Have you heard?

20:27, Oct 26 2012

Alistair Bone talks to a ‘birder'.

Keith Woodley has a good job. He lives at the Miranda Shorebird Centre on the west side of the Firth just across from Thames town. He looks after the souvenir store and runs the 25-bed B'n'B and watches, talks and reads and writes about birds. The shop has every manner of thing avian. Including versions stuffed under licence and not for sale, even on the quiet. There are displays and books and hats and shirts. Outside, birds flit around harmonising frogs in the big shallow pond ringed by flax and rushes that sits just off the centre's deck. There is a mural of every kind of shorebird found at Miranda, the animals grouped together singly in an improbable scene. To a casual eye many look exactly the same. Woodley can tell them apart and tell you what they do. He is immersed. Some people fear birds and some people seek them out. But if you are neither of those kinds both seem irrational.

Those that seek them out call themselves "birders" says Woodley. "It is about the nature of the birds themselves. Sorting out the different kinds and their behaviour and changes in plumage. But also the places you need to go to find them. And when it comes to shorebirds there is something about an open estuary that is just for birds that draws me and certainly draws a lot of other people."

To a New Zealander this is like listening to a Japanese tour guide deconstruct their obsession with sheep. Birds are everywhere. So are pretty nice places. Estuaries are effectively nature's drain. Try again.

"A lot of birders are naturalists in general. They are interested in reptiles, say, as much as anything else." But reptile watching is not a huge pastime in Europe and Britain and Western Europe like birdwatching.

"I have a lot of interests," says Woodley. "Politics, music, history. But wherever you are in the world there are likely to be birds around. It adds a layer of interest over whatever takes you to that particular place - business or whatever. That's why it works for me."


He'll allow that it's like trainspotting and collecting stamps. Maybe even hunting or fishing. All coming from the same part of our brain where we keep curiosity and the desire to impose order on mystery.

He can divide the tribe up into its sects. There are the "twitchers", who are keen to see as many birds as possible. There are those who just have a general interest in nature. Some look for seabirds, or birds of the bush. And there are those who like to tick off new species from some self-generated list. "Once they have seen it they lose interest in it and are on to the next one," Woodley says. Between those camps exist a whole spectrum of people who tend one way or another to varying degrees.

"A lot of people will take records of birds. That adds another layer of interest as well. Recording bands has led to the godwit story."

That's an interesting story. On the wall is a map of the journey of bar-tailed godwit E7. A bird with a tracker attached. Her trip from Thames to Alaska via China involved more than a week of non-stop flying on just one 10,000-plus kilometre leg. Her path is spread over half the world. Along infinite arcs of blue that would destroy a strong man crossing them in a jet, E7 did it under her own steam carrying a tracker that added significant weight. Then about three months later she came back. It's a mind-bending, ridiculous feat for a tiny bird.

But the godwit has already been well-praised in word and song and Woodley's latest book is looking at lesser known beach birds. Shorebirds of New Zealand features species "below the radar". One is the badly made and perfectly named wrybill, with its askance beak making it seem as if it is suppressing a knowing smile.

"It is only found in New Zealand but many New Zealanders have never seen or heard of it. They breed exclusively on the braided rivers of Canterbury and the Mackenzie Basin. It is the only bird in the world with a bill curved to the side. About 40 per cent come to Miranda each year, the other 40 go to the Manukau Harbour." The wrybill is classified as vulnerable headed towards endangered by international conventions.

In fact, Woodley says most of the shorebird populations in New Zealand are in decline. Some because they breed on the beach over summer. Precisely when the coast is filled with people and their dogs and trail bikes. Development is pushing out the birds too. And predators are on the prowl all the time. Rats, cats, dogs, stoats, ferrets and, surprisingly, hedgehogs. Woodley says some native predators also now have unnaturally large populations. "Harriers are an open country hunter and there is a lot more of that around. They are far more widespread and common than they would have been historically."

The same thing with black back gulls that thrive on dumps and other food sources and won't hesitate to take eggs or a chick or even a small adult of another species.

The wrybill face all this and another threat in their southern home - the dairy cow. Woodley says their riverbeds are under stress from the interruption of their natural flow by irrigation and dams. "Conversion to dairy is having a huge impact on the water table. If we are going to have dairy expansions they are going to have to be managed properly."

He says dairy has effectively killed the Waituna Lagoon in Southland. This is an area near Invercargill that acts as a giant catcher's mitt for runoff from a large number of new dairy farms. It is a Ramsar site - listed under an international agreement as environmentally important, one of only six in New Zealand.

"It's a national disgrace that it has been wrecked in the last 10 years. We know what needs to be done to prevent dairy operations having such an impact. It costs, but that cost needs to be built into the dairy product."

This is Woodley's widest theme, reorganising the world. "What would be refreshing, globally, would be if we could change our economic model. If we built in true environmental costs to the cost of an operation we would have a better idea of the value. At the moment, environmental things are in second place and the net result is we've got waterways that are totally degraded."

The Yanks and every other milk producer would kill us in the market if we did that alone. It might be worth it. From the Shorebird Centre there is a good track down and across the road and into some swampy land. It ends in a couple of hides on the shore from where you can see birds roosting, or whatever they do, on a shell bank a couple of hundred metres away over low-tide mud. The smaller of the hides is dark and cool and there is a louvre-sized panel in the wall to look through. It frames the regular white shapes of Thames and the black hills behind it tearing jagged pieces out of the bottom of the blue sky.

Some kind of wading species is the only thing near, picking its way slow and deliberate along a miniature stream winding through the seabed mud. After a while, watching the bird do its simple, timeless thing starts to take you off into a meditative place, with its sense of perspective and memories unbidden and all that stuff. Some hours of this might be required to see precise shapes, but the phone rings.

Woodley says we need to preserve what remains. "For seabirds, we need to pay more attention to harbours and coastal and estuary areas. We need to look at disturbance levels when breeding and do ongoing predator control."

"We" means we the people. Woodley says government has been steadily dismantling the Conservation Department, starving it of resources and divesting it of a lot of its functions. Community groups have had to step in. They've had at least one big win.

"North of Auckland and around Coromandel, community groups have become active in looking after the New Zealand dotterel. They'll take ownership of a piece of beach where dotterels are nesting. They will fence it and do predator control and prevent disturbance."

After 10 or 15 years of this the Coromandel Peninsula is probably reaching its capacity for New Zealand dotterel. The birds are spreading out, into the Firth of Thames and down to the Bay of Plenty. DOC, councils and even Newmont Gold contributed money, but the initiative and the work comes from the birders themselves. "That is a hell of a success story," he says.