PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 148, Spring 2007: Discoveries and Directions

Learning from Birds on a Pacific Basin Journey


Report from New Zealand

Noah Warnock

New Zealand Report
Conserving Genetic Diversity
Godwit Migration
Alcatraz Seabird Docents
Tale of Two Islands
Focus on Vireos
Lang Stevenson's Story

Noah and Nils in New Zealand.
Our car pulls up on the left side of a muddy dirt road. Rain gently patters against the windows, and body heat fogs up the inside. With nylon nets under our arms and bamboo rods on our shoulders, we step out onto the misty mudflat. Water beads our jackets and our faces as we string the nets between the rods and wait, hoping for a Bar-tailed Godwit to flap into the almost invisible folds of the net.

Using overturned laundry baskets for chairs, we try to withstand the downpour. Our breath fans out in front of us, blocking our vision. Suddenly, through the gloom, a piercing alarm call breaks the midnight silence. A dark lump, a Bar-tailed Godwit, hurtles into the net like a rugby player in a scrum. Bird biologists appear out of the darkness, running toward the ghost-like nets to retrieve the godwit. After several minutes spent gently extracting the bird from the mesh net, they tread through the knee-deep mud back to the baskets, which are righted to become makeshift godwit holders. Swirling mist obscures our footprints and muffles any noise as our car and the godwit disappear into the night.
Capturing a godwit.

We are working on New Zealand's North Island at the Miranda Shorebird Center, a small, comfortable hotel-like building on the coast north of Auckland. Our rooms have names like Turnstone Territory, Sandpiper Suite, and Curlew Quarters. I am here with my dad and other shorebird biologists from Alaska, California, and New Zealand who study migration, putting satellite tags on Bar-tailed Godwits and following them to their breeding grounds in Alaska. Once the godwits are brought to the Center, they get one of two kinds of satellite tags. The males, because they are smaller, get a lighter solar tag, attached to a harness of elastic and Teflon. The females can carry larger tags, which are surgically placed in the abdominal cavity. These are easier for the birds to carry, because the harnesses sometimes chafe and can fall off more easily. Both kinds of tags send out a signal to a satellite that relays information to computers, so we will be able to see where our godwits are every day. Knowing which migration path the birds take, we can help conserve the places where they stop to rest and refuel so they can finish their migration.
Ready to fly with a satellite transmitter.

Birds and Conservation in New Zealand

My trip here hasn't been all about Bar-tailed Godwits, though. There are about 200 other bird species in New Zealand, some really amazing, and we have spent a lot of time birding. My favorite was a small bird called a Fantail. It looks like a Black Phoebe with a big tail that spreads out in a fan. In New Zealand we have seen 84 species of birds, including Little Spotted Kiwi and Fairy Penguin (also known as Little Blue Penguin). We saw the kiwi on Tiritiri Matangi, a small island off the coast of Auckland where the Department of Conservation has evicted all the predators and reintroduced rare New Zealand endemics. When Captain James Cook discovered New Zealand in the 1700's, ship rats disembarked, too. Later, European settlers brought familiar animals like starlings, House Sparrows and, unfortunately, mammals. New Zealand has only two native mammals, both bats, and due to the lack of predators, many New Zealand birds lost the ability to fly. Stoats and other weasels, introduced to take care of the rabbit problem, ate birds instead. The decline in native species was so severe that now almost every local person has his stoat trap. One village pub even offers free beers in exchange for stoat tails.

Tracking a Godwit

Back at Miranda, godwit E7, a strong healthy female, takes off with a harsh chirp, as if scolding us for taking two hours of its time. The fog quickly swallows the speeding godwit as she heads for the mudflats. We shiver and walk back to the Center. We've been in New Zealand for almost three weeks, working and getting to know the country, its birds, and how to drive on the wrong side of the road. On Valentine's Day, we'll head home.
Time out on a day off spent birding.

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