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'Miracle chick' hatches after cat attack at vulnerable dotterel nesting site in Kaikōura

There's a "miracle" banded dotterel chick waddling around Kaikōura's South Bay, hatching a day after its egg was badly damaged by a cat.

A tiny banded dotterel chick (left) is lucky to be alive after its egg was badly damaged by a predatory cat (right) at South Bay, Kaikōura. Source: Supplied

It's a bright moment among the gloom for the native bird's breeding population at South Bay, Kaikōura, where the number of dotterels have plummeted amid the harshest season yet.

Local advocate and researcher Ailsa Howard says of the 40-odd nests laid this year, only four chicks hatched and are still alive today. 

"There aren't words for it... It's the worst season we could have contemplated," she told 1 NEWS.

Howard says she began studying the birds because she knew they were in decline, but the extent of the devastation has shocked her.

As well as the issues with chicks, adult birds are disappearing too. South Bay has gone from 25 breeding pairs two years ago, to just 15 seen this year.

A banded dotterel chick hatched at South Bay, Kaikōura. Source: Supplied

Despite the issues, there's been one bright moment this week.

Howard uncovered a nest that had been attacked by a cat, with one of the eggs badly damaged.

But she could still hear the chick inside so she put the egg back with the parents.

It was the right move; the "miracle" chick hatched successfully yesterday.

"It amazes me how resilient they are," Howard says.

"Tiny moments [like this]... it's like they're bubbles of hope in a sea of failure."

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There's a mix of domestic and feral cats that are hunting the birds and their nests.

Howard and other volunteers even sleep on the beach some nights to discourage the determined predators.

She says urgent action is needed to help save the fragile coastal ecosystem — and controlling cats needs to be part of the discussion.

"Because what we're measuring, 80 per cent of the predation is cats," Howard says. 

An adult banded dotterel at South Bay, Kaikōura. Source: Supplied

"We could talk to people who might have domestic cats, if they could see the opportunity of actually keeping your cats in at night, that could make a huge difference."

Feral cats are another issue. They're wild animals and considered pests — not to be confused with strays, abandoned pets, or other cats cared for by humans.

With feral cats, Howard says it's hard to trap and manage the population at South Bay because there are also residential developments nearby; they don't want to capture people's pets while controlling the ferals.

The biggest moments that have stuck out to her this breeding season have all been around predation of the birds.

"It's just having this gut-wrenching feeling there's going to be death on the beach, then following up and watching that happen. It's been super hard," Howard says. 

A nest of three banded dotterel eggs at South Bay, Kaikōura. Source: Supplied

"When you see something that's declining so rapidly, it's important you take action in the very short-term. But trying to deal with it is actually superbly frustrating."

For the little miracle chick, there's a desperate hope it'll overcome its traumatic start to life and manage to survive to adulthood.