Adult male bar-tailed godwit. Photo: Phil Battley

The long-haul, non-stop flight of some 250 godwits from Alaska to Napier’s Ahuriri Estuary will be celebrated in a special way on Sunday 2 October.

As part of Napier Waiapu Cathedral’s Animal Blessing Service, the bells will ring in honour of the remarkable bar-tailed godwits (kuaka in Māori), who each spring fly as far as 12,000kms, at an average speed of 56 kilometres per hour, from Alaska to Ahuriri.

“We want to celebrate the return of these amazing creatures from their epic journey as they really herald the start of spring,” says Dean Di Woods.

The bells will ring at Waiapu Cathedral at approximately 2.45pm on the afternoon of Sunday 2 October taking a lead from Nelson Cathedral which has been welcoming the godwits to their region in this way for some years.

A guided walk to see the godwits roosting at high tide in Ahuriri Estuary is happening on the same day at 10am. Bernie Kelly of Birds NZ and the Ahuriri Estuary Protection Society will lead the walk and provide scopes so people can get a closer look at the international arrivals (see event details below). 

Every September around 75,000 godwits fly from the southern tip of Alaska to coastal wetlands around New Zealand in what is the longest non-stop flight — about 9 days —  in the natural world. They take a direct route south from Alaska across the central Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. Unlike seabirds, there is no chance of an inflight snack as they cannot rest on water or feed at sea en route.

“They are very loyal to their site,” says Bernie Kelly. “Some of the ones coming back each year to the Ahuriri have made a dozen or more trips here.”

“They arrive exhausted, having lost as much as half their body weight with their wings drooping and needing to rest,” says Kelly. 

Bar tailed godwit Limosa lapponica single bird by water Gambia February 2016

But soon the godwits are feeding on everything the estuary has to offer —  worms, crustacean, crabs and anything they can find in the mud — building up strength for the next leg of their long journey. They leave Napier in early March and head for refuelling sites around the Yellow Sea before their final leg home to Alaska to breed again on the tundra.

The brown and grey plumage of the godwits echoes the intertidal mudflats where they forage, and for much of their time in New Zealand they are relatively nondescript birds. But there is nothing nondescript about their migrations.

Perhaps because of this the birds hold cultural significance for many New Zealanders. For Māori they were traditionally 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; but they were also a source of food.

One of our most famous female writers Robin Hyde called her novel The Godwits Fly, using the birds as a symbol of the longing many New Zealanders felt in her time — the 1930s — for England, the place they thought of as home.

Birds NZ has been tracking some of the godwits flying across the Pacific who have satellite tags. Readers can track these online here. on https://www.globalflywaynetwork.org/flyway/east-asian-australasian-flyway/map

                                Welcome the Godwits

When:                  10am, Sunday 2nd October, 2022

Meet:                    The Carpark, opposite The Beach Inn, Meeanee Quay, Westshore

Bring:.                Binoculars, sunhat, water bottle, suitable walking shoes. Children accompanied by an adult please.

Weather:             Event cancelled if wet

RSVP:                     Please RSVP aeps.hb@gmail.com 

Waiapu Cathedral Animal Blessing Service This is open to everyone who would like their pets blessed at a short service at 2pm, October 2, by the fountain outside the Cathedral on Browning St Napier. This is the nearest Sunday to St Francis of Assisi Day, who was known for his care and protection of animals.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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  1. We began these Spring and Autumn organised ‘Godwit Talks/Walks’ a couple of years ago to raise awareness about the Godwits, and to give further context to why we need to protect and restore Ahuriri Estuary (te Whanganui a Orotu ). In autumn, the birds who will breed, when they soon return to Alaska, have fattened up and changed some of their plumage to a rusty-red colour (breeding plumage). They look different to when they arrived here exhausted, slimmed right down, and camouflaged to match the colour of the Estuary mudflats!

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