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Wader Quest in New Zealand: At Home on the Other Side of the World

At the Mic: Rick Simpson

It was early in the morning and still dark when we landed and hired a car to head south from Christchurch, on the New Zealand leg of Wader Quest. As the daylight crept over the horizon to our left it illuminated the magnificent still snow-capped Southern Alps away to our right. The landscape, apart from the distant mountains, had a familiar English feel to it and the birds that fluttered up from the grass verges in large numbers were all European. It was a little strange to be so far from home and yet feel that we were still there in some way. We soon shrugged all that off when Elis spotted our first new wader, South Island Pied Oystercatcher, a pair in the middle of a grassy field.

South Island Pied Oystercatcher, photo by Elis Simpson

South Island Pied Oystercatcher, photo by Elis Simpson

We continued our drive into the foothills of the mountains, and as we passed Lake Tekapo I glanced across at the water. I slammed on the brakes, turned the car off the road and jumped out. The reason for my panic? On the closest edge of the lake there were two very dark-looking stilts, and what had we come to look for? The rarest wader in the world; the Black Stilt! Very quickly though my excitement turned to disappointment as I saw that they were not as dark as they had looked, a trick of the light. But they were also not standard White-headed Stilts either; they were hybrids. This underlined one of the biggest problems that this rare bird faces, dilution of its gene pool. I was disappointed, but that soon faded when a movement close to us drew our attention to our first Double-banded Plover, what an amazing looking bird and of course another of our target species.

Double-banded Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

Double-banded Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

Spurred on by this near miss, we set off for the first of the ‘proper’ Black Stilt sites that local ornithologist John Dowding had suggested to us. We stopped and scanned. Finding nothing we moved a bit further down. Still nothing. Reaching the last likely looking spot we retraced our steps, inevitably returning to where we had started and still no sign. With other sites to check, I revved the engine and started up the small incline from where we had parked when I was surprised to hear my normally excitable wife murmur, almost apologetically, “I’ve got a Black Stilt… a pair in fact.”

She said it in such a matter of fact way that it took me a few yards before the enormity of what she had said sunk in. Another emergency stop! I steadied my elbows on the roof of the car and through my bins witnessed two Critically Endangered Black Stilts. When you consider that the number of breeding pairs of this species in the wild is in the low twenties, this pair represented a significant proportion of the world population. However, the more I studied these birds the more I became concerned. At closer range I could see white around the base of the bill, on the belly and on the undertail coverts. Could it be that these were hybrids too? Or were they perhaps young birds not quite in full adult plumage? I didn’t know enough to be sure, so I suggested we should try to find more to be on the safe side.

Black Stilt, photo by Elis Simpson

Black Stilt, photo by Elis Simpson

At our next stop we encountered a surreal situation. We found a young lady who was working with the Black Stilt release program, feeding about a dozen recently released juvenile Black Stilts. During our conversation I explained our misgivings about the birds we had seen earlier and she asked to see the photos. As she flicked through them she didn’t say much until suddenly she said, “They are 100% Black Stilt!” Keen to learn what plumage characteristic had drawn her to this conclusion I asked her to enlighten me. “Oh it’s easy” she said “we only color ring pure birds and these have rings!”

We were of course delighted that our birds were pure and were even more satisfied when we came across another of the iconic, endemic waders of this region nearby, the Wrybill! We watched a pair of these unique birds using their odd bill, which bends invariably to the right, to pluck prey from under the pebbles in the braided river bed.

Wrybill, photo by Elis Simpson

Wrybill, photo by Elis Simpson

Stopping briefly to observe some Wrybill ringing and a visit to the captive breeding center for Shore Plover and Black Stilt with John Dowding, we headed up to the North Island of New Zealand, but not before enjoying a pelagic trip off the coast at Kaikoura on the way.  That, however, is the subject for another day. Stopping for the pelagic did however produce another new and endemic wader species, the Variable Oystercatcher. These Oystercatchers are unusual as they have, as their name implies variable plumage. There is a spectrum between all black and pied like other oystercatchers. These birds were the all black version.

Variable Oystercatcher, photo by Elis Simpson

Variable Oystercatcher, photo by Elis Simpson

We had several reasons to stop at Foxton once on the North Island on our way up to Miranda Shorebird Centre near Auckland. We had a lecture at Palmerston North to give, arranged by Craig Steed, and we were also to meet Phil Battley who was going to tell us about the incredible Bar-tailed Godwits that arrive there each year from Alaska. These are the record breaking Bar-tailed Godwits which it was discovered, almost by mistake, make an eight day, non-stop migration over the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to New Zealand. Over 11,000km (around 7,000 miles) in one go! I say “almost by mistake” because the discovery was made when a battery in the transmitter of one bird, designed to follow its northerly migration from New Zealand via the Yellow Sea to Alaska, continued to work beyond its intended lifespan. It continued to send readings to the researchers proving what they had long suspected, that these birds fly direct from Alaska to New Zealand on their southerly trajectory. Amazing!

Bar-tailed Godwit, photo by Elis Simpson

Bar-tailed Godwit, photo by Elis Simpson

We then heard tell of an Oriental Plover, a rarity for New Zealand which was fortunately in the direction that we were heading! We were joined by Kiwi bird guides Brent Stephenson and ‘Sav’ Saville of Wrybill Birding Tours and went in search of this bird. It was not new for us, we had seen them in Australia, but a twitch for a rarity was irresistible, especially in the company of these great birders for whom this was a lifer.

Oriental Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

Oriental Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

They were not however the only lucky people to get a lifer that day. Near the Oriental Plover we came across our first New Zealand Dotterels. These peach-coloured birds are so subtly pleasing it was hard to tear ourselves away when we had to leave to head for Miranda where had the privilege to give a talk to the Miranda Naturalists’ Trust.

New Zealand Dotteral, photo by Elis Simpson

New Zealand Dotteral, photo by Elis Simpson

There was one last surprise in store for us. We heard that a Shore Plover had been seen recently at Point England in Auckland. Once again the temptation was too much for us to bear so we headed out. Search as we might we couldn’t find this bird, eventually giving up and settling down to photograph the other roosting waders. As we did so Elis noticed a small bird fly towards her and land almost at her feet. Looking down she could not quite believe her eyes when she saw the Shore Plover looking up at her. Presumably it thought it was about to get fed! Although we knew we were in the company of a released bird it did not diminish our pleasure in the moment, being so close to such a little gem. Although from unnatural origins, it was destined to spend the rest of its days taking its chances in the big wild world. We watched it for a while, wished it luck and left.

Shore Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

Shore Plover, photo by Elis Simpson

We left New Zealand with 156 on our list and although we had felt at home in New Zealand, our next trip was to take us back to where half of the team, at least, would be at home, Brazil.

 –=====–

Rick Simpson of Newport Pagnell, UK, is a bird guide, illustrator, author of Confessions of a Bird Guide, and a Birdlife Species Champion. 

He previously wrote about Wader Quest at the ABA Blog in Thailand, the UAEFlorida, Washington, California the UK, in South America, and Africa.

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  • DonaldHBrown

    Looking down she could not quite believe her eyes when she saw the Shore Plover looking up at her. Presumably it thought it was about to get fed! http://qr.net/yNRI

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