Long flying godwits home early
11 Sep 2008
New Zealand’s bar-tailed godwits, the world’s longest non-stop flying birds, are back home two weeks before expected, signalling an early start to spring.
The godwits fly an amazing 11,000 kilometres from Alaska to New Zealand in a non-stop journey that takes as little as five or six days.
The birds normally first arrive in Christchurch, on the east coast of the South Island, towards the end of September and have been adopted by the city as a harbinger of spring.
This is the first time in many years that the long-distance flyers have made it to New Zealand so close to the calendar start of the spring season. The city’s cathedral bells were rung especially to welcome the birds home.
The two-week early arrival is causing some concern for Christchurch City Council ranger and bird expert, Andrew Crossland, who is keeping a close eye on the habits of the birds, as well as their habitat. He suspects climate change could be to blame for the early arrival but says he is waiting for more information from Alaska.
"We are just glad they are here but we are slightly concerned at the decision taken to leave their home so early. I've been monitoring their arrival for 25 years, and this is by far the earliest arrival," he said.
About 500 godwits have touched down in Christchurch this week. The birds will breed in New Zealand over the summer months before fattening up for their epic journey home in March.
Thousands more of the birds are expected in the North Island and will return to areas like the Kaipara and Manukau Harbours in Auckland, the Firth of Thames south east of Auckland, and Farewell Spit on the northern tip of the South Island.
The southern migration
When it is time for the godwits to migrate south to New Zealand, they wait for storms that provide them with tail winds of 40-80 kilometres per hour for the first 1,600 kilometres.
Observers report that when the birds finally reach New Zealand they fall asleep, but within hours begin feeding to replenish what they lost en route - about half their body weight. Three months later, in preparation for the northward return flight, they start to stock up on food, doubling their body mass.
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