21 Sep 2021

Eastern bar-tailed godwits arriving in New Zealand after marathon flight from Alaska

9:44 pm on 21 September 2021

Eastern bar-tailed godwits are arriving in New Zealand, after flying more than 10,000 kilometres non-stop from Alaska to reach our shores.

Eastern bar-tailed godwits are arriving in New Zealand.

Eastern bar-tailed godwits are arriving at Motueka sandspit. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

Thousands of the birds have arrived in the top of the South Island, with Nelsonians celebrating their arrival.

Gathered on the Motueka sandspit near high tide on Tuesday more than a thousand godwits were resting, beaks tucked into their wings as they recovered from their long journey.'

Across in Nelson, the cathedral bells ring out across the city to celebrate the birds' arrival.

Dean Graham O'Brien said the borders might be shut, but it was wonderful to be able to welcome the birds home.

Eastern bar-tailed godwits on the Motueka sandspit.

Eastern bar-tailed godwits on the Motueka sandspit. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

"For us, it is a reminder that we are heading into spring, the season of new life and celebrate the wonder of God's creation with these birds, flying literally around the world to be with us for summer."

Cathedral staff read a prayer - Benedicite Aotearoa, which gave thanks for kiwi, sparrow, tūī and hawk - also adding godwit to the verse.

Each year, thousands of bar tailed godwits undertake the marathon journey to return to their feeding grounds along New Zealand's coastline.

Birds New Zealand Nelson regional representative Paul Griffiths said the godwits arriving on the sandspit was a marvellous sight.

Birds New Zealand Nelson regional representative Paul Griffiths

Birds New Zealand Nelson regional representative Paul Griffiths. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

"I think they are having a bit of a rest on the beach, they have come for their holiday, they have flown for 12 days non-stop, who can begrudge them a good rest on the beach in Motueka."

The godwits have banded dotterels, caspian terns and oystercatchers for company on the sandspit.

They were also joined by ruddy turnstones, wading birds that also make the long journey from their Arctic breeding grounds to New Zealand's shores, but stop along the way.

Ornithologist David Melville said godwit numbers in Nelson Haven and on the Motueka sandspit were steadily increasing as more birds arrived from Alaska.

"I think it's important that we do welcome the godwits home because they are actually New Zealand birds that we lend to the rest of the planet, in the course of a year they spend more time in New Zealand than they spend anywhere else."

The birds were "utterly shattered" after their journey, he said.

"Several of them have been seen with their wings looking a bit droopy and this is what happens when the birds have been flying for 12,000km and eight or nine days and nights continuous flying, by the time they get here they are pretty exhausted, to say the least of it."

Melville said there were currently godwits in the air that are being tracked with satellite tags after having left Alaska.

Each season brought a chance to learn something new about the migratory birds.

"We've also got some young birds in the air for the first time, so these are now just over two years old, we weren't really expecting many of them to migrate at all this year, but we ended up with quite a few going up to China and Korea, several then went on up on into Russia and wandered around there for a few weeks before crossing over to Alaska."

The godwits will spend the next few months in New Zealand, moulting to replace their flight feathers, resting and feeding to fatten up for their return flight to Alaska in March.

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