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Ohiwa Harbour  (reviews, reports)

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Migrant waders have been gathering this month at estuaries around the country in preparation for their return to the breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere arctic wastes, a journey which is truly one of the wonders of the natural world.

In the Bay of Plenty here, many thousands of birds gather, at Tauranga Harbour, Maketu and Ohiwa Harbour, and gathering with them are bird lovers around the Bay, quietly bidding them farewell and safe passage.

Most people are aware of the arrival and departure of Kuaka, the godwit, but there are a number of other birds that also make the long trek to the arctic breeding grounds. Despite the isolation and relative small size of New Zealand in the vast expanse of the South Pacific ocean, at least 36 arctic waders have been recorded here and of these about a dozen are annual visitors, some in small numbers and the rest irregular stragglers.

Most arctic waders visiting New Zealand form part of the East Asian - Australasian Flyway populations. This flyway is one of the least understood of the world's migration flyways as much of the flight path, inaccessible to ornithologists and bird watchers, has had to be deduced from the scanty evidence of recovered banded birds.

About mid-September the vanguard of tens of thousands of arctic waders reaches New Zealand and quickly re-occupy traditional feeding grounds from Parengarenga Harbour in the far north to Stewart Island in the far south. The influx continues throughout October and tails off in November.

By far the most numerous of the immigrants are Kuaka, the Eastern bar-tailed godwit with Huahou, the lesser knot, following them in numbers. Turnstones, red-necked stints, whimbrels, Pacific golden plovers, curlews, sharp-tailed sandpipers and eastern curlew also arrive but in much smaller numbers. Rare migrants that stray from their regular migration route and reach New Zealand only occasionally such as the Siberian and wandering tattlers, terek sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, large sand dotterel, Mongolian dotterel, grey plover, sanderling, Hudsonian godwit, greenshank and marsh sandpiper, are termed vagrants.

About 100,000 bar-tailed godwits visit New Zealand every year, approximately 25-30 per cent of the East-Asian Australasian Flyway population. Of these about 15000, which are assumed to be juveniles, over winter here and do not make the great trek north. Although the evidence is not conclusive, wader studies done by the ornithological society seem to support the Alaskan origin of most New Zealand birds. The godwit probably migrates the 11000 km from their breeding grounds in Alaska directly over the Pacific to New Zealand, an incredible journey, especially as a good many are young birds. The return route is probably via northern Australia or New Guinea and northern Asia rather than directly across the Pacific.

About 60000 lesser knots, nondescript waders smaller than godwits, visit New Zealand annually, approximately 25-30 per cent pf the East Asian - Australasian Flyway population. As ascertained from banded birds, they return to Siberia in three long flights over an 8-10 week period, flying to southern Irian Jaya and probably the Gulf of Carpentaria, then onto north eastern China or Korea and then finally on to Siberia. The return flight here in the spring follows a similar path. Some 6000 over winter here.

About 5000 turnstone, a very striking looking wader with variegated white, black, brown and tortoise-shell plumage, visit New Zealand each year. They represent about 15-20% of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway population.

Only about 150-300 little red-necked stints visit here each summer whereas some 200,000 visit Australia.

When the birds arrive in the spring, they are lean tired and hungry, just feathers and bones and within a few weeks the tide line will be littered with fallen feathers as they moult, but by the end of the year they will have renewed their strength and will be wearing a fresh eclipse plumage, basically brownish grey above and white below.

About six weeks before they leave for their distant breeding grounds, the adult males, godwits, knots and curlew sandpipers sport a gorgeous red nuptial dress, the spangling of the golden plovers becomes much brighter and the underpants look like black velvet. The tiny red-necked stints develop brick red feathering on the head and neck.

Watching them roosting on the sandbanks at Ohiwa Spit at high tide, chattering away and preening themselves, one wonders what happened in the deep past to drive these migrations, what geophysical and climate changes? And as they move off in small groups one wonders how they will respond to new challenges to their survival, to further climate change?

The Spring and Autumn Migration Days are events which are attracting growing interest from the public not to mention that with the advent of traveling to New Zealand has never been as easy and as budget-friendly for everyone to explore these great sights. John Gale of the Miranda Trust has been promoting the idea that the arrival and departure of the migratory birds become an official New Zealand festival.

Narena Olliver, 2000.

Reference: Wader Studies in NZ, Notornis, Vol.46, March 1999

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(page last updated  07 July 2011)