Winging it to New Zealand!
If you are an international visitor traveling to New Zealand, you may be slightly wary of the long flight involved – if you are coming from North America it is about 10-14 hours direct flight and from the UK double that over two flights!
So how would you feel about setting off on a 7 to eleven day non-stop 11,500-kilometer journey by air? no in-flight service, plenty of turbulence, self-powered and with no guarantees you are actually going to make it?
We think that is a pretty daunting concept – yet each year, this is what the tenacious Eastern Bar-Tailed Godwit sets out to do. From Alaska or Siberia, they gather up and head south and west to the shores of New Zealand and Australia.
It is a remaining mystery as to why, and so too as to how the godwits make this annual flight! They do not fly in the jet stream as do Canada geese, and they do not stop along the way to rest or feed which makes theirs the longest non-stop migratory journey of any bird in the world. (The Arctic Tern lays claim to the longest route but with stops along the way).
Many of the birds land and stay on the north island, but each year Okarito awaits the return of its annual visitors. In Christchurch
they signal the return of the godwits by ringing the church bells – the first sign of spring!
The godwits may come and go from the Okarito lagoon in the spring – they must find the best food source quickly and will visit adjacent lagoons. But as the summer settles in, so do the birds and we see them more and more regularly as the season progresses.
By February the birds are easily the girth of an oystercatcher or even larger! Their breasts turn a rusty buff red colour, signalling their breeding plumage and preparation for their return journey.
Younger godwits who have made their first journey to New Zealand will spend the winter in residence as they still will not have built up their strength or be prepared for the breeding season back in Alaska.
In Okarito we generally expect to see up to 100 birds or more mid to late summer and about 12-18 of those may spend the winter. We’ll post a sequel to this blog late in summer to let you know how the Okarito godwits have fared this season!