Each southern summer, Pacific golden plovers can be found feeding on islands across the Pacific, from Hawaii to New Zealand.
In winter, the small wading birds head north to breed in the Arctic.
But exactly where the hundred-or-so New Zealand golden plovers or kuriri head to, and the route they fly to get there, has been a mystery – until this year.
Twilight on the Firth of Thames, and a small group of bird watchers peer intently through their spotting scopes. They are trying to catch a glimpse of a few Pacific golden plovers amongst the many thousands of bar-tailed godwits that gather on the low shell bank as the high tide inundates the mud flats where the birds feed at low tide.
The birders are keen to see three birds in particular: Whero, Tea, and Kikorangi, named red, white and blue for their distinctive plastic leg bands. These three plovers were fitted with satellite trackers the night before and the team wants to know they are still in good form, feeding and flying as usual.
They are also looking for three returning plovers, completing a clockwise trip around the Pacific Ocean that began in April and has taken them to Alaska and back.
Keith Woodley, manager of the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre, explains that although the Pacific golden plover is the fourth most common migrant wader to visit New Zealand each southern summer, we knew nothing about them and their annual migration until this satellite tracking project began earlier this year.
Retired journalist and shorebird enthusiast Jim Eagles started the Pacific golden plover project, enlisting the assistance of Hawaiian bird experts who have come to New Zealand to help catch and tag the mysterious wading birds, which are the size of a blackbird.
The Hawaiians, says Jim, have been very surprised at the wary, elusive behaviour of the New Zealand kuriri. In Hawaii, Pacific golden plovers are numerous and very tame; they hang out on lawns, golf courses and even grassy traffic islands, and the researchers easily catch them using net guns, which fire a light net over the birds.
In New Zealand, on the other hand, the plovers keep a low profile amongst the large flocks of godwits, red knots and turnstones, and are notable for their ability to melt away from sight.
When it comes to finding the birds, Keith says that “we’ve got a fairly good feel about where they like to be sometimes, but they always seem to confound us.”
The team has 10 satellite trackers to deploy and in their first 10-day effort, back in February 2019, they managed to catch three birds and fit them with the tags.
The first three birds were named Jim, Jojo and Amanda, after three enthusiastic team members.
“You can call me hopelessly addicted. Or obsessed, which is why I think I ended up with one named after me,” says Amanda Hunt, who works for the shorebird centre as a guide and was delighted to have a kuriri named after her.
Jim, Jojo and Amanda (the plovers, not the people) left for their migration north to the Arctic in mid to late April.
Amanda was the first to leave and she flew to Japan, where she was recorded near Tokyo and later photographed in a rice paddy. From there she flew first to Siberia for a few days, before flying on to the Yukon Delta in Alaska, where her presence in the same location for a few weeks indicated she was probably breeding.
Jim, who turned out to be a female, flew to the Yellow Sea on the Chinese coast and then also crossed the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia on her way to Alaska. She changed location frequently while there, including making a long side trip to the Aleutian Islands and this peripatetic behaviour suggested she didn’t breed.
Both Amanda and Jim’s trackers stopped transmitting before they began to travel south back to New Zealand.
Jojo, who turned out to be a male, flew to Japan first and then carried on directly to the same area in Alaska as the other birds, where he seems to have bred.
When he left Alaska, Jojo flew past Hawaii, landing first on the small island of Teraina (Washington) in the northern Line Islands of Kiribati; he spent a month there. In late October he travelled on to the island of Tongatapu.
In late November, it seems that Jojo has left Tonga and is flying back to New Zealand.
Amanda, Keith and Jim are keeping a keen eye out for the returning plovers, which have shown for the first time that the kuriri that arrive in New Zealand each summer breed in Alaska, and not in Siberia.
Jim says the team will try and deploy the four remaining satellite trackers in late January 2020, when the tides and moon cycle will be favourable for mist-netting and cannon netting. They have until April, when the kuriri will once again leave the Firth of Thames to fly to breeding grounds in Alaska.
We will update you on the birds’ progress on Our Changing World during 2020, and the Pacific golden plover project is sharing its updates on the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre Facebook page. The trackers only report in every few days, in an effort to save limited battery power.
Find out more about New Zealand shorebirds
Shorebirds at Miranda with Keith Woodley.
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Wading birds with bird photographer David Hallett in the Avon-Heathcote Estuary in Christchurch.
New Zealand dotterels on Great Barrier Island.
Banding together for banded dotterels.