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Safe landing

Birdwatchers flocked to Foxton Beach last weekend to celebrate the spring arrival of migratory birds, including those legendary long-haul flyers, the godwits. Paul Williams from the Horowhenua Chronicle reports.

The Manawatū River Estuary Trust (MRET) welcomed visitors to celebrate the spring arrival of migratory birds to the wetland site that is home to 95 different bird species.

The 250-hectare estuarine wetland boasts one of the most diverse ranges of birds to be seen at any one place in New Zealand, although a show-stealer was the Eastern bar-tailed Godwit (kuaka).

The godwit booked its spring and summer holidays at the Manawatū River estuary, the largest on the west coast of the lower North Island.

MRET trustee Tricia Metcalf said the godwit travelled all the way from Siberia to escape the harsh northern hemisphere winter, a trip of more than 12,000km.

The birds were returning to New Zealand on a non-stop flight that took more than a week, after initially stopping off for a breather in China over the Yellow Sea.

There was no funny business while on summer vacation in Foxton, though. The godwits were here to fatten up on local produce before heading back to their breeding grounds in Alaska in March.

Metcalf said prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, the godwits and other estuary birds attracted a large number of international visitors, helped by an easily accessible bird-watching platform on Dawick Street in Foxton.

“It is so accessible and unique, and that is what makes it so popular with people who are interested and who don't get a chance to view the birds in a habitat like this,” she said.

Visitors were met at the viewing platform for a karakia at noon. With high tide due to hit soon afterwards, it was good timing for a glimpse of the birds that roost on a nearby sandspit when tides are high.

The platform presented unique viewing and photographic opportunities because of the access and close proximity to the birds. Spotting scopes were available to the general public.

“The estuary is a dynamic, living thing,” said MRET treasurer Kathryn Lane.

“It's an amazing thing that most people take for granted. It is so special and so significant.”

Special guest Dr Phil Battley from Massey University's Wildlife and Ecology Group spoke and answered questions. He has been involved in the study of the migratory patterns of godwits for 15 years.

Dr Battley described the estuary at Foxton as one of the best places to view godwits in New Zealand.

Lane said there was always something new to learn, and she loved to see the excitement of visitors as they discovered more about the birds and the estuary's diversity.

One year they were lucky enough to see a flock of godwits arrive. They were flying in V-formation and wasted no time landing and settling into a feast, almost manic in their eating habits.

Lane said attention to estuarine importance has grown immensely throughout the world.

In July 2005 the Manawatū Estuary was declared a Wetland of International Importance as a Ramsar site, following a nomination from the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society with support from the Manawatū River Estuary Trust.

In 2014, a total of 2186 wetlands had been declared Ramsar sites around the world, with a total area of 208,449,277 ha. Six are in New Zealand, with a total area of approximately 55,000 hectares.

The Ramsar status of the Manawatū Estuary acknowledges the ecological importance of the area as a site for wading birds, its vegetation and landforms.

In 2006 a Manawatū River Estuary Management Team, comprising representatives from the Department of Conservation, Horizons Regional Council, Horowhenua District Council, the Manawatū River Estuary Trust and iwi, was established to coordinate efforts to protect and enhance the site.

The Manawatū Estuary comprises sandbanks and a large area of salt marsh, which is fairly inaccessible. For that reason it is home to rare birds and a good breeding place for native fish.

The main freshwater inflow is the Manawatu River, which drains a large catchment area.

Among the migratory birds expected from their breeding grounds in Alaska and Siberia are the bar-tailed godwit, red knot, Pacific golden plover as well as other rarer visitors such as Japanese snipe, wandering tattler, Asiatic whimbrel and various sandpipers.

Manawatū is also the winter home of an estimated one percent of the country's total population of 4200 wrybills, and critically threatened visitors include the fairy tern and shore plover.

Flocks of shoveller and grey teal seek refuge here over the shooting season, and royal spoonbills are now year-round residents.

There are also extensive salt marsh areas, which are relatively inaccessible, giving a safe home to the rare fernbird, bittern and marsh crakes.

Less common species of migratory shorebirds have included Asiatic Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus variegatus, Wandering Tattler Tringa incana, Terek Sandpiper T. cinerea and Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris.

The estuary wintered Royal Spoonbills Platalea regia. Other species regularly using the estuary include Australasian Bittern Botaurus poiciloptilus, Banded Dotterel Charadrius bicinctus (up to 100) and Wrybill Anarhynchus frontalis (up to 40).

The southernmost population of the North Island Fernbird Bowdleria punctata vealeae occurs in this area. The Brown Mudfish Neochanna apoda is found in the estuary.

Right on time, the Godwits have been arriving at the Ramsar area at Foxton Beach this month and were captured by Foxton resident and keen photographer Terry Oliver Ward.
Right on time, the Godwits have been arriving at the Ramsar area at Foxton Beach this month and were captured by Foxton resident and keen photographer Terry Oliver Ward.
TAGGED: A rare Fairy Tern (tara iti), at the Manawatū River Estuary Picture by Imogen Warren
FEEDING TIME: A white-face heron (matuku moana) at Manawatū estuary. Picture by Terry Oliver-Ward
An Australasian Bittern (matuku-hurepo), photographed by Imogen Warren.
COMING HOME: The kuaka/godwits are returning to the Manawatu Estuary at Foxton. Picture by Terry Oliver-Ward
UP CLOSE: This handsome Royal Spoonbill was snapped by Imogen Warren at Foxton Beach.