The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 9 (December 1, 1938)
A Wonderful Migratory Bird — A Note On The Godwits
Most New Zealanders are familiar with the idea of the annual autumn migration of the godwits from our shores to the far off regions of Siberia. But a few eyewitness observations of their flight preparations incorporating an item of information which, I have cause to think, is unique in ornithological lore, will be of general and particular interest to the many bird loving readers of this journal.
Knowing the godwits and one of their main habitats so well, it is one of my disappointments that I was not a personal eye-witness of the phenomenon with which I hope to interest and impress you. However, my absence from the scene on the particular day this unique observation was made in nowise detracts from its authenticity, for the witness who actually was present is, to my knowledge, impeccable as an observer of Nature.
Therefore, you may know that this account is a true one of the preparations the godwits make prior to their magnificent migration.
The scene is the Sandspit, that geological freak extending for twenty miles in an easterly curve from the north-western extremity of the South Island and partially enclosing Golden Bay—the former Massacre Bay.
The Sandspit itself, be it known, is one of the most popular homes of the godwits. Probably it is the most important of the taking-off places for the migration, for, prior to the great flight, they gather there by the many hundreds of thousands. For a week or so before the one great day, they leave every dawn for what seem to be practice flights. From the narrow shores of the Sandspit, they wheel up and up into the air until the sky is almost clouded with them, crying and calling their plaintive mew down the wind. More and many more godwits wing up to join the gathering hosts and then—away to the north until the huge cloud that was, has become a speck and finally melts into nothing.
On every eve of every such dawn they return. Their home-coming is slightly less orderly in effect. Wearily and in batches they drop to the beach worn with fatigue and famished with hunger. The ravenous cries and searchings for food and more food are well nigh piteous. But on the next dawn and the next evening, behold, the same events are repeated. And on the next and the next and the next.
It is thought by some observers that these day by day practice flights of the godwits are made from the Sandspit to the Northland beaches, or thereabouts, for three main purposes: to strengthen their bodies and wings; to weed out the weaklings; and to gather recruits. The first two reasons have their plain appeal. The third one is more debatable.
I have known sheepmen who have been able to estimate with a nice and enviable accuracy that there were nine-hundred-and-seventy sheep in such and such a mob and whose quick estimate proved superbly near the real number when the subsequent count was made at the yards. But the obvious difficulty of making any sort of an estimate of numbers amongst a vast concourse of restless birds on a beach is beyond any birdman's skill. Thus when I write that it does seem to an observer that the godwits numbers grow day by day as a result of the trial flights, I must also warn that, as an observation of fact, this soseeming has more of belief than science behind it.
At last comes one awaited, cool grey dawn; the excited gathering of the prescient hosts; an increased crescendo of their cries; and an eerie sense in the watcher of some primeval imminent thing to be.
The Day! God alone knows how they know it, but the godwits know The Day. It is a slow dawning thing. And knowledge of its advent comes with the pale dawn mists. Comes borne on the softening land breeze. And its coming seeps and creeps into one's soul as a sea fog invades and percolates the interstices of the air itself. It is The Day. It is known of itself. “O Iole, how did you know Hercules was a god?” And the only answer: “Because I was content.”
This, then, is the day of the migration. And now is enacted a quite uncanny happening. Out from the great assemblage of birds whose muscular little hearts are by now, we may well assume, palpitating with a stressed anxiety, there separate out some wise birds endowed with a divine right of romantic leadership or, more prosaically if you will have it so, endowed with knowing eyes and past experience, who move in and out and in and out amongst the hosts, pushing, pecking and nudging some hundreds of recruits to the rear. Medical officers! And a piteous sight it is. But inexorably it continues and for an hour or so the eye-witness observes a process as wise as it is astonishing in its portrayal of unfathomable instinct. Later events shall show us what is happening.
The final amazing upward roar of page 52 page 53 a million wings; the centrifugal wheelings and spiralling radiations; the vociferous clamourings of those hundreds of thousands of fortissimo throats in the fanfare swell and blast of exuberant disharmony; and then—“They're off!” To Siberia… . .
But who are these? These so pitiful beings, a paltry hundred or so left so mournfully, so helplessly, so utterly sadly on the beach near at hand? These godwits left to watch, their eyes straining, straining into the distant blue, their hearts filled with a vague unresting nostalgia, who are these?
These are the left-behinds, the pushed, pecked and nudged asides, the rejects. Again let us see.
Numerous things are done in the interests of science. This particular thing was done at the call of sheer curiosity. Its only pardonable feature is that it has added to our knowledge of the godwits.
Several double-barrel guns roar and half a hundred of the left-behinds have no more sorrow and no more ill-fate to bemoan. They are gathered up and laid in rows.
Every one of these feathered corpses is now examined carefully and with what remarkable revelations! For in the case of every bird so examined, some pre-death physical defect is found to have been present. In some an eye was blind; in some a toe or foot was missing; some had broken beaks or mal-formed beaks; others were deformed in wing or body. In brief, all these left-behinds had been deformed in some manner, so that what really had been witnessed by the observers of this pre-migration sorting out was, virtually, a strict “medical examination” carried out by a number of “qualified” birds with impartial and immaculate accuracy.
Just cause and reason for this strict examination and rejection system are not difficult to educe in terms of race-survival instincts. And, of course, similar rejections and even killings of their defective members are common knowledge in animal kingdom lore. But such other rejections and subsequent killings usually are attended by, or tinged with, a vulgarity and viciousness quite foreign to the godwits’ methods. Here on the Sandspit was witnessed a natural history phenomenon that was as thorough as it was effective in method and as kind as it was necessary in intent; and I know of nothing in the annals of bird life quite so intellectual, in our own terms, as was this pre-migration medical examination of the candidates for the awe-inspiring flight from our shores to those far-off Siberian regions.