Story: Wading birds

Spur-winged plover, black stilt, banded dotterel – the names give a hint of the fascinating variety of wading birds to be seen at the water’s edge. Godwits and oystercatchers gather in their thousands. Others, such as the shore plover, are extremely rare.

Story by Gerard Hutching
Main image: Pied stilt at its nest

Story summary

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New Zealand has many wading birds – oystercatchers, stilts, dotterels, sandpipers and godwits. You can often see them poking about in shallow water at estuaries, harbours and beaches.


Although they feed and breed near water, wading birds rarely swim. Species with shorter legs feed close to the water’s edge, while longer-legged waders such as stilts wade further out. Dotterels, with shorter beaks, peck near the surface. Godwits, with longer beaks, poke deeper into the mud. The wrybill has a strange beak that turns sideways, for hooking and spooning up food.

Feeding, breeding and migration

At their seaside feeding grounds, waders eat worms, shellfish and insects from wet sand or mud. To breed, many move inland to lakes, rivers and farmland, where they eat insects, worms, grubs and spiders. They scrape a shallow nest on dry ground, and the chicks run around soon after hatching.

Some species travel amazing distances, migrating from the northern hemisphere to New Zealand’s feeding grounds each year.

Common New Zealand waders

  • South Island pied oystercatcher. This has a black back and white front, a long red beak and pink legs. They mainly breed in the South Island, then most fly to Kaipara Harbour, the Firth of Thames, and other North Island spots.
  • Bar-tailed godwit. In September, godwits fly 11,000 kilometres non-stop from Alaska in only eight or nine days. Arriving exhausted, they gather at the same places as the oystercatchers. They eat a lot to get strength for the return trip, departing around March.

Rare species

Several native species are rare or endangered. Cats, wekas, rats and skuas attack them, and people may accidentally drive over nests on beaches or river beds.

  • Chatham Island oystercatcher. In 1987 there were only 110 birds. Conservation workers controlled predators and improved breeding habitats. Numbers had reached over 300 by 2006.
  • New Zealand dotterel. In 2002 there were about 1,600 of these sandy-brown birds. One group live around the northern North Island. A second population breeds on Stewart Island, where they nest on hilltops. When breeding, their front turns red.
How to cite this page:

Gerard Hutching, 'Wading birds', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Gerard Hutching, published 12 June 2006, reviewed & revised 17 February 2015