Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Royal Society Reflections (week 9)

Where are they now?

Godwits in flight (photo by Craig)

So, last night, with a Southerly kicking in, Jesse Conklin (a researcher at Massey) reported the last likely departures from Foxton Estuary (bringing his 17 nights or so of migration watch to a close). The birds are all but gone, but prior to their departure Phil caught this photo of a Red Knot from Foxton that was well and truely ready to go - it's staggering to see the amount of fat stored on the breast, reserves for the huge flight ahead. How can it even get off the ground?

One fat Red Knot (photo by Phil Battley)

So, where are they now? Well, birds are heading north west from NZ towards their first stop-over, the staging grounds of the Yellow Sea. Here they will feed up for a few weeks before heading off again to the breeding grounds in Russia or Alaska. This photo below shows some of the tracked godwits and their movements around the Yellow Sea.

Yellow Sea - photo from USGS site

The shores of the Yellow Sea are critical refuelling sights for migrating birds, yet throughout East Asia and Australasia, 85 per cent of shorebird populations are declining, and 40 per cent of shorebirds inhabiting Oceania are classified as threatened or near threatened (read more here). One of the major reasons for decreasing populations may be due to the reduction of sites for birds due to land reclamation of intertidal flats. Loss of fields of mud seems to cause less concern globally than loss of some other habitats, yet these are vital for the survival of numerous species. Conservation efforts are underway. The Ramsar Convention makes efforts to recognise wetlands of international importance, acknowledging that migratory birds do not bother about the boundaries humans have drawn on our 2D world maps. As the convention says...Wetlands included in the list acquire a new status at the national level and are recognised by the international community for being significant not only for the country, or countries, in which they are located, but for humanity as a whole. New Zealand has 6 Ramsar's sites: Manawatu River Mouth & Estuary, Firth of Thames, Farewell Spit, Awarua Wetlands, Kopuatai Peat Dome and Whangamarino . Other groups raise awareness of the issues around land use and conservation of such important sites, for example see Birds Korea. I encourage anyone to find out more and support local initiatives for conservation of areas used by our shorebirds, such as The National Wetland Trust, Miranda Naturalists' Trust and D.O.C's Wetland work.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Fellowship Reflections (week 8)

And they're off...

I spent the past weekend up at Miranda, doing some mist-netting. We were targeting Godwits in particular, trying to get plumage samples, but had a good catch of Red Knots, so we took advantage of that as well. The evening’s catching was very successful, with 70 birds flying into the mist nets we had set up at two locations in the stilt ponds. I worked with a great team of keen birders, extracting the birds from the nets and processing them - carrying out measurements and putting on metal bands and alpha flags.

Miranda is a great spot, if you've never been there it is well worth it. This time of year there are thousands of birds including about 2,000 wrybills. They are such endearing birds, with spectacular aerial displays, see below.

Over the weekend I was based at the Miranda Shorebird Centre, a great little place with education programs and resources about the area. While staying at Miranda I was able to witness four Godwit departures. These were amazing to witness as the birds called to each other, flew up and formed the characteristic V-shaped flying pattern and headed north up the bay. To see them fading as small dots, then disappearing from the view through my scope was awe-inspiring. These tiny things won’t stop for about six days, until the reach the shores of the Yellow Sea, likely an inter-tidal flat of Korea. There they will feed up again before making the final flight to the breeding grounds of the Artic. It was a privilege to witness.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Fellowship Reflections (week 5)

Broome - Pt 3: But wait, there's more!

While our focus in Broome was on shorebirds we couldn't help being captivated by the variety of other animals that were around the observatory or shores of Roebuck Bay. Wallabies were regularly seen around the camp. Mudskippers were engaging creatures which Phil and I spent a couple of ours observing & photographing one morning. Resident Green Tree frogs also came out each evening to keep us company during mealtimes. Of course, snakes were always an exciting find, especially the 2m+ black headed python we came across one eveing. Here's a few photos...

Similarly, the birds of the Australian Bush were spectacular. Here's some of the best pics from the trip (a few of the many hundreds I took!)...

Fellowship Reflections (week 5)

Broome - Pt 2: The cannon netting experience

In Broome we were based at the Broome Bird Observatory and were part of a team that varied in size from 8 to 14 individuals. We had 4 days of cannon netting, the goal being to get breeding plumage from 20 Godwits, 20 Red Knots and 20 Great Knots. We would rise between 5.30 - 6.00am to go set the net just above the tide line, in the relative cool of the morning.Once set we would hide at a base camp or behind some camouflage to wait for the incoming tide to push the birds closer to the net.

When the numbers looked about right within the catching range then BANG, off went the cannons and we all raced to the net to make sure birds were out of the water, safe within the net and covered with shade clothe so we could transfer them to holding cages. The intensity of these moments is unrivalled. Chris, the leader was clear- don't use your initiative, just do what I say - his voice was the only voice we heard.

One of the research team, Massey vet Janelle Ward, was measuring stress levels of the birds and was collecting blood samples within the first 20 minutes of capture and again later after handling. I was able to assist intially with her extractions before moving into the plumage work with Phil.

It was hot intense stuff and the pressure was always on to process birds within a 4 hour timeframe. When the size of the catch on the second day was 180 birds, this meant everyone was physically pushed to be giving their most and by the end of that day the heat and pressure was taking its toll and concentrating on the simplest tasks took the most incredible effort. Still, it was amazing how we could bounce back after a cool beer at the end of the day.

Our temporary shelter for processing on the beach

This Godwit shows a flag DJA and lovely breeding plumage. Measurements were also taken on bill length, weight, wing length and so on, before birds were released back into the wild. It was always nice to see the birds fly off, usually without any problems, sometimes with a bit of a walk before taking off to the skies. In about 3 weeks or so these amazing birds will be winging there way north towards their breeding grounds.

Fellowship reflections (week 4)

Broome - Part 1: The amazing Roebuck Bay

Broome is some 2 hours flight north of Perth and was the destination for our field work on shorebirds. Broome, or specifically Roebuck Bay, is one of the world's best shorebird spots. The bay lies in a corner of the Indian Ocean where the topography is such that the tides are the largest in Australia. On the lowest tides there is more than 150km of intertidal flats. Bodiversity of marine organisms is extremely high and it therefore very attractive to the many shorebirds that winter here from the tundras and taigas of Russia.

February is wet season in Broome, though the days were sunny and hot (37oC) and the only rain we experienced was a couple of brief overnight showers and one spectacular electrical storm. This was in stark contrast to the summer I returned home to - and the three days of rain! We went to the outdoor movies the night of the storm - check out the tree in this photo...

Roebuck Bay holds maximum numbers of about 200,000 shorebirds (similar numbers to the whole of Victoria or Sth Australia). Some 20 species occur in internationally significant numbers. It was these birds that drew us to Broome. We were there to collect breeding plumage samples (breast and scapular feathers) before the birds headed north - these birds heading to Russia rather than Alaska. The three species we were working on specifically were Red Knot, Great Knot and Godwits. Here's a photo of one the final birds we released, a Great Knot...