Wednesday, March 5, 2008

An Amazing Journey - The Bar-tailed Godwit

For years bird researchers from the Miranda Shorebird Center in New Zealand and the Alaska-based US Geological Survey team believed that the Bar-tailed Godwit flew non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand on their Fall southern migration.  Many peers didn't believe that this 40-cm long bird couldn't possibly fly the 11,500 km needed to complete the journey, especially as a non-stop flight would indicate no sleep, no food and no water over that time.  Last year, however, for the first time in history, satellite transmitters revealed the truth, making those researcher's hypotheses a reality.

The Bar-tailed Godwits (left) at Miranda get pushed into these pools on high tide.  We set up mist nets that the birds will fly into when landing there to roost.

Last year, one bird's battery lasted her entire migration, tracking her flight from New Zealand up through Yalu Jiang, China and then up to Alaska on her Spring northern migration.  After breeding, the battery then lasted her entire southern migration, non-stop for 8 days and nights from Alaska to New Zealand.  Her flag on her leg identifies her as 'E7', and following the tracking of her 29,000 km migration, she has now made news headlines as far off as Tehran.  With that success in the bank, this year's project saw 9 birds implanted at Miranda, and a further 16 done in Broome, northwestern Australia.

After catching the birds in the nets we set up (left), we put them in boxes and either banded and released them on the spot, or took them back to the Center for implanting and flagging.

Having to wait for an after-sunset tide (therefore making the black mist nets difficult to see for the birds) put us in the position of kneeling beside the ponds waiting for the high tide on the nearby shoreline to push them our way.  Hearing the birds whooshing over our heads in the cover of darkness was quite the experience.  The more experienced researchers then removed them from the nets and placed them in special boxes, which we then took to a nearby van where they were measured.  If they were big, healthy and already fattening up, they were kept as candidates for implanting and put aside.  All the others, 40 or so, were banded there and then released.  After 25 minutes or so, we had our candidates and it was back to the Center, a 2-km drive away, for the important part of the whole operation - the surgical implants of the transmitters themselves.

The largest birds were implanted with satellite transmitters (left), a procedure which sees them put under for 30 minutes.  The rest, about 50 this time, are flagged and banded (left).

An Alaskan vet from the USGS team joined a New Zealand vet for the operations, during which the birds are put under for 30 minutes.  The transmitter, the size of a date with a trailing black antennae (seen above, right) is implanted into an air sac in the bird's side.  After they come to, they're flagged with black flags with white alpha-numeric lettering.  Seeing these birds on the table really brought home how fragile these birds are, but also how resilient they are too.  One hour after the procedure, they were brought back to the shoreline and released, ready to fatten up even more before heading north in two weeks.  

The rest of the birds were measured, banded and flagged with a white flag (denoting New Zealand) with 3 capital letters on them.  Now, when someone spots these flags up and down the flyway, they're an email away from knowing when and where the bird was banded, and another piece of these birds lives is filled in.  Being a part of this team, which numbered 24 people,  was an experience neither of us will forget.  It was not only exciting holding the birds in our hands and seeing experienced people go to work, but also knowing that this project is using the latest technology to chart new pathways in the way we understand birds, and therefore, understand the world around us.

Giving signals for 6 hours and then going offline for 36, the bird's transmitter will create 'blips' on a screen, which can then be connected to show their flight path.  A web page connected to Google Earth will be set up soon so we can track these birds as they begin their incredible 29,000 km migration, continuing what that species has done for thousands of years, but which we have only proven without doubt for 2 years.  We will put the link on our blog when it's created.  Now only time will tell to see if last year's incredible success can be repeated.

Monday, March 3, 2008

New Zealand

New Zealand. A country we've literally heard nothing but great things about, and a place that we've been looking forward to seeing for years now. It didn't disappoint. With more beautiful scenery than you'd think necessary for one country, endemic flora and fauna so completely different from any other place on earth, and some of the friendliest people we've met on our trip so far, we had a fantastic 35 days driving around and taking it all in.

A hearty welcome from one of the 30 million sheep in New Zealand.

Buying a car allowed us access to off-the-beaten-track locations we wouldn't otherwise have been able to see, which was a real highlight of the trip. Our good friends Adrian and Janice lent us their camping gear, which helped get us out into the wild, of which this country has an abundance, despite the major effects humans have had on this country's environment. Although only settled 1,000 years ago by the Maori people, this country's topography has been altered significantly, to the demise of many endemic bird, animal and plant species. The South island is where most of the large untouched patches of forest are, while the North island resembles a mixture between old English shrub-lined roads and pastureland grazed on by millions of sheep and cows. That being the case, we headed for the South first, and spent the bulk of our time down there.

We bought a car, borrowed some camping gear and hit the open water and roads for one fantastic month!

Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer who discovered the islands in 1642 - a full century ahead of Cook, is remembered by Abel Tasman National Park. Located on the northern tip of South island, this is a lovely area for kayaking, beaching and hiking. Although he never actually landed here, he headed the first European expidition that sighted New Zealand after 600 years of Maori residency. As you move down the island, you follow mountain ranges and large tracts of forest. Driving through Arthur's and Lewis Pass was gorgeous, and hot springs around Hanmer Springs and Maruia were welcome on those chilly nights and rainy days.

The wind-battered West coast is rugged, wet and rocky. Hidden just offshore from the pounding waves are two of New Zealand's largest glaciers, Franz Joseph and Fox. It is one of the only places on earth where you can see glaciers while standing in rainforest. A little further inland is the country's highest peak, Mt. Cook. As we headed to the southwestern corner, we drove into Fjordland National Park, a massive area made famous by Milford Sound and a plethora of multi-day hikes and deep untouched rainforest. From there it was across the Otago flats, where it is dry, dusty and hot. Dunedin on the East coast is a lovely university city, and the Otago Peninsula near there hosts Yellow-eyed and Blue Penguins, not to mention the world's only Royal Albatross mainland breeding grounds.

North of that is the large city of Christchurch, which is only 2 hours south of Kaikoura, where we experienced the wonder of the 12-foot wingspans of the Albatrosses while out on a 3-hour ocean excursion. The Marlborough area near the northeast corner of the island is home to one of the country's largest wine regions, which we felt we should check out while in the area. We loved the open spaces, free camping and great scenery on the South island, and hope to get back here someday in the future to continue peeking into its treasure trove of natural nooks and crannies.

In what other country can you go from glacier to ocean to rainforest in ONE day?

Wellington, New Zealand's capital city located on the southern tip of the North island, is a cafe-laden, laid back city that most usually pass on as they head to the Cook Strait ferry to Picton on the South island. Driving from there to volcanic hotspot Rotorua, you pass long stretches of dry openess, and the beginning of the grazed lawn that the North island becomes. The volcanic cones around Rotorua are spectacular, and the hot springs, bubbling mud and super-heated pools of that city were something we've never experienced before. We also checked out Waikato University of Hamilton, where Emily's sister Maddie will be going for a semester of school.

Just north of Rotorua is Miranda and the Miranda Shorebird Center on the Firth of Thames. A great spot to view over-wintering Arctic migrants and some intriguing local birds like the Wrybill, we were here a couple of times, more recently joining the international team that caught Bar-tailed Godwits and implanted satellite transmitters used to track their amazing 29,000 km migration path. More on that in a later post. From there you pass the stretched cities of Auckland, and then up through twisty turny terrain to Paihia, where the 1860 treaty of Waitangi was signed, establishing an English governor of the New Zealand islands. From there it's a quick ferry over to Russel, which boasts the country's first church, built in 1863. It's a bustling tourist area, known for kayaking, boat tours and dolphin swimming. Back in the country's largest city, Auckland, we sold our car while staying again with Adrian and Janice, who were wonderful hosts during our comings and goings from their beautiful house and attached 11 acres.

From the massive 13-foot wingspan of albatrosses to the enigmatic Kea, birds were a big highlight, as was seeing Brenda and Dave, Emily's aunt and uncle:)
For us, our month in New Zealand was a wonderful opportunity to see one of the world's most beautiful countries, made famous by the backdrops of the Lord of the Rings and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe movies. It also seemed that while driving into every small town in the country, Emily would remark, 'What a cute town!'. On top of the gorgeous scenery, it was refreshing for us to see a country with a managable population and lots of protected green spaces. It was, however, shocking to see the detrimental affects of introduced plant and animal species on local organisms, and reminded us, once again, how fragile the world we live in really is.