environment

Sleuths use footprints to help at-risk birds

Two citizen scientists with a very particular set of skills have banded together to help the public track down what wildlife has visited during the night.

Footprints left by shorebirds and their common predators can now be identified using an online reference guide.

Jordi Tablada and Shaun Lee paired their skills in coding and design with their love of New Zealand’s shorebirds, many of which are at risk of extinction and dependent on human help to survive.

Their NZTracker.org website helps the public identify footprints shorebirds leave in the sand. Reading animal prints is a skill mostly lost in modern times, however, it’s helpful for conservationists to know what birds are using an area and what predator threats they face.

Tablada, who is a computer scientist currently completing a masters in environmental science, lives in Piha. Since moving there he’s become fascinated with the bird life and has volunteered to help care for a pair of dotterels breeding in the area.

Understanding the best place to put predator traps meant learning how to identify the tracks of rabbits, rats and stoats.

"The beach is like a book, once you learn how to read it there is a new story for you every morning.”

Recognising the prints of birds is also important. Piha’s little blue penguins’ footprints are probably spotted more often than the birds.

With a declining population at risk of extinction, they need protection from dogs, cats, ferrets and stoats.

“We don’t get to see penguins very often because they don’t hang out on the beach but now I know when and where they are around and I can make sure they are safe.”

The new website has footprints from 24 bird species from moa, to royal spoonbill. There’s a diagram and size indication, as well as examples of what the footprints look like on different surfaces, from wet sand to muddy areas for people to match to what they see on the beach.

Tablada said he helped add photographs of tracks of all the species found at Piha to the site as well as “the things you don’t see on the website” such as the coding that makes it work.

NZTracker.org has drawings and photographic examples of footprints for a variety of bird species. Image: Website.

Lee, a graphic designer, did the design of the website. He lives on the opposite coast of Auckland to Tablada and has been trying to help Tāmaki estuary shorebirds through volunteer work.

He saw a gap in information. Good resources for mammal footprints such as pestdetective.org.nz existed, but there wasn’t much for shorebirds.

“We would be walking along wondering ‘what’s that footprint?’.”

New Zealand has more flightless bird species than any other country, at one time boasting 32. Half of these are now extinct.

Some of the 16 left are dependent on conservation efforts. Without human help, they’ll likely go extinct. Dotterels are one example where work to protect nesting sites has helped to increase numbers.

Both Jordi and Lee had been to a dotterel management course, held regularly at Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre, where they learnt about footprints.

Dr John Dowding, who teaches the course, is pleased the two have created the site. 

Footprint sightings are important especially for birds like penguins, which don’t get seen much. Dowding said this is true for bitterns, banded rails and spotless crakes.

“There are a particular set of birds which I tend to think of as cryptic water birds. Those are things which basically live in estuaries and scurry around in mangroves. You very rarely see the birds themselves. Most often the evidence you see of them is their footprints.”

Dotterel eggs blend into the beach. Photo: Dchandler CC BY-SA 3.0

The website encourages footprint spotters to upload photographs of the footprints they see to iNaturalist.nz and add them to the Animal footprints in NZ project so better reference images can be collated over time. The iNaturalist site also collects information about where prints were seen. 

Lee and Tablada hope the website helps people identify local wildlife and encourages conservation efforts.

Even the simplest of things, such as walking in the wet sand below the high tide mark - rather than in the dry sand from August to March - can help nesting dotterel. The birds lay eggs in shallow hollows and the speckled eggs blend in with dry sand.

They hope to add more footprints to the site in the future. 

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