Saturday, 11 August 2018

Waders of Foxton Beach Article Part 1

Wading Birds at Foxton Beach, New Zealand
Foxton Beach estuary mudflats looking west towards the mouth of the river

Foxton Beach lies at the mouth of the Manawatu river estuary (-40.470297, 175.227008) on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. The estuary is host to a range of migratory, endemic and vagrant birds. Protected by the Ramsar Convention, it is recognised as a location of huge significance for land, shore and seabirds. The bird sanctuary is a kilometre long beach running east from the mouth of the river as it meets the Tasman Sea. It is one of several major locations in New Zealand that support migratory and local waders. The birds most celebrated here are the visiting birds that spend summer resting and feeding on the food the estuary offers. The largest number of these are the bar-tailed godwit and lesser knot who arrive in early September (southern hemisphere spring) and depart in March (autumn).

Bar-tailed Godwit (non-breeding on left, breeding plumage on right)

The bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) is now recognised as flying the longest migratory non-stop route from Alaska to Australasia. Unable to feed or rest over water, the estimated 80,000 birds fly the entire 11,000km journey from Alaska to the bottom of the world without stopping. After a 9 or so day flight, they arrive at their feeding grounds, thin and exhausted. These birds spend the summer months in Australia and New Zealand, resting and replacing their feathers and preparing for breeding.
In March they’ll be in great condition, having doubled their body weight for the return journey.  This journey is a slightly more sedate affair, as they head to stopping sites along east Asian coasts. Here they feed up again before heading back to Alaska, ready to breed then start the process again.  Their chicks will do the long flight to New Zealand at only 12 weeks old.
Whilst in New Zealand, the godwits are monitored by the ornithological society, Birds New Zealand. Through a banding programme, scientists are building more knowledge about the movements of the birds during migration and most interestingly, how many times they make their incredible journey. The information also helps to map the birds and their chosen feeding sites while in New Zealand. Identification through banding can be a complex affair with different colours on a single leg, different positions and flags all having meaning.

There are groups of dedicated people who regularly participate in capturing and banding birds across New Zealand. An additional group of people are also dedicated in recording bands they see in such places as New Zealand. Band details and other information about the sighted bird is submitted to the banding office run by the Department of Conservation. I met such a person recently and her hobby was collecting band details and mapping their journeys across the world. Some birds are also fitted with geo-locators. You can see one on the leg of this lesser knot. It was fitted in 2013 by local scientists to record, via GPS, the migration journey in more detail.
Lesser Knot
Some incredible information has been obtained from the banding and geo-locators. For instance, some birds migrate on virtually the same day each year and stop at exactly the same sites in Asia year after year. Young birds, however, take their time to establish their routines. The will travel around New Zealand before choosing a regular summer location.
The arrival of the godwits heralds the beginning of spring in New Zealand. Their coming is celebrated throughout the country in diverse ways. Some have ceremonies at local estuaries, some ring bells and even at times planes pulling banners have announced their homecoming. Most people recognise the incredible achievement at even still being alive after the longest known migratory journey.  

A particular skill the godwits have is always of interest to me as a photographer. They are able to bend their upper mandible upwards, something known as rhynchokinesis. Mostly they use this ability when digging for food but occasionally you can see them do it while resting on the beach. Much as I hate anthropomorphism, I think they look like they are yawning. It doesn’t help that they usually do it when waking!

Bar-tailed Godwit

Saturday, 4 August 2018

A Canine Interlude

Someone once told me the following saying 'When the past is too painful and the future too scary, look down'. They were talking about greyhounds. I chose to adopt a greyhound because I wanted a dog that would be happy in the house alone when I am at work. There is a myth that greyhounds are full of energy and demand a lot of exercise. In reality, they run, sleep and then sleep some more. I did want a small dog but when the staff at Greyhounds as Pets brought out Axle I was sold. He was as big as greyhounds get and with his red colour and long legs, I often felt it was like have a deer in the house. 

I remember taking him for his first run on the beach. He was skinny, wired and ready to go. I let him off the lead and within seconds he was out of sight. He returned covered in blood, having not being able to stop when the beach turned into sharp rocks. I measured his gait, it was close to 2 metres. I knew then, I had something special.

I lost Axle last week and although I am sad to lose my beach buddy, I am so happy to have known him. 

Sunday, 3 June 2018

A plethora of egrets (well for New Zealand anyway)

Wonderful views this week of 2 great egrets (known here as white herons) and a little egret. The herons associate with the spoonbills most of the time, wandering up and down the little creek behind the spit, resting and feeding. The little egret moves around this area too with typical darting movements and it seems to be a very successful fisher. The bird seems to be in partial breeding plumage and hopefully will stick around for a while. 

As a rare bird, the little egret is a reportable species. Birds New Zealand produce a list of species rare enough to be reported. I report birds regularly from the estuary. We are renowned for seeing the common tern more often than any other place in New Zealand and I think I have reported 4-5 sightings in the last year. Once a bird is reported (with any descriptions or photographic evidence), the committee will review it and approve (or not) the species identification. It is rather a laborious process, taking some time but there is also a thriving community of birders online who can give immediate confirmation of any identification. 

In this case, when I first saw the egret I thought it was a third white heron. Easy mistake to make from a distance but close up the differences were distinct.

Neck - the white heron has a big kink, whereas the little egret does not.
Activity - the white heron moves slowly and thoughtfully and the little egret darts about much more.
Bill - the white heron has a long, yellow bill, whereas the little egret has a darker bill, particularly on top.
Feet - the white heron has fully dark legs and feet but the little egret has yellow soles which are very distinctive if you can see them!

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Giant Petrel at Foxton Beach

Fabulous sighting this week of a southern giant petrel at the estuary. I see giant petrel only on pelagics around the south island and even then it is the northern sub-species. This is a juvenile southern and was presumably blown in on very high winds this week. It flew several kilometres up the estuary and wheeled around for a while. It was around a km away from me when I saw it and I knew it could only be the giant petrel as they are the size of a small albatross, far bigger than our usual large bird, the black-backed gull. After racing back to my car to get my camera, rounding up the dog and racing back to the water, I was rewarded with a fly past. Very difficult to get any good shots but it was just so wonderful to see it. A first recorded sighting for the estuary.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

White Herons

Every year, 1 or 2 herons visit the estuary. If we are lucky, they will stay all winter. If not, they might stay for a few days. Whenever they do visit, it is very special. They are stunning birds. Last weekend a visitor arrived to feed in the shallow tidal waters of the estuary and it has stayed for the week. It sometimes associates with the royal spoonbills but will move east along the mud flats to feed. 


An American diversion

Kia Ora!

I have neglected my blog for very good reason. I have been on a wonderful trip to the United States. I visited Philadelphia, Delaware and Texas, all to see interesting and new birds. 175 species later with 101 new birds, I am back and happy to be in my wonderful Foxton Beach home.

My best sightings in America were the least bittern. Living up to its name, this tiny bittern is less than a foot long. It was a once in a lifetime experience getting so close to it.

The other special bird I saw was the ruby-throated hummingbird. My first attempt at photographing the hummingbird was challenging, at the limit of my skill and the capability of my camera. This photo is shot at 1/8000th of a second.

You can see more of my American bird photos in my trip report.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

More terns of Foxton Beach

Autumn is a wonderful time on the beach for terns. They gather in large numbers (and in New Zealand, that doesn't happen too much so it is always special) and it is the best time to see vagrants and migrants. In the last couple of weeks the white-fronted terns have numbered in the hundreds and in the afternoon they will swirl around your feet as they fly to and from the ocean. When they all take off and circle around your head it is magical. They are so close that I am absorbed and never manage to photograph them. Still, if I got all the photographs I want today, what would I do tomorrow? A project for next year I think will be to get them in group flight. My best effort this year was when I was lying on the beach and watching them land almost in formation. It reminded me of planes landing at a busy airport.

White-fronted Tern (sterna striata)

Another wonderful moment that day lying on smelly sand, getting bitten by flies and in seventh heaven was watching them being pushed up the beach by the tide. I'd like to say this shot of them marching in synchronicity is carefully framed but in reality it was a lucky shot.

White-fronted Tern

A juvenile black-fronted tern has also visited this week, a regular autumn visitor and one of my favourites.

Black-fronted Tern (chlidonias albostriatus)

A rarer visitor has been spotted on the beach in the last couple of weeks, the arctic tern. I haven't found one in the group myself as they are very difficult to distinguish from non-breeding white-fronted terns. A couple of years ago, I did see an arctic tern in breeding colours which was extremely unusual. This was taken at Plimmerton, Porirua. I will keep hunting on Foxton Beach.

Arctic Tern (sterna paradisaea)

The highlight of the tern invasion was when I spotted something different. And that is essentially what I do - look for differences in any birds from the white-fronted tern hoard. This bird was smaller and immediately obvious because its cap was full black all the way to the bill. The white-fronted tern gets its name from that white bar between the black cap and the bill, so anything different from that is interesting. I thought initially it was a gull-billed tern but it wasn't big enough and didn't have that distinctive chunky bill. I discounted arctic and antarctic terns as the bill was black. I concluded it must be a breeding common tern (race longipennis, the only sub species to reach New Zealand). This is exceptional and very rare. Happy me to see it. Very happy me to get close up views and photographs. It was a stunning bird.

 Common Tern (sterna hirundo longipennis)