Bird News from the Beach 20/21 Seasons
The Weiti and Okura cheniers and Karepiro beach offer a wonderful opportunity to view at close hand some iconic New Zealand waders. These areas are ecologically sensitive and care should be taken to keep out of the roped-off areas where New Zealand Dotterels and Variable Oystercatchers nest, and remember not to disturb the roosting flocks of Godwits or Pied Oystercatchers on the beaches who are busy putting on weight for their coming breeding seasons. Some of the birds you are likely to see include:
New Zealand Dotterel (tuturiwhatu)These small New Zealand endemics are found on beaches around the upper half of the North Island (there is a separate population on Stewart Island/Rakiura) where they breed in simple scrapes just above the high tide mark. This bird is in breeding plumage which it sports from July until about February. After the breeding season it loses this colouration and becomes quite plain. If you find one of these birds approaching you in an agitated way between July and March, it probably has a nest close by so move away and let the birds return to sit on the eggs. In winter the birds form flocks. As the hormone levels drop these feisty little birds chill out and tolerate others of their kind. Karepiro beach is a popular winter flocking site and can host up to 20 birds during this time. we are lucky to have breeding pairs in the Karepiro area – 2 or 3 pairs on the Weiti cheniers, 1 or 2 pairs at Karepiro (though one year we had 6 pairs) and a resident pair on the Okura chenier. Breeding success has been very low in recent years with just a single chick fledged from the Weiti cheniers and none from either Karepiro or the Okura chenier. These little birds have many natural predators but it’s been the high tides that have done most of the damage in recent years washing away many of the nesting attempts. Dogs are a constant worry as a single unleashed animal can destroy all eggs or chicks for the season.
Variable and Pied Oystercatchers (torea)Variable Oystercatchers are larger and mostly black which distinguishes them from the South Island Pied Oystercatchers. The Variable Oystercatchers are locals while the Pied Oystercatchers are tourists. At the end of each winter as the breeding hormones start to kick in, the even feistier Variable Oystercatchers leave their winter flock (about 30 birds at Karepiro) and pair up to breed around our coastlines.
There are normally 2 or 3 pairs on the Weiti chenier, usually one pair at Karepiro (but we’ve had up to 3 pairs) and 2 pairs on the Okura chenier. They lay 1-3 eggs in a simple scrape above the high tide mark, and like the dotterels have had poor breeding seasons for the past 3 years. Only a single chick was fledged from the Okura chenier this season. Continued pest control at all 3 sites and weed clearance to maintain good nesting conditions maximises breeding success. It’s a wonderful sight to see young dotterel and oystercatcher chicks on our beaches – feathered ping-pong balls scurrying around under the watchful eye of their parents.The Pied Oystercatchers come up north to the spend the winters recovering from their breeding season on the braided rivers of the South Island and Hawkes Bay and preparing for the coming breeding season. Since 2013, more than 300 birds have regularly overwintered at Karepiro. There was a decrease in the winters of 2019 (maximum 170 birds) and 2020 (maximum 240 birds), which we put down to a shellfish die-off during the summer of 2019 that resulted in a decrease in food supply and hence numbers of birds able to be supported. This winter numbers seemed to have returned to normal.
The wet ‘hayfield’ in the Weiti development is also providing additional food in the form of worms that the birds can feed on while the tide covers their feeding grounds out on the mud flats. You can also see smaller numbers of Pied Oystercatchers over the summer because not all birds reach breeding condition by September and so don’t make the journey south. This summer there were up to 80 birds present.
Bar-tailed Godwits (kuaka)Our Godwits spend the summer in New Zealand before they fly off to Alaska to breed. They undertake this remarkable journey twice a year, departing in March to fly to the Yellow Sea to refuel before continuing to Alaska to breed over the short arctic summer. As soon as the chicks hatch, they can fend for themselves and are soon abandoned by their parents who return to New Zealand in September after a non-stop eight-day flight. The young follow later.
Each year Karepiro hosts a flock just shy of 200 birds who feed on the mudflats and roost on Karepiro Beach or the Weiti chenier. In summer they are a drab brown colour, but as the summer ends they start to acquire their breeding plumage of russet reds. Not all birds reach breeding condition and in recent years a flock of 20 odd has remained to overwinter with us. You can get quite close to the Godwit flock on Karepiro Beach if you view them from the grass track at the back of the dunes. You can always tell if they are getting worried by your approach as they will start to lift their wings which is Godwit for ‘back off’!