Hauraki-Coromandel Post - 2021-10-14


In Thames waiting for godwits


Alison Smith

Resilient and loyal international visitors are continuing to arrive at the Firth of Thames and Coromandel’s coastal towns — despite New Zealand’s lockdowns. MIQ means nothing to the bartailed godwit, a species that makes the longest non-stop flight of any bird in the world. Flocks of these and other migratory wading birds are regulars to the food found in the 8500ha of intertidal mudflats and shell banks along the Pukorokoro Miranda coast on the western Firth of Thames. Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre manager Keith Woodley says there’s no better time than a global pandemic to celebrate these resilient and fascinating birds who have helped sustain a tourism industry of their own. An exciting promotional tool is the satellite tracking of the birds’ journey across the East Asian Australasian Flyway to Alaska. “Godwits are a gift that just keep on giving,” says Keith. Technological advances on the tracking devices now used have provided a fuller picture of the birds’ journeys and include one bird that went back to Alaska from the Firth of Thames and, after 11 days, started out again. “It’s now in New Caledonia,” says Keith. “The same bird flew last year from Alaska to New Caledonia and we don’t know if this bird always does this or has been three times unlucky in its attempts to return.” Some 20 adults and 20 juvenile birds were fitted in 2019 with the satellite tags designed to last three years. “Now we’ve got the migration tracks of individual birds which is fascinating,” says Keith. He has been with the centre for 28 years and authored a book on the birds but is always learning: “We think we’ve reached the limits of what they can do, then they’ll show us something else amazing.” Keith was giving an interview to Radio New Zealand about a new world record by a female that flew 12,200km non-stop to the Firth of Thames, when “in front of my eyes” the satellite tracked a male landing in New South Wales, Australia, having clocked 13,000km. Keith says their physiology has potential for worldwide research. Three times a year the godwit becomes morbidly obese, doubling its weight before its long flight. It must produce more red blood cells to carry more fat tissue and, unlike humans, the yoyo dieting doesn’t negatively affect them. What does, however, is any loss of habitat and feeding grounds. Volunteers of the Firth’s shorebird centre are passionate about protection of godwits and the backyard they rely upon. “Be mindful of how the health of our intertidal systems keeps this process going,” implores Keith. “In order to do these amazing things, these birds have to have enough food, which is found on the mudflats. So the health of those mudflats is critical.” Loss of intertidal habitat began with deforestation and drainage of the plains, worsened with intensive farming, pesticide and fertiliser overuse and subsequent mangrove growth in the fine sediments and nutrients of tidal fringes. As a bird with a nationality shared with other countries, it suffers environmental pressures everywhere on its journey. The birds face habitat loss and degradation in the Yellow Sea region of China, and sea-level rise impacting habitats there and in Australia, North Korea, South Korea and Alaska. “As symbols of endurance and resilience, they are inspiring to us. They are also the canaries of what lies ahead, confronting climate change that will impact on them at every point of their cycle.” Keith believes godwits are the best candidate for the next Bird of the Year. Along with the Firth, coastal towns of Tairua, Pauanui, Opoutere, Whangamata, Matarangi and in smaller numbers at Colville and Coromandel Town are regular haunts for the bar-tailed godwit. Celebrating the resilience of the godwits is something Keith thinks would be a great excuse for a festival. “I’d like to see a festival established to welcome them back,” he says, “perhaps a cultural art-based festival.” Keith says before Covid, birding was an international tourism industry worth billions of dollars. The biggest habitat for bar-tailed godwits is the Manukau Harbour, followed by the Kaipara, Farewell Spit and the Firth of Thames/coromandel. A webinar including a Q&A session is planned for October 19, at 8pm. More at nz or phone 09 232 2781.


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