How a Kaikōura couple found meaning and comfort protecting a rare native bird.

The dotterel whisperers.

To say Ailsa McGilvaryHoward loves the banded dotterel is an understatement. She literally wears one on her heart — on a necklace. Ailsa’s first encounter with the pompom-like native bird was during hard times. She and her husband Ted had been married for 20 years when he was diagnosed with cancer and told he only had a few months to live. “I sought solace to deal with the possibility of losing my husband,” says Ailsa. “I’d always been drawn to birds, so naturally, the beach became a place to reflect on what was happening to us.”

One evening, as Ailsa watched the sunset from the dramatic coastline south of Kaikōura, she looked down and there, by her foot, was one of the most elusive of all New Zealand’s birds. “The little dotterel was just sitting on its eggs,” she recalls. She began monitoring the dotterels and their nests along the 500-metre stretch of beach. But one weekend, she found that the first nest of eggs she’d seen had disappeared.

To Ailsa, it felt like a cry for help.

Sometimes, native birds such as the banded dotterel can be misunderstood. “People are inclined to think: ‘God, those birds are so dumb. Why are their nests on the ground?’ Perhaps they don’t realise that the dotterel evolved in this habitat when the country was inhabited only by birds,” Ailsa says. Both she and Ted, who miraculously beat the odds of his terminal diagnosis, believe New Zealanders need to step up to help save these birds. “We are a part of nature, and we need to be aware of that,” Ted says.

The pair are at the beach from 5am to 6pm every day during the breeding season, monitoring the nests and eggs. They also spend time using thermal scopes, trapping predators, tracking flightpaths, advocating for predator containment, and much more.

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Ted compares starting their work saving the dotterel to pulling a thread of a sock.

“Before you know it, the whole sock comes undone,” he says. Seven years after they started, their contribution has earned them each a well-deserved Queen’s Service Medal.

Ailsa and Ted follow the birds from nested eggs through their incubation period and beyond. They have been tracking some for years. “When they die, there is such heartache. When you work with a species that won’t replace itself, if a bird dies, there isn’t one to step up to its place,” Ailsa says.

This year will be Ailsa and Ted’s eighth season. Their territory has grown from 500 metres to a six-kilometre stretch of beach. There’s no doubt this distance will continue growing as long as Ted and Ailsa are involved. “We know what’s important to us,” Ailsa says. “And our experience with Ted and cancer made us both want to give back. To do something worthwhile.”• that felt

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