously recreated to prevent the birds from abandoning it.

“People think dotterel nests are just a scrape in the ground, but this first-time mum is very houseproud,” she says.

Assisted by biodiversity advisor Chris Bindon, and residents Matthew and Kathy Toon and Mark Dinnis wielding wheelbarrows of sand, Michele rebuilt the nest to the millimetre.

“I was so stressed the night before at the thought of them abandoning the nest that I became ill, but as it turned out, the dotterel mum was straight back on the nest, which was a massive relief.”

With the birds raised above the high tide level, Michele thought they were protected, until she found paw prints and evidence of a scuffle.

She set a trap overnight and, in the morning, found she had caught a snarling, hissing cat.

“It is amazing the birds are still there. The cat was vicious, so it was probably feral,” she says.

Michele’s story caused a sensation online with people from all over New Zealand sharing her pictures of the nest.

“People were asking if Miss Dott was still okay, saying they had been checking the posts every day.

“I wanted to show people that dotterels have lives and personalities. Unfortunately, most people just see signs that say, ‘keep away’.”

Michele produced a report on shorebirds and waterfowl in Snells Beach, which has been placed in a time capsule at Highfield Reserve, to be opened in 2069.

“I’m concerned about what the dotterel numbers will be like by then. It’s time we learned to develop spaces that are good for the birds, as well as us.”

The dotterel chicks at Snells Beach were due to hatch any day as Mahurangi Matters went to press.

Community investment pays dividends

The Mahurangi area is an important breeding area for northern New Zealand dotterel.

Department of Conservation biodiversity ranger Alex Wilson says the status of the birds is currently ‘at risk, recovering’ where they had once been ‘at risk, declining’.

“This is largely thanks to the work put in by community groups throughout the Auckland region,” she says.

Alex says spring and summer are an important time for a lot of shorebirds, not just dotterels.

“There are chicks all over the place at the moment, so it’s important for people on our beaches to keep out of fenced areas and keep their dogs under control.”

The breeding success of dotterels is usually low at unmanaged sites. The main threats are loss of eggs and chicks to predators, disturbance from human activity, loss of nests to big tides, and loss of habitat to coastal development.

Dotterels normally lay three eggs in a clutch, from August or September. Incubation takes around 28 to 30 days, and the fledging period is variable, but averages about six weeks.

Dotterels typically start breeding around two years of age and they can live for around 32 years.

According to nzbirdsonline, protection programmes started in the 1980s and typically include predator control, fencing off nesting areas, appointment of wardens to reduce disturbance and advocacy.

A total of 2075 northern New Zealand dotterels were counted in the 2011 breeding-season census, and about 20 to 25 per cent of the population is managed.

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