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There’s a guy named Keith Woodley. He has a passionate relationship with a very special kind of bird. He lives and breathes godwits, Bar-tailed Godwits. There are several kinds of godwits found around the world and there are three that can be found in New Zealand when not breeding half a planet away. Keith follows the one that frequents New Zealand in pretty good numbers; the Bar-tailed Godwit. And why not! It’s life is a series of miraculous passages. If it lives a year it is likely to live for maybe fifteen more. In that time it will fly a minimum of 29,500 km a year just in migration. That comes to more than 440,000 kilometers. Oh, in miles that is a staggering minimum of 273,000 miles or about 18,300 miles a year. No wonder Woodley finds them enchanting and engaging.
One other note on these flights; they are non-stop and take more than eight days. That is 45 miles an hour for eight and a half days, without eating or stopping to rest! Triathalon participants certainly have a new goal to shoot for.
Keith Woodley has written the penultimate book on Godwits, called quite fittingly Godwits: long-haul champions. If you ever thought “gee-whizz, how about that!” when faced with one of the thousands of remarkable adaptations or evolutionary behaviors of a wild creature, this book will bring you to that sense of wonder again and again.
The Miranda Shorebird Centre (I think it is officially the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre) is located in Pokeno, New Zealand about an hour drive from Auckland. It is on the Firth of Thames – which means little to you and me but is fun to say. The coast here is quite convoluted and this creates a mess of tidal reaches and an array of tidal floods. The tide may be high at your house but where I live over the hill it may still be two or three hours until flood. This birds know this and travel around feeding throughout the day; one spot after another. Miranda itself has about 21,000 acres (8500 hectares) of intertidal mudflats; or buffet tables as the godwits call them.
In addition to Bar-tailed Godwits Miranda is best know for the oddly constructed Wrybill. This bird is an endemic plover of New Zealand. It is about the size of a North American Semi-palmated Plover, smaller than a Killdeer. Like most birds they are surprisingly light; the Wrybill averages about two ounces. But it is the beak that takes a right-hand turn that catches the bird-watchers eye. Yes, the beak does bend and yes it always bends to the right.
The Miranda Shorebird Centre has an interpretive building with a great deal of educational and surprising depictions. The migrations are one thing but the birds that winter here come from many places and have many specific, often unique, behaviors. There are overnight accommodations, a gift shop, and educational opportunities for schools and bird groups. Membership will help all facets of the operation. You can find them via their web site to learn about accommodations, activities, and how to order the godwit book at http://www.miranda-shorebird.org.nz
If you look at the blog pages on the glaciers of the Southern Alps or on the fjords along the South Island’s south coast you will see what are called braided rivers. These are South Island streams that are filled with stone, cobble, silt, gravels, and other stone debris from the fractured mountains – it is these cobble-filled stream that provide nesting sites for the Wrybill.
*There are three species of godwits that arrive in NZ each year. The Bar-tailed and Black-tailed both can be found at Miranda during the austral summer and northern winter. The Hudsonian also drops in to the NZ mud flats but in very small numbers and in a less predictable way. These birds all nest in northeastern Russia or in the western corners of North America, mostly in Alaska.