An entire colony of very rare birds disappeared during New Zealand’s coronavirus lockdown.
There are just 250 shore plovers, or tūturuatu, left in the wild. The small native birds are known for their friendly nature, which unfortunately makes them vulnerable to predators.
After almost being wiped out by cats and rats in 1880, the plovers spent 100 years living in the Chatham Islands, 640km west of the New Zealand mainland.
In 2007 a colony of the birds was introduced to Mana Island, off the coast of the North Island, but sadly just a few years later a single rat wiped out half the population. The remainder of the birds died shortly afterwards.
Conservationists had avoided reintroducing the plovers to Mana Island until this year, when 29 young birds were transported there over April and May.
Some of the birds needed government approval to travel during New Zealand’s famously strict lockdown.
After being colour-banded the birds were left to their own devices. But now the Department of Conservation (DoC) says it appears almost the entire plover population has vanished from the island.
The mysterious disappearance is being blamed on predators like the morepork owl (rūrū), but there is also the possibility the birds left the island voluntarily and flew back to the mainland.
Three survivors have been tracked to a beach above the capital Wellington, and a search and recovery team is hoping to recapture them this week.
Members of the public have been reporting sightings of the birds which has helped DoC keep an eye on their whereabouts.
Shore plover recovery group leader Dave Houston says the plovers’ disappearance is frustrating after the long, expensive recovery effort.
“The birds haven’t stayed at home like we hoped they would,” he told The Guardian.
“We honestly don’t know what is making them leave; but it could be that a single bird decided to fly to the mainland and everyone else followed them – it could be random behaviour, we’re not sure.”
Despite adults measuring just 20cm long, the misbehaving birds have been known to fly as far as 460km south to Christchurch.
“It is frustrating, we can give them strict instructions, but they choose not to obey,” Mr Houston said.
“They are a challenging species to manage, so it’s a great loss to then lose them. But we persist.”
If the three beach survivors are captured they’ll be returned to Mana Island where they will be held in an aviary for an entire month to help them re-establish “fidelity” to their home.
They’ll also be fitted with radio transmitters to help with tracking if they escape again in the future.