Wading birds are a varied group belonging to the order Charadriiformes, which also includes gulls and terns. Some waders are found only in New Zealand, and may not even travel far from their birthplace. Others breed in the northern hemisphere and migrate thousands of kilometres to New Zealand shores. Wading birds found in New Zealand belong to these groups: oystercatchers; stilts; plovers and dotterels; snipes, sandpipers, godwits and curlews; phalaropes. Including rare strays and vagrants, 60 species have been recorded.
What waders have in common is water: most feed in or near shallow water at estuaries, harbours, mudflats and beaches, or inland at lakes and rivers. Each species has adapted to a particular zone between the high and low tide lines. The length of their legs is a clue to whether they only feed at the edge or can venture some way into the water. Apart from some phalaropes, their toes are not webbed and they rarely swim.
The shape of waders’ bills also varies according to how they feed. If they peck near the surface (like dotterels), it is short. If they feed in water (like stilts) or probe deeply in mud (like godwits), it is long. Wrybill plovers have a sideways bend to the bill for gleaning insects and larvae from under stones.
Typical foods of wading birds at coastal sites are marine insects, small crustaceans, marine worms and shellfish buried in mud and sand in the rich intertidal zone.
Although most live on the coast for part of the year, many waders move inland to river and lake edges, pasture or open high country to breed. Their diet changes to include aquatic insects and larvae, fish eggs and worms.
Some of the rarer species, such as the black stilt, the Chatham Island oystercatcher, the shore plover and the New Zealand dotterel, are endemic to New Zealand – they are found nowhere else. Breeding along the coast or riverbeds, many wading birds are at the mercy of predators that eat their eggs and chicks. Vehicles may disturb or destroy the inconspicuous nests.
All New Zealand’s wading birds, except the spur-winged plover, are currently protected by law.
Māori were keen observers of wading birds. In Northland, godwits gathering for their annual migration to the northern hemisphere reminded them of the souls of the dead preparing to journey to the underworld. A Hokianga poet lamented:
Rarangi noa ra te rangai kūaka,
Kia tauhikohiko he pari tu waho.
Flocks of godwits are gathering,
Moving restlessly on the seaward cliffs. 1
In a prophetic song, a writer imagines a time when enemies will devastate the land, eliminating all people and leaving only the oystercatchers and dotterels:
Ko wai rawa te tangata hei noho mo to whenua?
Ko Turiwhatu, ko Torea, ko ngā manu matawhanga o te uru!
Who will be the people to live in your land?
Dotterel and Oystercatcher, the birds of the western shore! 2
While some waders don’t migrate, or migrate only within New Zealand, others (such as sandpipers, godwits and curlews) travel astounding distances from northern hemisphere breeding grounds to New Zealand. The related New Zealand snipe does not share their flying ability, and remains on outlying islands all year. Waders typically fly with strong, regular wing beats and a rapid flight.
Light as a sparrow at just 30 grams, the red-necked stint flies the remarkable distance of 10,000 kilometres, in stages, from the Arctic to New Zealand every year. It is the lightest wader to make this migration regularly.
Except for banded dotterels, some of which cross the Tasman Sea to Australia after breeding, the waders that breed in New Zealand stay within the country year round, some moving between southern and northern regions. New Zealand has a diverse range of habitats and a temperate climate, so there is no pressure to migrate away.
Many of the migratory waders from the northern hemisphere follow routes described as flyways. One of the most popular is the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, which allows birds to stop off and refuel in Japan, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Remarkably, one species, the bar-tailed godwit, makes the 11,000-kilometre trip from Alaska non-stop across the open ocean.
Oystercatchers are stocky birds with bright eye-rings and long colourful bills. Their diet is much more varied than their name implies. There are three species in New Zealand, all of which are endemic.
The South Island pied oystercatcher (Haematopus finschi), sometimes simply called SIPO, is the most common oystercatcher in New Zealand, numbering around 112,000 birds in 1994. Its Māori name is tōrea. It has a black head and upper surfaces, and a white belly. A white notch in front of the folded wing distinguishes it from the pied morph (colouring) of the variable oystercatcher. The pied oystercatcher has a red bill, orange eye-ring and short pink legs. It measures 46 centimetres and weighs 550 grams.
In late winter, South Island pied oystercatchers migrate from beaches and estuaries to inland rivers or farmland, mainly in the South Island, where they breed from August. Nests are a shallow scrape on open riverbeds or farmland. They lay one to three brown, blotched eggs, the parents sharing incubation. Chicks can fly at six weeks.
From December, after raising their young for the year, they return to feeding grounds in the North or South Island, where large flocks gather on sand spits and estuaries, or near a river mouth. Their chief ports of call include Farewell Spit, the Firth of Thames, and Kaipara and Manukau harbours.
On the coast, they probe into mud or wet sand, or picking from the surface, they feed on molluscs, estuarine worms and small fish. Inland, they feed on worms and grubs.
South Island pied oystercatchers start breeding from the age of four or five, and they live up to 27 years.
The variable oystercatcher (Haematopus unicolor, tōrea or tōreapango) is found on rocky and sandy beaches. It is rarer than the South Island pied oystercatcher, with a population of about 5,000 birds.
Also known as the black oystercatcher, it varies from black-and-white to pure black, with the black morph more common further south. It has a red bill and red-orange eye-ring, and pink legs. Larger than the South Island pied oystercatcher, it measures 48 centimetres and weighs 725 grams.
The variable oystercatcher has different colour morphs: some birds are all black, some have a smudged black-and-white belly, and some a pure white belly. This third type can be hard to distinguish from the pied oystercatcher, also black-and-white. The thing to look for on the variable oystercatcher is the more blurred boundary between black and white across the chest. There is also no white line between the chest and the folded wing, and the white bar on the upper wing is indistinct.
These birds remain around the coast to breed. The diet, therefore, is largely marine, including mussels, oysters, limpets and crabs. After heavy rain they will invade coastal fields for a meal of worms and insect larvae.
Nests are a shallow scrape above spring-tide level, and two or three eggs are laid from September to December. Both parents incubate, and chicks are able to fly at six weeks.
Once in serious decline due to hunting, the variable oystercatcher has been protected since 1906. They live for up to 27 years.
With a population of about 300 birds in 2006, the endemic Chatham Island oystercatcher (Haematopus chathamensis) is endangered. However, in the 1980s and 1990s there were only 100.
This species is confined to the Chatham, Pitt, Rangatira and Māngere islands. They measure 48 centimetres and weigh 600 grams. Cats, the flightless weka, and skuas are the main predators, with the added danger of occasional high seas swamping the nests.
Since a conservation programme in the late 1990s to trap the predators and restore habitat, the bird has made a swift comeback. However, given their restricted habitat, it is unlikely the species will ever be numerous.
These birds live on the coast all year, feeding on molluscs, crabs, invertebrates, and marine worms. Starting in October–December or later, they nest in a shallow scrape often under coastal vegetation for protection from skuas. They lay one to three olive-brown spotted eggs. Both adults incubate, females mainly during daylight. Chicks can fly at seven weeks old. They usually live about eight years, but can live to 19.
To help Chatham Island oystercatchers successfully breed, conservation staff sometimes place old tyres filled with sand on the beach. This makes an ideal platform to lay eggs, safe from high seas. As soon as the bird lays its eggs, staff move the tyre even further away from the threatening waves.
The elegant stilts have slender necks and long legs to enable feeding in deep water. In flight their legs trail well beyond their tail.
Since the 1950s, the black stilt or kakī (Himantopus novaezelandiae) has been on the brink of extinction. By 1981 there were only 23 adults in the wild, but conservation efforts have gradually increased the number (169 adults in 2020), lending hope for their survival.
The adult is greenish-black with a long black bill and very long pink legs. It measures 40 centimetres from bill-tip to tail (not including legs), and weighs 220 grams. It is a protected endangered endemic species.
Since its ancestors arrived from Australia tens of thousands of years ago, the kakī has adapted to a colder environment, with only avian predators. In the 19th century the birds were still widespread, but today are found only in the South Island’s Mackenzie Basin. They breed and feed along the shores of streams and lakes.
There are several reasons for their decline:
The Department of Conservation raises chicks in captivity in three aviaries, and releases them into the wild. Predators are trapped, to safeguard birds in the wild. Project River Recovery was launched in 1991 in partnership with Meridian Energy, restoring some of the Mackenzie Basin habitat by controlling weeds and predators, and digging ponds. This has also benefited other native plants and animals.
They nest in solitary pairs in braided river beds or near wetlands and lay three to five blotched, green eggs from September to December. Both sexes incubate, and the young can fly at six weeks. They live up to 15 years. Foods are aquatic invertebrates, molluscs and fish.
After breeding, kakī do not generally join the northern exodus of inland wading birds. Most remain in the Mackenzie Basin, enduring the sometimes freezing temperatures before breeding begins again in spring.
Slim and graceful, pied stilts or poaka (Himantopus himantopus) can be seen in their hundreds at major estuaries and lakes during autumn and winter, before they fly to their breeding grounds in late winter–early spring. They are black on the crown, nape, back and wings, and white elsewhere. They weigh 190 grams and measure 35 centimetres.
A self-introduced species that arrived relatively recently (perhaps around 1800) from Australia, the pied stilt has flourished in its new home – a favourable food supply was released when lowland forests and scrublands were converted to pasture. By 1993 there were around 30,000 birds.
Pied stilts are masterful at distracting enemies from the nest:
[T]hey try to divert attention to themselves by simulating injury, shamming broken legs or wings in a most realistic manner. I have often watched one flying along, when suddenly it would give a loud cry of pain, and flutter to the ground in a lopsided manner as if one wing was broken. There it would flop along for a yard or so, and then lie down, flapping its wings and calling as if in agony. Perhaps it may stagger to its feet again, and then collapse with a drawn out cry of anguish and a last faint flick of the wings, and lie still. 1
Pied stilts breed on South Island riverbeds and around New Zealand’s coast. They breed in colonies of up to 100 nests, which are mounds near water. They lay two to five greenish eggs from August (at coastal sites) or October (inland). Feeding on invertebrates and molluscs, they plunge and snatch underwater, or probe and scythe in wet mud.
Dotterels are plump little birds that dart around on beaches and mudflats with a comical stop-start action. Internationally, the term plover is used interchangeably with dotterel. The Māori name tuturiwhatu includes New Zealand dotterels and banded dotterels.
The rare sandy-brown New Zealand dotterel is white underneath until the breeding season, when its chest and belly turn rusty red. Two populations live far apart: the northern subspecies Charadrius obscurus aquilonius (about 2,200 in 2011) lives on sandy northern beaches down to Riversdale in the east, and to Taranaki in the west, although it was once more widespread. Stewart Island is the home of the scarcer southern New Zealand dotterel (Charadrius obscurus obscurus). Into the 20th century, they also bred in the South Island.
The remaining hardy southern birds nest high up on the open summits of Stewart Island’s mountains. There were 218 in 1955, but by 1992 this dropped to 62 because cats preyed on nests at night, killing the nesting parent, which at night is usually the male. The resulting sex imbalance made the population even more vulnerable. But with cat control, numbers had reached over 260 in 2011. Predation halved that number in 2023.
During the winter these birds head down to tidal areas or across to Southland estuaries. They feed on molluscs, sandhoppers and other invertebrates, fish and crabs. Inland they take insects, grubs, earthworms and spiders. The southern subspecies weighs 160 grams.
Controversy erupted in 2003 when Transit New Zealand announced plans to move two pairs of New Zealand dotterels away from a North Shore motorway extension. Transit helicoptered in 200 cubic metres of shell to create new nesting sites for the birds.
The strongholds of the northern New Zealand dotterel are long beaches and shallow, sandy estuaries of the north, where they lay two to three olive-brown eggs in shallow scrapes. Young fly at six to seven weeks. They breed at the age of two or three, and can live to 30 or older.
Their decline is partly due to their approachable nature, making them vulnerable to predators. Breeding has been more successful on beaches where wardens have kept a daylight watch. They weigh 145 grams and measure about 25 centimetres. They are a protected threatened endemic species.
The banded dotterel (Charadrius bicinctus) is easily identified by its breeding dress from May to January: a narrow black band on the neck, and a wide chestnut band on the breast. Its back and wings are fawn coloured. It measures 20 centimetres and weighs just 60 grams. It is the most numerous dotterel in New Zealand, and is a protected endemic species.
The banded dotterel breeds in a variety of habitats: coasts, farmland, and alongside lakes and riverbeds. Biggest numbers are found in inland Canterbury and the Mackenzie Basin. Nests are scrapes on compacted sand or dirt, the male making several for the female to choose from. She lays two to four speckled eggs, which both parents incubate. They feed on invertebrates, worms, and berries. After breeding, most of the inland breeding birds (about 30,000 of total population of 50,000) migrate to Australia for winter. They live up to 10 years.
The smaller black-fronted dotterel (Elseyornis melanops), originally a visitor from Australia, bred for the first time in New Zealand in 1958. Although not numerous, they are most common in Hawke’s Bay, where they were first recorded breeding, but have since spread to the lower North Island and to the eastern and southern South Island, with an estimated population of 3,000. They nest in riverbeds after seasonal floods. After breeding they move to estuaries and coasts, feeding on molluscs, invertebrates and worms.
They are light to dark brown on the back and wings. A black band runs from the bill through the eye to the nape, where it joins another from the chest. They measure 17 centimetres and weigh 33 grams. They are a self-introduced native species.
Sporting a sideways turning bill, the endemic wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis) or ngutuparore is one of New Zealand’s bird oddities – the only bird in the world with such a feature. It uses the bill like a hook to gather insect larvae and eggs from beneath stones, or as a spoon to scoop crustaceans from mud.
The small wrybill has a pale grey back and wings and a white front, with a black chest band during breeding. It measures 20 centimetres and weighs just 55 grams. It breeds in inland areas of the South Island during in spring and summer, then flies to North Island harbours until the end of winter. Its main stop-off is the Firth of Thames, winter home to 50–60% of the wrybill population. As the time of departure approaches, wrybills gather in large flocks and perform elaborate aerial ballets.
Wrybills frequent the inland shingle riverbeds of the eastern South Island. They nest from August to January, laying two camouflaged grey-blue speckled eggs among the river stones. They often lay a second clutch if the first fails, and can raise two broods if the first fledges early enough. Wrybills tend to use shingle ‘islands’ for safety from predators. Hydro-electricity and irrigation schemes have robbed them of these sites, introduced weeds such as lupins have crowded out nesting areas, and predators have taken a toll. Consequently the population has declined, with an estimated total of 5,000 in 2012. They live up to 16 years, and like most other native birds are a protected species.
Scientists on James Cook’s second voyage to New Zealand in 1773 discovered shore plovers (Thinornis novaeseelandiae, tūturuatu) in Dusky Sound and Queen Charlotte Sound. Unwittingly these explorers sowed the seeds of the birds’ extinction on the mainland, as Norway rats came ashore from the ships and began devouring the easy prey. On the mainland the last shore plover was seen in 1871, but a population survived on Rangatira Island in the Chatham Islands.
In 1999, 21 shore plovers were discovered on storm-exposed Western Reef off Chatham Island, 100 kilometres from the other surviving population on Rangatira Island. Their DNA suggests that this separate group existed in isolation for at least 100 years since rats had wiped out the birds on Chatham Island. Within a few years of their discovery, this sea-swamped but rat-free retreat had lost its charm – the reef was taken over by seals. The sole surviving Western Reef shore plover, named Westy, was taken into captivity, from where his offspring have been released at several secure sites.
Unlike other shorebirds, the starling-sized shore plover nests under thick vegetation, enabling predators to approach unseen. Even on the distant Chatham Islands, 850 kilometres east, the surviving plovers were not safe. In the early 1900s, collectors depleted the population: ‘[T]he incredible number of specimens in museums both local and overseas proves how eagerly these beautiful little plovers were sought after and what a good price they would fetch.’ 1
Their habitat on Rangatira Island is salt meadow and rocky reefs, where they feed on molluscs and invertebrates. Two to three pale buff eggs are laid under cover from October to January, which females incubate more than males. Chicks fledge at 40–55 days. Breeding begins at two to three years of age, and they live up to 20 years.
This is a rare endemic species. Since the 1990s captive-bred birds have been released on islands around mainland New Zealand. The total wild population was fewer than 200 birds, including about 65 pairs, in 2013; there were around 10 pairs in captivity. By 2020 the total population was about 250.
The grating rattle of the spur-winged plover (Vanellus miles) or masked lapwing has become a familiar sound in open country since this Australian immigrant started breeding in Southland in 1932. It has a distinctive yellow face mask, black cap and vertical shoulder band, tan back and wings and white front. The wings have spurs. Fiercely defending their nests, these birds shriek at and dive-bomb harriers and magpies that fly nearby.
They have become established on the mainland and Stewart Islands, the Chathams and Kermadecs, and have been recorded on subantarctic islands as well. Common in farmland and coastal sites, they feed on earthworms, insects and molluscs. From June to October they lay one to four khaki, blotched eggs in a scrape on rough open ground. This abundant, self-introduced species is considered a pest around airports and lost its protected status in 2010.
The endemic New Zealand snipes (Coenocorypha species) are among the least known native birds. As their Māori name, tutukiwi, suggests, they resemble small kiwi with their long bills, stout legs and probing method of finding worms, insect larvae and other invertebrates. They are considered waders, but live and feed in forest and shrubland, not near water.The Snares Island snipe (Coenocorypha huegeli) and subantarctic snipe (Coenocorypha aucklandica) are about the size of a blackbird, measuring 23 centimetres and weighing 110 grams. The Chatham Island snipe (Coenocorypha pusilla) is smaller at 20 centimetres and 80 grams.
New Zealand snipes have been described as living fossils and the most primitive of snipe-like birds. Like the northern hemisphere snipe and woodcock, they stay among dense vegetation, moving out at dusk to feed in more open areas. However, these southern cousins are not migratory, remaining year-round on their own small island groups.
So alarming was the snipe’s night-time call that it gave rise to the Māori tradition of the fearful hakawai or hōkioi – one of the spirit birds of Rakamaomao (the wind) that dwelt in space and came down to earth only at night. Muttonbirders have compared the noise to a cable chain being lowered into a boat. Preceded by a sequence of calls, this eerie sound is produced by vibrating tail feathers as the bird plunges from high in the air.
Snipe existed on the mainland until Pacific rats and dogs exterminated them before European settlement. Four populations live on southern islands: the Snares Island snipe (estimated at 1,000 birds in 1987), and three subspecies of the subantarctic snipe, one on each of the Auckland Islands, Antipodes Islands and Campbell Island.
The breeding season varies between islands, with laying between August and January. Two brown eggs are laid, incubated by both parents, and after hatching each parent takes one chick, which runs along behind. For several weeks the chick is fed, which is unusual for waders.
Each island population is threatened by any accidental introduction of rats. In 2005, 30 Snares snipe were transferred to rat-free Putauhinu Island near Stewart Island, to establish a back-up population. Thirty birds were released on Codfish Island in 2012.
As rats had landed on Campbell Island with sealers in the early 1800s, no snipe remained when naturalists arrived in 1840. However, in 1997 a few snipe were discovered on tiny Jacquemart Island, close to Campbell Island. To protect snipe and other birds, in 2001 the Department of Conservation eradicated the rats from Campbell Island. In 2005 snipe were found to have recolonised naturally. By early 2006 there were 30 snipe there, and they were considered to be on the way to repopulating 11,000-hectare Campbell Island. The Campbell snipe was named as a separate subspecies of subantarctic snipe (Coenocorypha aucklandica perseverance) in 2010.
As recently as 1964 there was another species of New Zealand snipe, the South Island snipe. A remnant population occurred on nearby Big South Cape Island, but when rats invaded the island from a fishing boat they soon killed most of the snipe. Two were rescued for release on a safe island but died. It was later found that they were both males.
Described by one observer as 'pygmy kiwis'1, Chatham Island snipe once inhabited most of the islands in the group, but from the 1890s were confined to Rangatira (South East) Island, a refuge for several endangered birds. The snipe has since been reintroduced to Māngere Island, and has made its own way to Little Māngere and Rabbit islands. Like all snipe, they find food by probing their beak into soft soil.
Breeding occurs from September to January with the laying of two pinkish-brown, blotched eggs, which the parents incubate alternately. Like the Snares Island and subantarctic snipe, each hatchling follows one parent and is fed for several weeks. They feed on worms, amphipods and a variety of insects.
Bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica) are the most common Arctic migrant to New Zealand. In 2005 scientists reported that they make the longest non-stop flight of all birds – an amazing 11,000 kilometres from Alaska to New Zealand, in only eight or nine days. It was already known that the departure and arrival were only days apart. The hunch that godwits fly over open ocean and outside any coastal migration route had also been supported by traditional Polynesian accounts of the birds, known as kūaka, flying over the Pacific Islands on their way south. In addition, godwits banded by researchers in Alaska had not subsequently been sighted along the East Asian–Australasian Flyway during their southward migration.
When it is time for the godwits to migrate south, they wait for storms that provide them with tail winds of 40–80 kilometres per hour for the first 1,600 kilometres. Observers report that when the birds finally reach New Zealand they fall asleep, but within hours begin feeding to replenish what they lost en route – about half their body weight. Three months later, in preparation for the northward return flight, they start to stock up on food, doubling their body mass.
Arriving from late September, during the southern hemisphere spring, the majority of the 80,000–100,000 godwits head for Kaipara and Manukau harbours, the Firth of Thames, Farewell Spit, and the Avon–Heathcote estuary near Christchurch. In large flocks they feed on molluscs, crabs, marine worms and aquatic insects, probing the mud with their long bills as the tide recedes.
These relatively large waders average 40 centimetres and 325 grams, the females heavier than males. Brown with a long bill and medium length legs, they turn ruddy red when they are plump and ready for the return journey.
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Miskelly, C. M., and A. J. Baker. 'Description of a new subspecies of Coenocorypha snipe from subantarctic Campbell Island, New Zealand.' Notornis 56 (2010): 113–123.
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Woodley, Keith. Shorebirds of New Zealand: sharing the margins. Auckland: Penguin, 2012.