The black-fronted dotterel is a small dainty plover with striking plumage markings. In adults, prominent black bands on the breast and head contrast sharply with the otherwise white plumage. Young birds have a mostly white breast, the black bands developing with adulthood. It occurs mostly in small numbers in east coast North and South Island localities, also in the Manawatu. They are found on or beside inland or coastal waterways (but not the coast itself), estuaries, farm ponds, lagoons, on stony river beds and at sewerage sedimentation ponds, but not on coastlines. The plumage colouration provides good camouflage when on shingle sites and stony riverbeds. Black-fronted dotterels are smaller and more slightly built than banded dotterels.
Black-fronted dotterels are smaller and more dainty than banded dotterels and are recognisable by the striking Y-shaped black plumage on the chest contrasting with white plumage above and below, and a conspicuous black stripe through the eye that extends back to the hind neck. The crown is streaked light brown. The plumage below the eye stripe and bill and on the lower foreneck and remaining undersides is white. The back and lower wings are streaked buff to light-brown. There is a wide whitish bar on the inner upperwing; the rest of the inner wing is dark-brown mottled with white and grey. The outer upperwing is dark brown to black. The underwing is mainly white, with blackish flight feathers forming a broad dark trailing edge. The bill is red with a black tip, the eye-ring is red, and the legs are pinkish to light red. The sexes are similar with no seasonal variation in plumage. Juveniles have a mostly white chest. Black-fronted dotterels are usually solitary or in pairs or in small groups. They tend to run in short bursts but walk slowly when feeding. In flight they have a jerky, lapwing-like wing action and reveal their bold wing markings.
Voice: a faint high-pitched sharp note like a peeep.
Similar species: black-fronted dotterels are smaller and slimmer with quite different facial, breast and wing markings. Rare vagrant red-kneed dotterel (recorded once in New Zealand) is larger with longer legs, has a solid black cap extending well below the eye, and has a broad white trailing edge to the wing (both upper and lower).
Distribution and habitat
Black-fronted dotterels are mainly found in lowland eastern regions from Auckland to Southland, especially in Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, Canterbury and Otago; also in the Manawatu and at Tokaanu (Lake Taupo). They colonised New Zealand from Australia from the 1950s, with early records from Hawke’s Bay (1954), Manawatu (1955) and North Canterbury (1956). The first nest was found in Hawke’s Bay in 1962, and at least 109 birds were present there in 1962. Breeding was first reported in the South Island in 1970, on the Opihi River, South Canterbury. By 2016 they were known to be breeding on the Wairau, Awatere, Hurunui, Ashburton, Orari and Opihi Rivers, as well as at numerous sites in the lower North Island.
Black-fronted dotterels are mainly found at fresh water or brackish estuaries, on gravel riverbeds, and the muddy edges of inland and coastal lakes and ponds, including sewerage ponds. They are rarely seen on coasts.
Black-fronted dotterels are uncommon in New Zealand but may be increasing slowly. The current population is probably fewer than 3,000 birds. They occur mostly in small numbers (1 to 4 birds together is typical), but favoured wintering sites can have up to 50 birds.
Threats and conservation
The New Zealand range of the black-fronted dotterel has expanded considerably since the 1960s and is probably still expanding, including in western localities. The main threat to adults and young is during breeding. Nests and chicks are vulnerable especially where nests are placed close to roads, tracks or livestock, or are at risk from predators, including cats and stoats. Some losses on riverbeds are caused by flooding where nests are close to watercourses.
The black-fronted dotterel is a solitary nesting species, between August and March, peaking between September and December. Nests are in open ground, fields, gravel pits, river beds, stony or shingle land, not far from fresh water. The nest is usually a depression in the ground and is mostly unlined or is surrounded by a few twigs, stones or grass. Both sexes share in incubation of the 2-3 eggs, which are pale white or yellowish with dark spots or lines. Incubation takes 22-26 days. Young are speckled dark grey-and-white and are well camouflaged. Adults shade the young on hot days, and perform distraction displays when alarmed. Second and third clutches are common after the first brood has fledged, and may commence even before fledging of an earlier brood has occurred.
Behaviour and ecology
Black-fronted dotterel are generally not gregarious, with birds usually seen singly, in pairs or groups of up to 4-5 birds. After breeding most birds stay on rivers, but some form flocks at lagoons, lakes, estuaries and sewage ponds in winter. They have cryptic colouration when on shingle or stony substrate. Birds feed throughout the day at the water’s edge of slow moving streams, rivers, estuaries or at still ponds. When a bird walks the body is often held in a nearly horizontal posture. Flights are mostly short. Birds tend to run for short periods, then stop and walk when feeding.
Black-fronted dotterels consume small invertebrates including insects, small earthworms, snails, crustaceans, spiders and mites. Seeds form a small part of diet, including clover and small grasses. Food is mostly found on damp ground by walking, running, stopping and bobbing and pecking at the water’s edge, often retracing the area that has been worked over.
Andrew, I.G. 1956. Black-fronted dotterel (C. melanops) near Palmerston North. Notornis 6: 185.
Brathwaite, D.H. 1955. Waders on Ahuriri Lagoon, Napier. Notornis 6: 145-150.
Heather, B.D.; Robertson, H.A. 2005. The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. 2nd edition. Penguin: Rosedale, Auckland.
Mackenzie, N. B. 1962. A new breeding bird for New Zealand: black-fronted dotterels in Hawkes Bay. Notornis 9: 269-270.
Mackenzie, N.B. 1963. The black-fronted dotterel in Hawke's Bay. Notornis 10: 202-206.
Marchant, S.; Higgins, P.J. (eds) 1993. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 2, raptors to lapwings. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Medway, D.G. 2010. Charadriiformes (waders). Pp. 191-223. In: Checklist Committee (OSNZ) 2010. Checklist of the birds of New Zealand, Norfolk and Macquarie Islands, and the Ross Dependency, Antarctica (4th edn). Ornithological Society of New Zealand & Te Papa Press, Wellington.
Pierce, R.J. 1971. Black-fronted dotterels nesting near Timaru. Notornis 18: 133.
Robertson, C.J.R.; Hyvonen, P.; Fraser, M.J.; Pickard, C.R. 2007. Atlas of Bird Distribution in New Zealand. Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Inc., Wellington.
Robertson, H.A; Baird, K.; Elliott, G.P.; Hitchmough, R.A.; McArthur, N.J.; Makan, T.; Miskelly, C.M.; O’Donnell, C.F.J.; Sagar, P.M.; Scofield, R.P.; Taylor, G.A.; Michel, P. 2021. Conservation status of birds in Aotearoa New Zealand birds, 2021. New Zealand Threat Classification Series 36. Wellington, Department of Conservation. 43p.
Sagar, P.M.; Shankar, U.; Brown, S. 1999. Numbers and distribution of waders in New Zealand, 1983-1994. Notornis 46: 1-49.
Scarlett, R.J. 1957. Black-fronted dotterel in Canterbury. Notornis 7: 112.
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Armitage, I. 2013 [updated 2017]. Black-fronted dotterel. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
- Social structure
- Breeding season
- Nest type
- ground-level hollow
- Nest description
- Shallow depression in shingle, mostly unlined or lightly lined but maybe surrounded by sticks, grass or pebbles.
- Nest height (mean)
- 0 m
- Maximum number of successful broods
- Clutch size (mean)
- Mean egg dimensions (length)
- 33 mm
- Mean egg dimensions (width)
- 20 mm
- Egg colour
- Smooth pale white, creamy-white, grey or yellowish with irregular dark spots or lines
- Egg laying dates
- Interval between eggs in a clutch
- About 48 hours days
- Incubation behaviour
- Incubation length (mean)
- 25 days
- Incubation length (min)
- 22 days
- Incubation length (max)
- 26 days
- Nestling type
- Nestling period (mean)
- 1-2 days
- Age at fledging (mean)
- 23-30 days
- Age at independence (mean)
- 20-25 days
- Age at first breeding (typical)
- Probably 1 years
- Maximum longevity
- Maximum dispersal
- Unknown but juveniles probably disperse over 10s to 100s km