The kuaka are back

Safely returned from Alaska. Photo by John Marais

When John Marais and I were out on the Weiti chenier on Wednesday (28/9) there were 218 kuaka/godwits roosting on the beach. There has been a steady buildup from the end of August when the winter flock of about 12 birds was suddenly increased to 25 (31/8), then 32 (2/9), 122 (21/9) until the 218 on the 28/9. The kuaka have a remarkable lifestyle. These birds left our shores in March or early April and flew directly to the Yellow Sea where they stopped for a few weeks to feed and fatten up before flying to their breeding grounds in Alaska. The summer season is brief at these high latitudes but the sun shines 24 hours a day and the insect food needed by the young is abundant. If you visited the area you would need to wear a beekeeper’s veil and boilersuit or you’d be covered in bitting midges in no time! The adults mate, lay a clutch of four eggs, which hatch out into young that are mobile and able to look after themselves from the start, so the adults promptly abandon them and fly to the Alaskan coast to feed and replenish their fat reserves before flying non-stop for eight or nine days back to Aotearoa. The young follow some weeks later – how they know to fly all that way is one of the great mysteries of bird migration.

A high tide roost site

It’s really important that you don’t disturb the roosting birds if you visit the chenier at high tide. Apart from the possibility that they will simply abandon the roost if they keep getting disturbed, and we will all be denied the pleasure of seeing them, each time they have to take to the wing they are burning calories that they need to store as fat for the coming breeding season. You can approach the birds if you move slowly, but as soon as they raise their wings or start to shuffle around retreat! Remember that the birds’ wellbeing comes before the photo you think you want and joggers please avoid the lagoon route if the tide is up.

Male dotterel colouring up as he comes into breeding mode. Photo by John Marais

There are three tuturiwhatu/dotterel pairs on the Weiti chenier and three at Karepiro but sadly none on the Okura chenier. The adults, particularly the males, are colouring up nicely, but as yet no indication of breeding. The torea pango/variable oystercatchers are starting to pair up and will stake their claims to a breeding territory soon. And our pateke pair on on the lagoon and will be breeding again soon. We saw a paradise pair with eight young ducklings while we were there.

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