The shore plover is a bird in need of urgent PR. With just 250 individuals left in the wild on a handful of predator-free islands, it is one of the world’s rarest shore birds, facing issues related to real estate, genetics and a pandemic. Through collaboration and cooperation with tangata whenua, tchakat henu, community groups, and other stakeholders, the DOC-led Shore Plover Recovery Programme aims to turn the tide on this bird’s fate. The ‘Tūturuatu Telegraph’ takes a closer look at what it takes to bring this unique species back from the brink of extinction.
In 2012, The Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust (ICWT) made a big commitment to the national shore plover captive breeding programme, building a huge aviary to increase holding capacity for more pairs and their offspring. It was a game-changer as it seemingly stimulated social interactions and competition, resulting in a higher rate of pairing and breeding. But the ICWT programme was almost ditched eight years earlier following a series of unsuccessful breeding seasons, with Wildlife Manager Anne Richardson writing in her annual report, “If I fail again next season, the shore plover aviary will be turned into a blue duck aviary.”
Lucky for the tūturuatu (and us) that the birds had a better season the following year, nor is Anne the type to give up. A bird breeding guru, she has been instrumental in developing and improving the breeding programmes of many threatened species including the whio / blue duck, orange-fronted parakeet / kākāriki karaka, kakī / black stilt and pāteke /brown teal. So much so, she was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to wildlife conservation in 2020.
Back when the shore plover programme started, ICWT was known as Peacock Springs. It is the legacy of Sir Neil and Lady Diana Isaac of Isaac Construction Limited, specialists in construction services. Shingle had been quarried there for roading projects, and once complete, Sir Neil and Lady Diana embarked on restoring the land to create a sustainable and expansive habitat for flora and fauna.
Anne came on board in 1992 bringing her expertise in aviary construction, and the shore plover captive programme began the following year. Five juveniles and three adults were transferred from Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre, and a further six arrived in 1994. The goal was to establish six breeding pairs to produce juveniles for release onto offshore islands. Success quickly followed, when the first pair formed and produced chicks in 1994, and again in 1996, when the team hand-reared chicks for the first time, from eggs translocated from South East (Rangatira / Hokorereoro) Island.
However, the programme has had its ups and downs over the course of three decades, especially in the early days while it was finding its feet, developing techniques for managing groups of birds so that pairs would form. Initially, ICWT was receiving the leftover birds from Pūkaha that didn’t pair during flock-mating, and the birds seemed indignant about pairing just because they had moved postcodes. Adjustments were made to send more birds earlier in the season which proved successful.
In the seasons that followed, some would produce numerous chicks; in others, pairs would form and produce no eggs – a phenomenon that still happens inexplicably from time to time. In others yet, breeding birds died, and their mates failed to re-pair. Then in 2002, tragedy struck when a human intruder broke in, killing two shore plover as well as Campbell Island teal and kakī. Thankfully, in 2004, two new pairs were established which were highly productive and stable, producing many chicks over the next five years. This past breeding season was the best summer yet, with six pairs producing a record 43 juveniles for the release programme. The experience of the team and their commitment to excellence has ensured that during the last five years, 94–100% of chicks that hatched have survived.
When asked what she loves about shore plover Anne continues on the theme of these diminutive manu having more than their fair share of personality, saying, “they are characters – they may be small but they are certainly stroppy!” She’s directing this more at some of the males, who she says almost give themselves heart attacks with their excess aggression. She does however note that the chicks are very cute, and she should know with her bird breeding experience.
However, breeding birds is only one part of the puzzle in a threatened species recovery programme. Anne is invested in the survival of shore plover and takes the news of any death upon being released into the wild with difficulty. She’s also looking forward to the day more suitable islands are ready to receive shore plover to build new populations.
But for her part, Anne simply loves working with endangered species and thankfully, ICWT has the resources to make a big impact for their conservation. And you can’t argue with the stats – to date, ICWT has produced and / or reared 383 of the total 943 shore plover chicks produced for the national programme since 1993 – a whopping 41% of the chicks bred in the entire captive breeding programme. The Shore Plover Recovery Team extends a huge thanks to Anne, her team members and the Trustees of the Isaac Conservation Wildlife Trust, for their expertise and contribution to shore plover conservation, as well as their continuing, unwavering support.