Yellow flagged Knot

This article appeared in the February 2008 issue of Miranda News. It may not be reproduced without permission. Author, Gillian Vaughan.

Over the years there has been a lot of mention in our magazine of the various banding projects taking place in New Zealand and along the Flyway.

We’ve tried to keep people in touch with these programmes because if more people are on the look out for bands and flags, then more information comes back, and the more sightings that are recorded, the more valuable the projects become.

One of the consequences of having bands on birds is we get a number of people coming into the Shorebird Centre saying they have seen a green band on a Wrybill, and asking what that means.

Seeing just one band can mean a lot or it can mean nothing, it depends on the project. This article puts together the details on how much you need to see to know what it means! Having a little information about the birds you are looking at can add interest to your birding – and make you sound impressive to those standing around you.

Arctic Migrants
Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebirds Centre godwit migration
There are two main schemes involving the Arctic migrants: flagging and colour banding.

The biggest programme on the Flyway has been the flagging of the Arctic migrants. For these birds you need to see if there is one flag or two, and what colour they are. This will indicate where that bird was banded and flagged.

Most of the time the flag or flags are on the upper part of the bird’s leg (the tibia). Where there are two flags they will usually both be on the tibia, but sometimes the second flag is on the lower part of the leg (the tarsus). Many of the different combinations in use are listed in the box below. You’ll note that all of the locations shown in the list are in the East-Asian Australasian Flyway. Other Flyways also run flagging programmes, so if you see a familiar looking flag when in South America or England, it will mean something else.

Recording the number of birds in a flock that were banded in other countries will, over time, allow for the discovery of main stop-over sites, the amount of movement between non-breeding sites, and show us the relationship between the breeding and non-breeding areas. The NZ Wader Study Groups newsletter publishes the detail on these on a periodic basis.

More recently many sites have started engraving numbers and letters on the flags, these identify individual birds. However to know which individual, you need to see the species, the flag colour and all the letters on the flags then send them in to be recorded (see addresses at end of article). NZ birds have white flags engraved with three black letters on the flags, those with black engraved flags have a white letter and a number. Most of the overseas programmes have either a letter and a number or two letters.

flag positions
Flag positions used in the colour banding of arctic migrants, 7 and 8 not pictured as they have not been used yet in NZ. Keep a diagram in the back of your notebook to help you remember them all.
Colour Banding

In the last few years Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knots and Turnstones have been banded with unique colour band combinations. Until recently this occurred only in NZ, however a similar project started about two years ago in North West Australia. There are four colours and a flag in each combination. The colours used in NZ are red, blue, white and yellow with a white flag. NW Australia is using red, blue, yellow and lime green with a yellow flag.

To know which bird you are seeing you need to know each band and the location of the flag. Colour bands are read left to right (the birds left and right!) and top to bottom, the flag can be above the ‘knee’ on either leg, below the ‘knee’ but above the bands or between the bands (see illustration). Be careful with the whites and yellows as some of the whites become stained; if you aren’t sure if its white or yellow write that down! You’ll need to report these to get the details about the individual bird.

In general birds with a flag on the left leg were banded in the South Island, those with the flag on the right were banded in the North Island. Most (but not all!) of the birds banded around Auckland have a flag on the upper part of the right leg, position 2.

A different colour banding project was run in North West Australia for several years where Arctic migrants of a known age were given a single colour band instead of a flag. Different ages were given different colours, this project has finished, and there are only a few records in NZ, however keep your eyes open for a bird with a single red, white, yellow, dark green or light blue colour band

NZ Locals
pukorokoro miranda shorebird centre shore plover
Banded Shore Plover
South Island Pied Oystercatchers

SIPO with a white flag were banded in the Firth of Thames, if they sport a plain yellow flag they were banded in the Kaipara – not North West Australia! If they are carrying an engraved yellow flag on the right leg they have been caught in the Nelson area since 2008. There are also a number with colour bands, banded as part of a small study down in Canterbury.


Wrybills have been colour banded on the breeding grounds, they can have three colours and a metal or four colours, if they have three colours on one leg the other leg only has a metal on it. If the combination doesn’t have an orange band the bird was probably banded in the last three years. Other than that if you want to know the details of the bird you’ve seen you’ll need to report the combination.

Black Billed Gulls
Colour CombinationSummer the bird was bandedLocation the bird was banded
Y – M*94/95Manukau
M – G95/96Firth of Thames
GM – Nil96/97Firth of Thames
R – M96/97Kaipara
Nil – GM97/98Firth of Thames
M – R97/98Kaipara
Nil – RM98/99Kaipara
R – RM99/2000Kaipara
G – M2000/01Firth of Thames
RM – R2000/01Kaipara
M – Y2001/02Manukau
YM – Nil2002/03Firth of Thames
YM – Nil2003/04Mataitai
* M= Metal. The colour combinations used on groups of Black-billed Gull chicks banded in and around the harbours of Auckland.

Around the Firth of Thames there are two groups of colour banded Black-billed Gulls. Those that have only one colour and a metal band are banded as chicks; only chicks hatched from that site in that year have that combination. Those with a green band were hatched in the Firth, those with a yellow band were hatched in the Manukau (except for YM-nil which was a combination used twice in the Firth). Birds with a red band or bands were hatched in the Kaipara. By getting a look at both legs you can see how old the bird is and where it was banded.

There are also individually banded birds, marked as part of an ongoing study looking at mate selection. These have three colour bands and a metal band (two colours on one leg and a colour and a metal on the other). If you see one of these during the spring and early summer see if it has a banded mate, if not it has probably changed mates since it was originally banded.

Black-billed Gulls in the South Island have also been colour banded, again different codes have been used for different ages.

Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre black billed gull bird banding
Image credit: Preecha Prasertarporn
NZ Dotterel

Many NZ Dotterel have been individually colour banded as part of monitoring the population. Like Wrybill they can have 3 or 4 bands and the number on each leg can vary. Occasionally you will see one with a flag and no colour bands; these are flagged as part of year groups down in Tauranga Harbour.

Other NZ Species

There are colour bands on a number of other species, Banded Dotterel, Variable Oystercatcher, and Fairy Terns among others. Some Banded Dotterel also have Australian flags as some migrate their each year.

Reporting Colour Bands and Flag Sightings

So what do you do if you see something – well first you enjoy it! The bird has been somewhere and whether it was banded here or somewhere else its telling us something about how that species works, it’s part of the big picture and deserves a little appreciation! Work out what you can see already, does what you see tell you anything or do you need to see more to get the complete picture? Then we hope you’ll report your sighting.

Flags and bands can be reported to the Banding Office, they can also be sent directly to the people running each project.

Report flag sightings to Adrian Riegen

Report colour band combinations to Phil Battley in the North Island and in the South Island to Rob Schuckard

Report Wrybill, NZ Dotterel and Variable Oystercatcher bands to John Dowding

Report Black-billed Gull bands to Tony Habraken

The Banding Office can be contacted at

If you’re not sure where to send a sighting ask at the Shorebird Centre and we should be able to point you in the right direction

The most common flags seen in NZ
One FlagTwo FlagsBut there are more! You can also look for these flags
White – NZ, North IslandBlack over White – Chongming Dao Island ChinaYellow band over Green flag – Alaska
Orange – Victoria
White over Black – Chongming Dao Island China (not used anymore, but some are still out there)Green flag over Yellow band – Alaska
Yellow – North West AustraliaWhite over Green – South Island NZPale Blue – Northern Chukotka Russia
Green – QueenslandWhite over Green – South Island NZPale Green – Southern Chukotka Russia
Blue – Northern JapanOrange over Green – New South WalesBlue over White – Central Japan
Black flags – used for birds with transmitters from NZ or AlaskaOrange over White – Korea
Yellow over White – Sakhalin Island Russia
White over Orange – Korea (also not used anymore, but some are still out there)Pale Blue over White – Wrangel Island Russia
Green over Orange – northern yellow sea (Yalu Jiang)Yellow over Black – Kamchatka Russia
Yellow over Orange – Southwest Western AustraliaWhite over Blue – Taipei
Orange over Yellow – South AustraliaBlue over Blue – Northern Japan
Orange over Blue – Tasmania
Blue over Orange – Southern Japan
White over Yellow – Hong Kong China

Many of this group have never been seen in NZ, you could be first!