New Zealand dotterel (Charadrius obscurus)

Also known as: red-breasted dotterel, red-breasted plover
GenusCharadrius (1)
SizeSize: 25 cm (2)
Weight130 - 170 g (3)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1).

The New Zealand dotterel is the largest bird of its genus, recognised by its predominantly grey-brown upperparts and off-white underparts, which becomes flushed with rusty-orange during the breeding season (3) (4). Males can be distinguished from females by having a slightly redder breast for much of the year. The dark feathers of the back have paler edges, giving a scaled appearance, and a distinctive brown line extends in front and behind the dark brown eyes (3) (4). This cryptic colouration camouflages the New Zealand dotterel against the sand, shells and dune vegetation of its environment. Thus, its distinctive ‘chip-chip’ call can often be heard before the bird is seen (3) (4).

Endemic to New Zealand, this bird is divided into two subspecies with distinct ranges. The southern New Zealand dotterel (C. o. obscurus) is restricted when breeding to Stewart Island, but formerly also inhabited the South Island (4). The remaining population on Stewart Island has declined by as much as 80 percent in the last 40 years. The population is, however, thought to be currently increasing, having gone from just 62 birds in 1991 to 1992 to around 250 in 2005 (4) (5). The northern New Zealand dotterel (C. o. aquilonius) breeds at the northern end of the North Island, with a total population of 1,700 estimated in 2004 (4) (5).

Breeding habitat includes wide ocean beaches, estuaries and harbours with tidal mudflats on the North Island, and inland hilltops and open bog or tussock-grasslands on Stewart Island (4).

From mid-winter onwards pairs begin to move to their nesting territories, which are fiercely defended against other pairs, with nesting beginning in September and carrying through to the end of February (2) (3). Up to three well-camouflaged eggs are laid in a scrape in the sand (3), which are then incubated by both the male and female for around 30 days (2). The parents will commonly try to distract potential predators away from the nest by pretending to be injured, but if the eggs are lost, the birds will re-nest, two or three times if necessary (2) (3). Chicks are quite active soon after hatching and can fly at six to seven weeks (3). Young proceed to stay close to their natal site for the first 12 to 18 months of their lives, but subsequently disperse quite widely, and begin breeding at two years (2) (3). The oldest recorded bird lived to 31 years of age (4).

In late February, the birds leave their breeding sites to congregate in flocks at estuaries for the autumn and early winter (2) (3). These flocks, which can number up to 150 birds, allow birds that have lost partners during the breeding season to find new ones and young birds to pair for the first time (3).

The New Zealand dotterel feeds on terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates, although small fish, crabs and sandhoppers are also sometimes taken (6).

Extinction of the New Zealand dotterel on the South Island was primarily caused by introduced predators (4), with the principle predators being hedgehogs, stoats, weasels, gulls, hawks, rats, cats and dogs (2). Feral cats and rats caused a rapid decline on Stewart Island (4) (5), and predation remains the greatest threat on the North Island (4). Habitat loss and human disturbance during breeding have also had a dramatic impact on populations and continue to pose serious threats (3). In particular, housing, industrial and tourism developments on the North Island, combined with encroachment of dune-stabilising weeds, have reduced habitat (4). Growing recreational use of the coastline is also set to increasingly impact on breeding, roosting and feeding habitats (5). Indeed, four-wheel drive vehicles, picnickers and dogs can trample and disturb nests or draw defensive adults away from incubating their eggs (2). Additionally, storms and very high tides can destroy nests (4) (6), and very few young survive to fledging age (2).

In 1993, the New Zealand Government’s Department of Conservation published a national recovery plan for the New Zealand dotterel, and management initiatives were implemented (3). On the North Island, trapping of potential predators, gull control, and the implementation of signs and wardens to reduce human disturbance have all helped improve breeding success (4). Control of cats and rodents in four important breeding sites on Stewart Island has also helped increase survival in southern New Zealand dotterel populations, which thankfully appear to be growing (4) (5). Captive breeding trials with the more abundant northern New Zealand dotterel have been undertaken, partially as an experiment to see if individuals breed well, in case such a programme should be needed in the future to bolster the low numbers of wild southern New Zealand dotterels. Chicks have been raised successfully in these trials, highlighting captive breeding as a viable means of preserving the survival of the species should such methods ever be needed (4).

For more information on the New Zealand dotterel see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2011)