Farewell to the godwits
7 March 2008
Christchurch will hold a send-off on Sunday evening for the champions of bird migration, the bar-tailed godwits, wishing them the best on their hazardous journey back to Alaska.
Residents, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts will gather at the Southshore Spit to farewell some 2000 godwits on the first leg of their two-stage journey home. It will be a quiet send-off, says Paul Kean of the Council’s Event team, adding that thoughts of the danger the wee birds face will underpin the send-off event.
“We take care not to disturb the birds as they need to conserve all their strength. The godwits feed, rest and conserve their energy during their stay with us, so it is important to leave them undisturbed and unstressed,” says Mr Kean.
There will also be an element of celebration – this is the first time in several years that Christchurch has hosted so many godwits. Currently, about 2465 Godwits are preparing for departure on local estuaries. Some 2006 Godwits were counted on the Avon-Heathcote Estuary in Christchurch, with another 85 at Brooklands Lagoon and 374 at the top end of Lyttelton Harbour.
“These are the highest numbers recorded locally for several years and it is hoped that the recent downward trend in numbers might stabilise,” says Council ranger and bird expert, Andrew Crossland. The higher numbers offer hope for the godwits which have been steadily losing habitats in the Korean and Chinese coasts
The bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica baueri) - or kuaka in the Maori language – stops off in Asia to rebuild strength before tackling the last leg to Alaska. Each of the mature fliers would have stored up to 500 grams of fat to fuel the non-stop, 10,000 km journey which is completed within eight days. The direct flights are some of the longest migratory bird flights ever recorded - and some of the toughest.
The scientific community deems the dwindling population of godwits as a Species of High Concern and Christchurch has made the godwits its own by designating them the harbingers of spring, and ensuring a safe environment for them at the Avon-Heathcote Estuary.
The Christ Church Cathedral bells peal for 30 minutes to announce the arrival of the visitors in September after a 11,000 km non-stop flight and the Christchurch City Council rangers and the Avon-Heathcote Estuary Ihutai Trust puts together a farewell event in March.
The godwits farewell will be on site at the Southshore Spit from 6pm on Sunday 9th March (at the end of Rocking Horse Road– you can catch a Route 5 bus). Please no dogs.
This year, some 2006 Godwits have been counted on the Avon-Heathcote Estuary in Christchurch, with another 85 at Brooklands Lagoon and 374 at the top end of Lyttelton Harbour. These are the highest numbers recorded locally for several years and it is hoped that the recent downward trend in numbers might stabilise, although this is probably unlikely given the huge amount of habitat that Godwits and other migratory wading birds have lost on the Korean and Chinese coasts.
Once back in the Arctic the Godwits will quickly find a mate and begin breeding. Because the Arctic has almost 24 hours of daylight for much of the breeding season, the Godwits are able to pack a lot of living into a short window of time. Their preferred breeding habitat is marshy tundra, particularly within open bogs and in swamps with scattered, stunted trees. To claim a territory and attract a mate, the male Godwit performs an aerial "sky dance" , which involves intricate aerobatic display flights and a short song. Parts of this display are sometimes seen on New Zealand estuaries just prior to migration.
The nest is constructed on the ground and consists of a shallow bowl lined with a few pieces of dry vegetation and sticks. Three to four eggs are laid and are incubated by both parents until hatching at three weeks. The chicks can walk about, swim and feed themselves from birth but they stay close to the adults until they can fly at four weeks of age. Adults depart the breeding grounds earlier than the young and often use separate staging areas on the Alaskan coast prior to migration back to New Zealand. It seems that the adults and juvenile Godwits largely migrate separately so it seems it is instinct alone that brings the young Godwits to NZ on their first migration.
New Zealand hosts 70,000 godwits each summer, but it used to be wintering home to 100,000. It is the same throughout the East Asian and Australasian flyways, where up to 85% of the shorebird populations are declining.
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