It’s a plover, and it lives on the shore. What more do you need to know? Actually, there is a great deal more that could be said about the small Shore Plover. One of only two species in the plover genus Thinornis, the other being Australia’s Hooded Plover, this species is another New Zealand endemic. Actually, it’s one I originally thought was endemic to the Chatham Islands, a group of islands to the east of the main islands that hosts endemic species like the Black Robin. Until recently the species certainly only hung on to existence on two small islands in that group, but this distribution is an artefact of a long decline. The species in fact used to occur across New Zealand, but declined quickly with the arrival of introduced mammals. By 1888 it was extinct in the mainland of New Zealand, and declining in the Chathams.

Shore Plover, (Thinornis novaseelandiae) adult male

On the islands of Rangatira and Western Reefs in the Chathams the population was stable but constrained by lack of habitat. With only two islands the population was vulnerable to one-off events, so some birds were taken into captivity with the intention of creating new populations in other secure locations. Populations have been established on a number of islands around New Zealand, but some of these have failed due to the tendency of the plovers to wander away from safe havens.

It was just this tendency that allowed me to see them. One of the successful populations established was on Mana Island, north of Wellington, where juvenile Shore Plovers were reintroduced in 2007. The island is similar to Kapiti, cleared of introduced pests and used to hold endangered species. The Shore Plovers did well on the island, breeding a year after arriving (unexpected quickly as it turned out). The also show up on the mainland, particularly in Porirua Harbour which is across the water from Mana Island. In the last two months large numbers, up to 40 birds or around 15% of the world’s entire population, has been regularly spotted at high tide behind the Fire Station at Plimmerton, at the northern end of the harbour. I found out about it while looking for information on the unfortunate penguin I discussed last week (which is still alive in Wellington Zoo), and so I stopped by on my way home to have a look. As I mentioned last week I enjoyed the little guys a great deal more than twitching the penguin (does that sound wrong?). But the weather was terrible and I couldn’t stay long. So the following day, which was brighter and dryer (but no less cold) I decided to head backup to have a longer, dryer look, and get some better photos. I also brought along my friend Ingrid, a fellow biologist who needed some fresh air after being trapped in her house with a broken foot.

The weather held and we found the little guys running around on the shore once again. Instead of stalking them across the beach we lay on a sand dune (where they could still clearly see us) above where a few were resting on the little beach above the rocks. Quite a few were no more than two metres away, one little guy came so close I could have reached out and poked him. They were enchanting.

Adult male calling

A female resting. The black on the face isn’t as dark and even (whitish around the eye) and the black on the tip of the bill reaches further up the bill.

A female preens her throat

An immature. A lot less black on the face and a much messier bill.

These three birds represent at least 1% of the world population of this species!

New bands are itchy! A juvenile plays with its new bling.

This fearless juvenile came really close.

The shore at Plimmerton. Mana Island is in the distance at the left.

I don’t recall which one of us first vocalised the thought, but it struck both Ingrid and I as odd that the non-endangered  and doomed Emperor Penguin up the coast merited a 24 hour guard whereas the very threatened and infinitely rarer Shore Plovers down the coast didn’t get one. I guess it wouldn’t do much good, the threats these little guys face wouldn’t be deterred by a well meaning guard. In spite of the risks these little guys face coming to the mainland from their safe spot on Mana, it was still a special experience to spend some time with these confiding and attractive birds, and I hope they continue to thrive on Mana and beyond.


If you liked this post and want to see more great images of birds make sure to check out 10,000 Clicks, our big (and growing) page of galleries here at 10,000 Birds. Images by both Ingrid Knapp and myself.

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.