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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 9 (December 1, 1937.)

An Ace Among Migrant Birds

An Ace Among Migrant Birds

Flights of migratory birds fascinate the imagination, even of the most blasé. There are some of such a length and attended by circumstance so inexplicable that they bewilder the layman. The ocean and land flight of the godwits annually from New Zealand to Siberia, and their return later in the same year, can have no parallel in the arcana of ornithology.

The New Zealand godwit is about the size of a pigeon; its plumage is grey and brown. The bird has a long bill and long legs; somewhat resembling a snipe. It is extremely strong on the wing. The movements of its pinions seem imperceptible as it skims through the air.

As a community the birds are peaceable. Unlike most species of bird life they are rarely seen fighting. They amuse themselves by flying into the air and tumbling earthwards, while a gallery of spectators of the genus applaud the exhibition. The godwits are shore birds and live on mud flats and tidal waters.

As winter approaches in New Zealand the god-wits assemble on many beaches in the North Island of New Zealand, preparatory to the great hegira to the Northern Hemisphere. April and May see the great hosts setting out on their trackless way across leagues of ocean and land, to their destination—the tundras of Siberia. The sight is a most picturesque one, as the birds use method in their preparations and movements. They rise in obedience to their leaders and adopt a horseshoe formation. The rounded part of the shoe forms the front and acts as a break-wind. It is made up of tier upon tier of godwits. The stronger birds are eligible for a place In this part of the crescent that must meet the impact of adverse winds encountered in the long flight of some seven or eight thousand miles. The arms of the horseshoe stream out behind. This enclosure of the half circle is the place where the weaker birds gather with the breakwind in front.

Thus the great flight commences. They fly over lonely seas and isolated islands far removed from the main avenues of civilisation. The godwits traverse the Pacific Islands of New Caledonia, New Hebrides, and Fiji; Northern Australia, the Philippine Islands, China, Japan, the Commander Islands; thence on to their objective—the shorelines of Siberia.

Though there are several beaches in New Zealand from which the annual migration sets out, the Ninety-Mile Beach (along the extreme promontory of the North Island) and Spirits Bay (on the uttermost tip of the Dominion) are closely associated with the epic Sight. The name given by the Maoris to the bay indicates in their mythology the hopping-off place of the souls of the natives for the Elysian fields. This was prior to the advent of the white man and is believed by the latter to have had its origin in the annual flight of the godwits.

How such an occurrence annually impressed itself on the primitive mind of the poetical and imaginative Maori can be understood from the description of an English eye witness of the departure:—

“Godwits rose with a mighty rustle. As the sun was dipping into the sea an old male bird uttered a strident call, clarion dear, and shot straight into the air. It was followed by a multitude. The great host rose higher and higher until it was merely a stain in the sky. It seemed the leader shaped the course due north and the stain melted into the night.”

The godwits' knowledge of the route and their ultimate objective is no less intriguing than their habits. From October, when they begin to arrive back in New Zealand, till the time of their departure beginning in April, they have never been known to nest and rear their young in New Zealand. That is reserved for their Siberian sojourn. The Maoris have a saying regarding the difficulty of finding something: “As hard to find as a kauka's egg.” This is the Maori name for the godwit.

In the great ocean and land migration some birds, to use a colloquialism, “miss the bus.” These truants winter in New Zealand, but none of their eggs have been found. The godwits lay their eggs and hatch out their young, from May to July, in their breeding places on the barren stretches of tussock land between the hills and the seashore in Siberia. By October the youngsters are strong enough on the wing to fare forth on the flight with their parents to faraway New Zealand.

Two theories are advanced to explain the unerring instinct that enables the birds to find their way across the vast page 16 distances of land and sea that separate their two homes. One is that the birds, in past ages understood only in terms of geological nomenclature, followed old land lines when Asia and the innumerable islands dotting the Pacific were one continuous whole. The gradual submergence of vast areas of land, as generation after generation of godwits made their annual flights, was so imperceptible that the customary hegira became natural. Thus the route was followed by instinct through an infinity of ages.

The second theory is that the birds acquired the habit of following air currents in the upper atmosphere and thus reached their destination. This theory and a belief that the birds' keenness of sight enables them to accomplish their great ocean flight finds only limited acceptance. Keenness of sight—pronounced as it may be in some species of winged creatures—would be useless over the great stretches of water pursued by the godwits. Indeed, the first hop from New Zealand is over a thousand miles of the Pacific before land is sighted again.

Whatever the explanation may be of the extraordinary flight, the godwit may be truly termed the Ace among migratory birds.