Gumboots on for Godwits

Photo credit: Adrian Riegen

Last week I saw a Godwit for the first time — an amazing and embarrassing fact considering I’ve been living in Glendowie near one of their feeding sites for four decades!


To be more precise, I saw not one Godwit but at least 25, lined up along the receding waterline of  Tāmaki Estuary at Wai-o-Taiki Bay.  To be even more precise, they were Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica), a fully protected New Zealand native bird known to Māori as Kuaka*.


These amazing birds are world record holders for performing the longest non-stop flight of any non-seabird. They usually begin arriving in New Zealand in early September from Alaska — a flight of more than 11,000km over eight or nine days during which, unlike seabirds, they have “no chance of getting an inflight snack”, as New Zealand Birds Online puts it.


I was introduced to the Bar-tailed Godwit by David Doleman, a bird-lover whose home overlooks Wai-o-Taiki Bay. David got in touch with EBSP to suggest that his kindred organisation, Wai-o-Taiki Nature Reserve Rangers Group, should become affiliated with ours.  (See story Spreading Our Wings).  By way of introduction, David reeled off a list of songbirds found in the bush around Wai-o-Taiki Bay, and then pulled out his trump card of Godwits he’d seen on the Wai-o-Taiki shellbanks, offering to take an EBSP representative to see them.


That’s how — wearing “wellies” (David’s term) and equipped with binoculars — I found myself following him on a tour of reserve grassland, bush and mudflats around Wai-o-Taiki Bay. There was a lot to see:  three endangered New Zealand Dotterels were strolling nonchalantly on a wide grassed area near the Pt England bike path, We also saw eastern rosellas, several types of finch, kingfishers and  paradise shelducks. As we descended through bush to the shared shoreline of Wai-o-Taiki Bay and Tahuna Torea, we saw a black shag, herons, two spoonbills and a group of oystercatchers. But all that was just the build-up. We emerged at the Wai-o-Taiki Nature Reserve exit and there — Ta Ra! — were the Godwits.


The tide was almost fully out. My eyes strained to make out a line of camouflage-grey birds at the edge of the Tāmaki Estuary. That’s where the wellies/gumboots and the binoculars came in. We were able to walk across the mudflats until we were within 100 metres or so of the Godwits feeding on the shellbanks beside the shallow tidal water and could see them clearly through the binoculars.


To bring these small, modest birds into focus and realise what they’d achieved was quite simply mind-blowing! They’d completed a phenomenal feat of strength and endurance following their inbuilt GPS systems on a non-stop fight half way round the world.


Godwits fatten up to around 600g before they migrate south; by the time they reach New Zealand they’ve lost half their body weight and are down to an average 300g. But looking at them as they walked elegantly on long, graceful legs and pecked selectively at the shellfish buffet spread before them, I couldn’t imagine them ravenously rushing to re-fuel, even in the first minutes after arrival.  With their stylishly understated brown-grey feathers a perfect match for the inter-tidal shellbanks of Tāmaki Estuary, the Godwits looked aristocratic, even a little snobbish, given the upturned angle of their long, tapering bills.


My phone camera was not up to the challenge of a long-distance photograph, so the photo of Godwits seen here was taken by ornithologist and photographer Adrian Riegen, and is reproduced with his permission. The birds in Adrian’s photo are standing in line on the shellbanks just like the birds we saw off the Wai-o-Taiki Nature Reserve.


There are five sub-species of Bar-tailed Godwit breeding across Eurasia and Alaska. It is the baueri sub-species breeding in Alaska that is found in eastern Australia and New Zealand with a population of around 120,000, of which 75,000 are found in New Zealand. That sounds like a lot, but there is an annual population decline of nearly 2% — mostly caused by pollution and habitat loss at staging areas such as the Yellow Sea region — so their conservation status is “declining”. Global climate change is predicted to affect them at all stages of their annual cycle.


 “Our” Bar-tailed Godwits may remain around the shellfish banks adjacent to Wai-o-Taiki Bay and Tahuna Torea for the rest of spring and summer before departing on their northerly migration in early March to breeding sites in Alaska. Some birds who have not yet reached breeding age of three or four years will remain in New Zealand over winter.


If, like me, you weren’t aware of the Bar-tailed Godwit,** or haven’t actually seen it, I can recommend that you grab your wellies (or gumboots), your binoculars and, if possible, a zoom-lens camera and head to Wai-o-Taiki Nature Reserve (at the end of West Tāmaki Rd). I’ve voted for this amazing bird in the 2021 Bird of the Year Contest.


Many thanks to David Doleman for his bird knowledge and excellent guided tour, and to Adrian Riegen*** for permitting us to use his beautiful Godwit photo.




*For Māori, Godwits were birds of mystery (Kua kite te kohanga kuaka? Who has seen the nest of the kuaka?) and were believed to accompany spirits of the departed. It was a mystery to Māori why these birds arrived on NZ shores in spring when all other birds were breeding and yet no one could find the nest of a Kuaka so the saying was believed to be used for things Māori didn’t understand or that seemed impossible.

Story by Jan Power


**For more fascinating facts about the Bar-tailed Godwit see New Zealand Birds Online:


***To watch Adrian Riegen’s webinar Gob-smacking Godwits, click this link: