Extinction fears rise after vulnerable banded dotterel nests wiped out in Kaikōura

Cats are believed to have destroyed all but one banded dotterel nest on Kaikōura's coast, devastating local researcher and advocate Ailsa Howard. 

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In this 2018 footage, a cat can be seen licking and biting at the native birds' eggs. Source: Supplied

She found seven successful nests and was monitoring them, but all but one has since been destroyed. 

For most of the destruction, she thinks cats are responsible.

"We're actually seeing a lot of failure. Way more failure than a species can bounce back from," she told 1 NEWS. 

"We're seeing cats expand exponentially and the dotterel population is reducing exponentially. If it trends exponentially down, the birds will plummet to extinction." 

The tucked away site on South Bay beach seems perfect for the little native birds. 

Howard says they'll often come to molt and check out the area. 

A male banded dotterel resting on a nest in Kaikōura. Source: Supplied

"Ideally, birds would nest here and then the fledglings would fly off to other places in New Zealand," she says. 

"And they would be there for the winter before themselves, coming back to Kaikōura to nest." 

But instead, the native birds are struggling. 

Howard thinks one of the nests this season was destroyed by hedgehogs, with cats likely to blame for the rest of the annihilation. 

"For probably half my study site, there's a remoteness to it - there's no dwellings anywhere near it," she says.  

"So what we're actually picking up is a population of feral cats as well as domestic cats." 

A destroyed banded dotterel nest in Kaikōura after the eggs were eaten. Source: Supplied

Sometimes nests can be wiped out by the tide; other times, they've been destroyed by people trampling them or riding over them in quad bikes. 

Department of Conservation's South Marlborough operations manager, Phil Bradfield, says people should be aware of the native birds when they're venturing through their homes. 

"We ask people to take care not to disturb dotterel nests on beaches by keeping their distance and keeping dogs under control," he says. 

"The main threats to banded dotterel are from predators such as rats, mustelids and cats, and human activity." 

Howard says those incidents tend to be more randomised. 

"When a cat can target a bird, it actually comes looking for the bird deliberately," she says. 

"It's not meaning to wipe it out, it's just meaning to eat it." 

A trail of footprints, believed to have been left by a cat, after a banded dotterel nest was destroyed in Kaikōura. Source: Supplied

The prowling moggies leave telltale signs by the nests. Sometimes the eggs are targeted and destroyed, other times the parent dotterel may fall victim. 

At other times, it's the baby chicks who are consumed. 

"You see bits of birds, a leg, and it's hard. You have to study to see if you've lost an adult or not." 

The hedgehogs can be caught, trapped and killed. But by law, the cats can't. 

Sometimes there's no telling if the hunter is a beloved pet or a feral stray. Howard says New Zealand needs a culture-shift to better protect both our native wildlife and much-loved furry family members. 

"This culture of cat immunity is deeply embedded in our society," she says. 

"We need people to recognise if we have cats, we need a degree of containment. Ideally, cats would be neutered and microchipped." 

A clutch of three eggs inside a banded dotterel nest in Kaikōura. Source: Supplied

At the very least, that would help stop the wild population from growing and mean researchers like Howard could identify pets versus strays when they're caught near the dotterel population. 

As well as a change in culture, Howard wants to see regional bylaws and other legislation brought in around wandering cats.

If a nest is destroyed, the birds are able to try again and lay more eggs within the same breeding season.  

Howard is hopeful this latest tragedy doesn't have to mean the end for the birds in Kaikōura. 

"It takes a long time [to breed] but potentially it's not too late. But if we're unable to manage the predation, it's the same result."