When I go down to the river I can see flocks of tūturiwhatu on the tidal estuary, resting on sandy beaches or looking for food on the mudflats. They are small, sandy coloured shorebirds with greyish wings, head and neck band, off-white bodies, with an orange blush on their chests. They have dark brown eyes, a black bill and can live for thirty years.
When they stop moving it is hard to see them as they blend into the sand and stones. They like to sprint along the sand then pause to feed and that is when you will see them. If they have a nest or young nearby they will try to distract you by running in front of you. They watch you to see if you will follow them.
They make a scraping in the sand and lay two or three speckled eggs, which are hard to spot. Beach goers can step on them without noticing and destroy them. The chicks are guarded by the parents but must find their own food. They look like sandy pompoms on long legs.
When looking for food amongst seaweed and debri left by the high tide, a dotterel stops and shakes one foot along the surface of the sand hoping to flush out sandhoppers and other small insects. It quickly snaps up anything that moves then takes a few steps and repeats the foot shaking activity.
They were once widespread but it is estimated that there are less than 2000 birds left. Introduced pests like rats, cats, possums, stoats and weasels are the main ground predators but they are also attacked from above by gulls and hawks. With nests on the ground they are easy targets. Dogs and people, horses, cars and bikes, climate change bringing king tides and storms at the wrong time can also destroy their habitat.
New Zealand dotterels are also known as New Zealand plovers or red-breasted dotterels.
There are 2 endemic dotterel species in New Zealand. The South Island dotterel nests above the treeline only on Stewart Island. In 2015 less than 200 birds survive.
As well there are several other dotterel/plover species seen in New Zealand.
A recent arrival in New Zealand is the Australian black-fronted dotterel. They were first seen in the Hawke’s Bay in 1954 and the first nest spotted there in 1962. Its status is native.