Pūkorokoro Miranda News – August 2021 Issue 121
This special godwit issue is full of the latest research on Bar-tailed godwits and insight from Keith Woodley into the strikingly different life of these birds in their northern home.
I have seen the nest of the Kuaka
By Keith Woodley
To ancient Māori the Bar-tailed Godwits that visited every spring and summer were birds of wonder. They had a saying, ‘Kua kite te kohanga kuaka?’ or ‘Who has seen the nest of the kuaka?’ to describe a great mystery. Kuaka were sometimes said to accompany the spirits of the dead to Hawaiki or to have pointed the great Polynesian explorers towards the land of Aotearoa far to the south. Today we know these birds breed in Alaska and have tracked them flying 12,000km non-stop to New Zealand. But there are still very few New Zealanders who can reply to that mystical query: ‘I have seen the nest of a Kuaka.’ But Shorebird Centre manager Keith Woodley can.
I had been on the tundra for 12 days when, at 17:26 on 6 May, I watched a male godwit land on the snow across the slough opposite our camp. It was the first to be recorded at Old Chevak that season. Standing behind my scope, over 12,000 km from Pūkorokoro, it was an intensely thrilling moment for me. Over the next few days more godwits arrived, joining increasing throngs of swans and geese, plovers, turnstones, terns, ducks, gulls, and cranes. All restless and noisy, fizzing with energy and activity.
I had arrived in Alaska fully aware that godwit nests are not easy to find. Birds familiar as flocks in New Zealand, disperse to nest sites over vast areas of tundra. There might be one pair in several square kilometres. And the birds are cryptic and cunning, finely tuned by evolution to be cautious. There was every possibility I would spend weeks camped there and not see one.
A few days later there had been a lot of activity around our camp. Brian McCaffery and I watched courtship displays and territorial defence postures. We listened to the incredibly loud cries of males displaying overhead. The snow cover was receding rapidly and virtually all the tundra was now exposed. Only the sloping banks of the slough and nearby marshes still held snow and ice. Low lying areas of mosses were very soft and spongy.
By 12 May we had established that at least one pair had a territory within 500 metres of the old church, where we were based. Most convenient. This was the Boatshed Marsh pair that features in Godwits: long-haul champions. The next day we were joined by Dutch shorebird photographer Jan van de Kam and Eddie Corp a Yu’pik trainee ranger.
Monday 19 May proved to be auspicious, although it got off to a chilly start. Light rain the night before, had frozen overnight and there was a heavy layer of ice on my tent fly. Observations over the last two days had suggested our godwit pair were particularly interested in one section of tundra. We had watched copulations along with successful efforts by both birds to chase off any rivals. We had witnessed nest scraping at several locations within the area of interest. The following is an extract from my journal:
Eddie came over just before 1400 and said, ‘I have found their nest.’ He had flushed the male from where he was sitting in the nest which contained one egg. It was in the broad sector that I had a hunch about given the behaviour of the last few days. I gave Eddie my water bottle to put 20m back from the nest before getting the flag. Despite being sorely tempted, having come all this way, I refrained from going to have a look at it, especially given the poor breeding success here in recent years. I stood off. Human scent is considered a lethal marker for foxes and the like. (Talking with Brian later I said I felt exhilarated to be where they are nesting – that I haven’t actually seen it does not matter.) Later as we headed back to camp the female came over and landed 150m or so past where the nest is. She perched prominently for a minute or two, then advanced before stopping again. Eventually she was in the vicinity of the nest, and we assumed she was sitting (and hopefully laying).
Then two days later disaster struck. We found the nest damaged and empty, most likely the work of an Arctic Fox. A massive blow for us, but stark evidence of the difficulties facing breeding birds in this place. Five days later came some consolation.
Another sullen, cold day: some light rain but a persistent cold wind. Brian was outside monitoring the godwit pair across the slough – he had watched the female visit one of the male’s scrapes alone: so we did a stint monitoring them – they were up and down, often obscured behind the fish camp and tundra hummocks. Jan mentioned the slough was still crossable, so a decision was made to go and look at the scrapes, especially the one where the female had been seen sitting alone twice … Brian stayed stationed with the scope to direct us, and Jan, Eddie and I set off across the slough. We walked through the sedge and other vegetation in front of the church that I had only hitherto looked at, but where I had watched snipe, dowitchers, phalaropes, western sandpipers, dunlins, geese, and teal. …. On to the ice: an extraordinary experience. Initially I felt easy about it but then noticed the caution with which Eddie and Jan approached each section of ice, and given their experience, I fell into cautionary line! Big long sections of ice with varying cracks in between, some just centimetres wide, others up to a metre: but uneven width so there was always somewhere to cross. Some ice slabs tilted and rocked, and these were to be avoided, hence the caution. Dark soft mud on the bank leading up to the sedge fields. Given the landmarks, particularly one single tall tuft of grass, we were able to walk almost directly towards the scrape area – good looking tundra from up close. With some gesturing from Brian, we closed in, and Eddie found it – a nest with one egg. We stayed several metres back and carried on past the area to avoid a thereand-back track. But I have seen the nest of kuaka! Not much cover around it and not much marking on the egg (surprising to Jan, and to Brian when he later saw the photos). So not particularly well camouflaged. But such a big egg – one of those things you read about and hear about – but nothing quite prepares you for that first encounter and the realisation that they are so big! Jan and I took photos and we retreated across the ice.
Later I was privileged to contribute to ornithological history in recording re-nesting of Bar-tailed Godwits when the Boatshed Marsh pair laid a second clutch. Which I did get to see.
Other articles in this issue
What have our tracked godwits been up to lately
Updates from the international godwit tracking program including the surprising travels of the immature godwits that have just turned 2 years old and indications of this seasons breeding success for the adults in the arctic.
Exciting new insights into our amazing godwits
The international tracking program is already providing a series of exciting and fresh insights into the Bar-tailed godwit. Associate professor Phil Battley from Massey University, outlines these on a webinar organised by the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership.
A godwit relationship to set your calendar by
A 13-year relationship between Bar-tailed godwit AJD and Whanganui photographer Paul Gibson
A new New Zealand record for high-flying godwits
A sighting of a Bar-tailed godwit from the highest peak in the Kaikoura Ranges, Tapuae-o-Uenuku, breaks the record for highest sighting by more than 200m.
Oldest New Zealand godwit record
A bar-tailed godwit banded in 1993 was seen and photographed in Brisbane in November last year. An incredible record of 28 years and 3 month old.
Tōrea ET phones home to help save the species
A joint project between DOC, Manaaki Whenua/Landcare Research, Birds NZ and the Pūkorokoro Miranda Naturalists’ Trust is aiming to provide our New Zealand internal migrants with better protection. They’re starting by fitting flags and transmitters on South Island Pied Oystercatchers and asking birders for any sightings.