A plucky migrating godwit that captured New Zealand’s attention after it was forced to make a dramatic U-turn back to Alaska after 33 hours of non-stop flight has finally touched down in the country.
Every year, the Eastern bar-tailed godwits, or kuaka in Māori, make one of the longest avian migration flights in the world, travelling from their breeding ground in the Arctic, across the Pacific, to New Zealand.
About 80,000 godwits arrive in New Zealand each year, and move into harbours and estuaries across the two islands. Typically, the flocks are welcomed in September, sometimes to the sound of Cathedral bells.
This year, a female godwit, identified as 4BYWW by the bands on her legs, was confirmed as having made the longest flight ever recorded by a land bird. She travelled non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand, a journey of 12,200km that took eight days and 12 hours at an average speed of 59km/h.
But one unlucky godwit, an adult male known as 4BWRB, was forced to take a large U-turn over the Pacific Ocean, finishing up back at its Alaska take-off point after 57 hours of constant flight.
4BWRB took off from tidal flats in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim delta on 11 September before encountering strong winds 2,000km into his journey and turning back after 33 hours of outward bound flight, the Department of Conservation reported.
It spent 11 days back in Alaska before giving the journey another try. It made it to New Caledonia, then spent five weeks resting before taking off again – destination New Zealand. In a feat of stunning perseverance, it arrived in the North Island’s Firth of Thames just after midnight on Tuesday morning.
The manager of the Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre, Keith Woodley, said the unlucky 4BWRB – which also had to stop in New Caledonia last year – had failed to do the non-stop flight three times in the past year.
“So I mean, you wouldn’t want it to buy you a Lotto ticket. But now it’s back here, it’s got time to recover, it’s got time to do the feather moult and time to get all the preparations on track.”
Woodley has a particular fondness for the extraordinary efforts godwits go to before migration. They replace all their feathers to ready themselves for the next migratory flight and undergo physiological changes to enable them to store fat more efficiently.
Over the next few days he will be out scouring the estuary to try to spot 4BRWB and “welcome him back”.
The Pūkorokoro Miranda Naturalists’ Trust was formed in 1975 and built its centre in 1990 to promote awareness of coastal ecology and shorebirds. Most of the godwits fitted with tracking devices are caught in Pūkorokoro, with the trust’s help.
4BWRB is one of 20 godwits fitted with radio transmitters. Monitoring the species helps scientists to assess the impact of weather on ultra-long-distance migration in real time, and to understand how migrating godwits adapt to changing weather.
Woodley said climate change was a problem for godwits “at every point of the compass”. In New Zealand, sea level rise is reducing habitats and foraging grounds; in Alaska, rising temperatures are changing the breeding environment and arrival of insects, which the godwit relies on for food. Unpredictable weather conditions across both hemispheres are affecting their flights.
“Everywhere you look, these birds are likely to be affected by climate change,” Woodley said.