Daniel Cocker – standing up for the underbird

The southern New Zealand dotterel has been on an obscure slide to oblivion, but a last-ditch champion has emerged. Michael Fallow reports

It’s a little bird in big trouble. Found nowhere but Southland, the southern New Zealand dotterel’s population is down to just 144, yet it couldn’t even make the annual preening promotional merriment of the Forest & Bird’s nationwide Bird of the Year vote.

That’s a significant boost for many a bird. The public poll has reliably gained precious national, even international attention, partly because supporters often wittily mimic and lampoon political human campaigning.

This time around, the southern dotterel will make his first appearance in the October poll.

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This follows successful lobbying spearheaded by a 21-year-old Southland zoology student at Otago University, Daniel Cocker, and backed by a small but ardent group at Southland Birds NZ.

The reason for the bird’s past absence from the popular vote has been that it isn’t considered a species in its own right.

Not in its homeland, anyway. In New Zealand it’s recognized only as a sub-species, although overseas it has been given full species status.

Weird? In the zoology world, says Cocker, you can classify genetically, which DOC does, or by using behavioral and physiological differences.

“It’s just a point of view, to be honest.”

The southern New Zealand dotterel;  desperately endangered.  You might not want to read to the end of this story.

Craig McKenzie/Supplied

The southern New Zealand dotterel; desperately endangered. You might not want to read to the end of this story.

Unhappily for the south, the upshot has been solid promotion for the New Zealand dotterel, but in reality this identifies only the northern dotterel.

Which, let’s face it, is in a much, much healthier state.

Its population of 2000-2500 means its conservation designation is “recovering” compared to the obscure southern bird’s “critical” status.

The average lifespan for the northern bird is in general up to 25 years – the southerner’s is estimated at just five.

Didn’t seem at all fair. So Cocker got busy.

“I got in touch with Forest & Bird pretty much at the start of the year to put my case across that, really, given that they let a bat campaign last year – and it won – they should have no problem making a ‘subspecies’ (eligible for) Bird of the Year.”

Southern dotterel were once widespread throughout the South Island and Stewart Island/Rakiura, but became extinct in the South Island in the early 1900s after the introduction of stoats.

Now they breed only on the Rakiura mountaintops in the summer and in winter they feed on some Southland estuaries and beaches, such as Awarua Bay.

But they’re being wiped out by feral cats, a decline not helped by white-tailed deer eating their eggs.

By 1992 the population had slumped to a dismal 62. Then DOC staff, though far from abundantly resourced, were able to nurse the numbers back to around 290 in 2010, when the trajectory again turned downwards from 167 a few years ago to 144 on the most recent count.

Cocker would love to see southern voices and votes rise up in defense of their own against a climate of widespread indifference.

Which brings us to those classic Bird of the Year tactics of assailing competitors.

The northern dotterel’s advocates have already undertaken some “disheartening” dismissals of the breakaway south.

”They got the Latin names mixed up, and didn’t give an accurate population estimate,” says Cocker. “They clearly hadn’t done their research.”

Not, perhaps, the most naturally pugnacious character in the world, Daniel Cocker doesn’t immediately leap to embrace the suggestion that for topicality’s sake he might consider mounting politicized comparisons to the nobility of independent Ukrainian-style resistance against brutish subsuming forces.

However he does accept that to engage the public requires him to balance the sheer desperation of the situation with the lighthearted aspects that have tended to characterize successful Bird of the Year campaigns.

If passion and playfulness need to work together, so be it.

Southland born and raised he has been involved in conservation work since his mid-teens, volunteering with DOC on Rakiura in his spare times, during which he was deeply saddened to see fewer and fewer birds each year.

He’s recently secured a full-time job working for DOC on the dotterel team, starting when he finishes university at the end of the year.

He’s stoked to be joining their ranks: “They do such a great job. There’s not a lot of funding, but this is a real passion for them”.

Even though undertaking the campaign is exquisitely badly timed to clash with final semester assignment deadlines and exams at Otago, he couldn’t forgive himself if he didn’t do all he could as quickly as he could.

Ideally, he says, the bird’s plight might attract the support of big business, just as Meridian Energy supports the kākāpō and Fulton Hogan the takahē.

So now the question is whether Daniel Cocker and his small team can plug into the nation’s conscience, the south’s sense of identity, even individuals’ heartstrings, on the basis of fairness and urgency.

Evidence that perhaps he can is starting to emerge.

As a followup check that Stuff has received the photo he supplied of one pretty wee southern dotterel, he suggests we might want to include an update.

See that it’s banded? Most of them are.

That one’s dead now. People might want to consider that when they look at it.

Game on.

Bird of the Year voting opens October 17 and closes October 30. The winner will be announced on the following day. The southern dotterel campaign Facebook account is: Southern New Zealand Dotterel/Tūturiwhatu.

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