Southern New Zealand dotterels dodging dangers

Department of Conservation —  13/02/2023

By Daniel Cocker, Biodiversity Ranger

Did you know that the critically endangered Southern New Zealand dotterel is only found on Rakiura/Stewart Island? And that they nest in some of the most exposed parts of the country?

Find out more about these incredible birds you’ve probably never heard of…

There are estimated to be less than 145 Southern NZ dotterels left in the world. Photo: Sasha Roselli

Meet our Southern New Zealand dotterels.

These wee birds are incredibly hearty and during nesting they put up with intense winds, rain, hail and even snow on the mountain tops of Rakiura. Despite the wind, there are a few perks for this choice of nesting site – lying beneath the breathtaking colours of the Aurora Australis and the majestic southern night sky.

These birds are very different to the more common Northern New Zealand dotterels found around North Island coastlines. Southern dotterels are hearty and breed on mountain tops unlike there Northern cousins which breed on beaches. Southern birds feed at beaches and estuaries outside of the breeding season. Southern birds are also larger, have darker colouring and have different social behaviours.

New Zealand dotterel population counts:

Southern NZ dotterel population = <145
Northern NZ dotterel population = >2,500

As of April 2022, the official Southern dotterel population was estimated at only 144 individuals. However, the population is expected to have declined by as much as 15-30% after what has been a disappointing breeding season due to high numbers of feral cats as a result of the rat plague on the island last year. Despite dotterel team trapping efforts, we were unable to keep up with the high numbers of feral cats.

Video: Daniel Cocker

The video was taken on Table Hill (what most people commonly known as Northern Tin Range or Ka Puketuroto in Māori) on Rakiura. This bird in the video is MRG (believed to be a female). MRG is sitting on 3 eggs. Her partner is MGB. Unfortunately, this nest along with most of our other nests failed this season. Likely due to a range of reasons including feral cat predation, rats, white-tailed deer and/or infertility.

Most nests appear to have failed and several adult birds were killed by feral cats. It is assumed that there were many more dead birds killed by cats than what were found.

Below are two photos of a dotterel GMGY – affectionately known as Jasmine. Unfortunately Jasmine was last seen alive at Table Hill on the 22nd of December 2022 but was found dead on the 24th of January and had been killed by a feral cat.

The next population census is due to be undertaken in late April when tides are most ideal for counting the birds. We’ll keep you updated.

Learn more on DOC’s website about the New Zealand dotterel/tūturiwhatu.

4 responses to Southern New Zealand dotterels dodging dangers

    Trevor Stratton 06/03/2023 at 9:44 pm

    All cats need to be eliminated from Aotearoa. I don’t care if a cat is someone’s precious pet, they need to go. The dotterel and other threatened species is what matters – cats serve no purpose be it in suburbia or in the ‘wild’.

    Gordon Kuggeleijn 06/03/2023 at 5:33 pm

    Seems to me we need cullers to target cats as well as deer. I am sure their dogs can do both, when trained to do that. Yes, we messed up the balance in places. We can fix it, if we try. Sorry about the feral cats, they have to go.

    Pamela Pope 13/02/2023 at 5:44 pm

    So very sad. Humans are a bad look, we mess up the balance every where we go.


      In my opinion until the govt bring in registration and de sexing of cats, numbers of feral cats will continue to increase. We live between Queenstown and Arrowtown and have trapped and killed over 40 cats in the last eight years.