The legendary globetrotter

From a distance I saw the dense black colour of the crowd of oystercatchers in a familiar spot on the shoreline of the inner Whangamata harbour. The blackness was interspersed by the bright red/orange of their beaks.  I knew the area well as last summer among the oystercatchers were pairs of New Zealand dotterels and their chicks.

As we drove into the grassy reserve, I spotted a cluster of brown/grey/red birds beside the oystercatchers and immediately became quite excited. They were not Dotterels but bar-tailed godwits – a bird I had so far not managed to photograph.

I quickly dismissed the oystercatchers and set myself up on the edge of the sand to photograph the birds, about 10 metres from them. They seemed oblivious to my presence or the long black object hiding my face – my fabulous NIKKOR 500mm lens. For the next hour or so, I lost myself with the wonder of these amazing birds.

Often described as a bird with legendary abilities, the bar-tailed godwit pulls off the longest non-stop migratory flight of any bird so that it can have year-round access to the best food the world has to offer.   Imagine eating your way to obesity to migrate from one hemisphere to another, then losing it all before making the return journey. That is what these delightful creatures achieve.

The bird’s usual colouring is of browns and greys but before departing for the breeding season in Alaska, the male transforms itself changing the colour and contrast of its feathers around his head, neck, and belly. The female gains a pale red flush and some streaking.

Anatomically they transform themselves, putting on sufficient weight to provide fuel or energy to sustain it for more than a week. Its body weight is doubled, packing it around the heart, gizzard, and intestines. It also shrinks its digestive organs so as not to weigh it down during the flight, especially as it will not be stopping en route.

In March the birds depart New Zealand and head to Alaska, with a three-to-four-week stopover in China and Korea – completing 10,000km on leg one, and 6,000km on leg two. 

In September they return to New Zealand making the 11,000km flight in one go, with no stops at all.  Imagine them flapping their wings non-stop, no tail drifting or anything, just flap, flap, and more flapping. It’s a miracle almost beyond comprehension when you see the size of the birds. More amazing is that 90% of the birds survive the long haul journey.

By the time they have returned to New Zealand the birds are unrecognisable. They have burned the fat and muscle once required. Some feathers will be tattered, and wings may droop – an indication of fatigue. In fact, I noticed one bird with a very droopy wing which I thought was injured. It wasn’t until sharing the image with one of my specialist nature photography colleagues, that he said a “droopy wing is an indication of a fatigued bird”.

Post arrival in New Zealand the birds drink and sleep for about one week. Then they return to the task of feeding to start the cycle of fattening up, all over again. Their diet consists of 94% marine worms found walking the intertidal flats.  

The bar-tailed godwit which we see turns up in estuaries and harbours around New Zealand’s coast with many congregating around the Firth of Thames, the Manukau and Kaipara hours and Farewell Spit.  

Observing the godwit’s behaviour is entertainment. They tended to stand quite close together, either resting on one leg, sleeping, preening, or feeding. Being close together obviously makes photographing them more difficult as ideally, I want to capture one bird at a time, and specifically any behavioural acts, such as preening, stretching, yawning, bathing, or flying. The birds mixed freely with the Oystercatchers, who also provide entertainment and fascination. It wasn’t until an unleashed dog came running out of nowhere that the birds quickly scattered, but I wasn’t quick enough to get the sought-after mass aerial flight shot.  Another time!

I hope you enjoy looking at these photographs as much as the joy I get in photographing the birds.

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