The sand dunes at Port Waikato are wild and remote. It's a special place - where New Zealand's longest river meets the Tasman. And where a daily pilgrimage takes place for some of New Zealand's most dedicated civil servants.

Here DOC rangers park their vehicles and walk three kilometres, over hot sand dunes to check on a small settlement of dotterels nesting at the mouth of the river.

Community Ranger, Dannika Frost says it's typical for Kiwis to drive along west coast beaches but the Department of Conservation are taking the lead to change the habit, and protect the birds and their sand-dune homes.

"We walk out to the spit each day," Frost said. "We love it - get a bit of sun, get a bit of sand, and sometimes get our feet wet, when the tide comes in too quick."

The dotterel is one of our most endangered birds, with a declining population of about 1700. And the Spring-Summer nesting season is the time they're most at risk.


Dotterels are more susceptible to predators because of their long nesting season, from September to February, because it's a long period of time to be sitting and be vulnerable."

"Peak holiday season is where we lose the most birds because the hustle and bustle on beach with people wanting to get to certain areas, driving on the beach, and walking with their animals, and that leads to nests being crushed," she said.

It's not just predators and humans. King tides last year claimed two nests at Port Waikato.

"Dotterels make a simple scrape in the sand," Frost said. "They don't have a complex nesting system so it's very easy to stand on, easy for a horse and even dogs to accidentally put a paw onto a nest."

Frost says protecting the dotterels only requires one simple change.

"If you are in a vehicle, keep below the hightide mark. Dotterels and shorebirds generally usually nest in the dry sand at the high tide mark, so stick below the tide line."

Hannah Smith is a dotterel specialist for DOC amd has studied their extraordinary defenses against predators.

"One of the behaviours with dotterels is a broken wing," she said. "They will fake an injury and a lot of the public will get concerned and want to help but the best thing to do is walk away and leave them alone. They're doing it to attract you to them to keep you away from their nest."


The sandspit at Port Waikato is home to at least six dotterels and at least two nesting pairs.

"The biggest thing is not having the parents come off their nest to protect the area. If you notice a dotterel running out at you doing a broken wing or a rat-run tactic, that means there's no one left on their nest to protect it," Frost said.

"And it only takes ten seconds for a black-backed gull to swoop in and swallow three chicks, so all our hard work is wasted because the parents are off the nest.

"We can do something today to stop them from becoming extinct. It's a matter of curbing our Kiwi culture. Maybe, instead of driving over dunes to get to your favourite spot or letting the dog run down the beach during nesting season - put the dog on a leash, leave the ute at the boat ramp and take a walk, it's good for us.

"We can all be a part of this. You don't have to be in a DOC shirt, you don't have to be a bird watcher or a naturalist. You just have to have your heart in the right place. Stick to the approved access and give our birds a chance to increase in numbers."

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