If you head in the direction of the Te Henga/Bethell’s Beach cave along its warm but sometimes hot-hot-hot black sand from August through to March, you will note a curiosity, a rope cordon halfway up the main beach.

By Michelle Swanepoel on 01st September 2021

Surrounded by the beauty of the beach, its ruggedness and the wild surf, it is unsurprising that Bethells ranks as the fourth most dangerous beach for swimmers in New Zealand and should you turn your gaze to the long foredunes, you’ll note that Māori very aptly described the area as Te Henga, referencing these dunes that looked like the “Henga”/”Gunwhale” of an upturned waka hull; and there’s that rope cordon.

As it turns out, the danger at the beach starts at the high tide mark for the tūturiwhatu/dotterel, who over the last 10 years have probably hatched 30-60 chicks but seen just 1 survive to fledging.

October to February is breeding season for the beach’s sole pair. A species found nowhere else in the world and rarer than the kiwi, and this year they are hoping for success. Despite having lost their first clutch of eggs to predation early on, these determined little birds will try and try again, up to 5 times if they must. And they have! A new nest with three more eggs. But this time things are different.

The local Te Henga Tūturiwhatu protection group, previously known as the Dotterel Minders, have been spreading the word amongst beach goers. Keep dogs on leads, keep clear of the cordon and let the birds keep the kelp!

The response from the public has been fantastic and there has been a collective effort from locals and the public to reduce human disturbance during nesting. This is key, as the nests, often just a scrape in the sand, are easily destroyed by careless feet and off-lead dogs. Birds forced to leave their nest during the month-long incubation put the eggs at risk of overheating or cooling down. When young chicks are disturbed, they easily die from exhaustion.

Hedgehogs, rats, stoats and cats will predate eggs and chicks, and stoats and cats will also kill the adult birds. It takes around six weeks for the chicks to fledge.

The protection group also helps the tūturiwhatu protect their nests, maintains dotterel awareness signage and undertakes trapping in the dunes to keep the mammalian pests in check.

“NZ Dotterels are very clever,” says Lesley Gardner from the group, “they lay three eggs over three days and only when the last egg is laid do they sit on the nest. This way all three chicks hatch at the same time. Then as soon as the three chicks hatch the parents take them to the beach where they immediately start to forage for themselves, scuttling up and down the beach by day and by night. As all three go in different directions, it’s difficult for the parents to keep watch on them. If dogs approach, the adults will try to lead the dogs away, leaving the tiny chicks vulnerable to the ever-present, always hungry, black-backed gulls and harrier hawks which can swallow three chicks in three gulps.”

Te Henga Tūturiwhatu has put up the rope cordon and added kelp and logs to the area. Lesley says that the dotterels already seem to understand that this area is safer for them. “They can hide close to the kelp and logs, and regard the kelp as a café, with hundreds of sand hoppers living under it.”

This summer season, Auckland Council will be supporting their work by undertaking a Dog Walking Pilot Project at Te Henga, looking at the best methods of reducing the impacts of dogs on the different threatened bird species at Te Henga.

To find out more about the environmental protection and restoration work being done in the Waitākere Ranges, email [email protected].

IMG_7359 Simon Runting Instagram @simonbirdphotography.jpeg
NZ Dotterel © Simon Runting Instagram @simonbirdphotography