As holidaymakers make their way to Far North beaches, one native shorebird species' population hangs in the balance.
The endangered tūturiwhatu/New Zealand dotterel can only be found in New Zealand and lives typically on or near the coast around much of the North Island.
The bird's population has been on a steep decline in recent years, with the impacts of coastal development, habitat-introduced predators and disturbance during breeding seasons all contributing to the drop in numbers.
Other challenges- faced by all seabirds- include the use of bikes on beaches, erosion, horses, king tides, sea-level rises and storms.
Shorebird advocate and conservationist Michele Mackenzie called the dotterels' reality "grim" and described the small endemic shorebirds as "rarer than kiwi".
She said at the last accurate count in 2011, the bird's population was only 2075.
According to the Department of Conservation records, around 2500 birds remained, although no recent data was held on dotterel population trends across Te Tai Tokerau.
Bush Bay Action trustee Brad Windust said even though DoC had elevated the dotterels' status to At Risk – Recovering, it did not mean the species was safe.
He said the data was only representative of pockets of recovery, not the entire population.
"The data is actually reflective of great conservation work and monitoring in very specific and limited areas.
"But dotterels used to live on all beaches, so we need to make it safe for them everywhere again."
Confusing bylaws and challenges enforcing them, as well as irresponsible dog ownership, were also cited as core issues by dog advocates and conservationists alike.
According to FNDC, the council had consulted "extensively and widely" to inform the most recent Dog Management Bylaw review in 2018.
Local dog and bird advocates disagreed, however, saying the bylaw review was poorly-handled and did not adequately protect wildlife.
Jodie Rogers of Taupo Bay Land and Coastal Group (TBLCG) said the relaxed dog bylaws were difficult to understand, with certain rules applying to different areas of the beach.
Following the introduction of the new bylaws, dogs are now allowed on the majority of the beach at Taupo Bay and off-lead most of the time, with the exception of a six-week summer period where leashes are required from 10am to 5pm.
Owners are required to keep dogs under control and carry a leash at all other times.
According to TBLCG, at least one adult dotterel has already been lost this breeding season.
Despite signage and the prohibition of dogs on the south end of Taupo Bay beach near the nesting grounds, the bird's body was found on the nearby reserve.
Rogers said DoC was taking the matter seriously and had provided suggestions to improve signage, as well as barriers to decrease easy access of animals into the sanctuary.
"The beach is the birds' habitat and dotterels are found all the way along, not just at the sanctuary.
"If dogs keep chasing them off the nest, the eggs won't be viable and the birds will eventually not return.
"People just need to know that dogs chasing birds is not okay."
According to Windust, shorebirds like dotterels, oystercatchers and gulls were constantly harassed- either by people and dogs by day or cats by night.
He said it was an ongoing battle to protect their nests and as a dog owner, he could appreciate how hard it could be to keep dogs on a leash while at the beach.
"Again and again, I see people let dogs off their leads as soon as they think there's no one around. That's why DoC has a blanket rule of no dogs on DoC land."
Mackenzie, also a cat and dog lover, agreed keeping the birds safe was difficult due to various environmental factors.
"These birds simply have absolutely no chance against cats and dogs," she said.
"When dogs are taken away, birds are much more settled, even with increases in people.
"Birds recognise dogs as a predator even if on a lead in the distance."
Mackenzie acknowledged once people became more aware of how vulnerable and special dotterels were, the majority did the right thing.
"I'd say 70 per cent of dog owners are responsible, while the other 30 per cent completely ignore the rules and can become extremely aggressive people when confronted," Mackenzie said.
According to a DoC spokesperson, dog owners could help by being vigilant in controlling their dogs while on beaches where wildlife was generally always present.
"Dotterels can be hard to see at first so take the time to scan the beach," the spokesperson said.
"The tendency is to relax and it only takes a moment for dogs to travel a considerable distance and pose a potential threat to wildlife which can be disturbed, injured or killed."
Leonie Exel, coordinator of dog advocacy group BOI Watchdogs, said education and quick action was needed to address the issue.
"Responsible dog owners get overregulated and overcharged for the actions of irresponsible dog owners.
"In terms of education on the rules in specific areas, leaflets co-designed by dog and bird people, in particular areas, would go a long way."
The call to protect dotterels on Northland beaches comes amid a Far North District Council statement reminding dog owners to ensure their pets are well-controlled at beaches and other popular destinations during the holiday period.
FNDC announced Animal Management Officers (AMOs) would be on duty through the holiday period responding to urgent complaints about dogs and would conduct random checks at popular holiday destinations.
According to the statement, signs detailing the dog-control laws were posted at reserves and most beaches and visitors to the district must ensure they were familiar with dog access rules for the beaches.
They were also urged to be careful where there were kiwi populations, with many parts of the Far North having high kiwi habitats with strict dog control regulations.
FNDC currently relies on the public to report offences to identify irresponsible dog owners and to allow AMOs to have conversations with people about the rules.
In 2018 and 2019, a programme funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) employed kaitiaki rangers and youth volunteers to patrol some of the Far North's most popular destinations to provide friendly reminders to respect and protect the local environment.
According to an FNDC spokesperson, the programme's funding was temporary and therefore unavailable this year.
The spokesperson said the council was working closely with hapū and marae to source alternative funding to continue the programme.
Windust, Rogers, Exel and Mackenzie all agreed an effective bylaw should be evidence-driven legislation, specific to each particular area.
Exel said a solution was urgently needed so that Northland was a place people could have their families, including their pets, while also cherishing and protecting native wildlife.
"The closer towards collaboration we can move, the better".
"When you come together and discuss things and people understand the situation, you get somewhere," he said.
Conservation Minister Kiri Allan recently announced plans for a review of the Wildlife Act, which is more than 60 years old.
She said she hoped its review would mean it could do its job of protecting all endangered species.
According to FNDC, the next review of the Dog Control Bylaw is due in 2028.
Never allow your dog to chase birds and always keep them below the high water line.
Microchip your cat and keep them indoors at night so they cannot hunt.
Care for your pets responsibly: keep dogs under control at all times, desex both males and females, and ensure that dogs are microchipped and registered.
Report any attacks on wildlife or out of control dogs on 0800 920 029.
FNDC needs a good description of the dog, time and location, and any other information identifying the dog or its owner.