Oh, good godwit: Bird doubles back to Alaska after giving up on getting to Aotearoa

This godwit, photographed on the mudflats at Miranda, probably isn't Kupe the not-so-intrepid traveller. Then again, it might be.
RICKY WILSON/Stuff
This godwit, photographed on the mudflats at Miranda, probably isn't Kupe the not-so-intrepid traveller. Then again, it might be.

There are plenty of frustrated international travellers who have been trying and failing to get to Aotearoa this year.

One of them is an exasperated godwit.

The bar-tailed godwit – who has been dubbed Kupe, after news of his thwarted attempt at crossing the Pacific Ocean broke on Twitter – is one of the 80,000-odd shorebirds that each year embark on an epic migration from Alaska to New Zealand and back.

Kupe’s progress is being monitored via a tiny radio transmitter in a band attached to his leg, which revealed that while he tried to get here, he gave up midway and doubled back to the Yukon delta after 57 hours on the wing.

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Also known as 4BWRB, the godwit had evidently encountered strong headwinds in the northern Pacific Ocean, according to David Lawrie, a volunteer at the Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre.

Kupe is one of 12 godwits that were tagged by workers at the centre two years ago and, of that group, his is the only transmitter still able to send a signal.

“He would have hit a terrible storm and decided it would be best to double back and rest up.”

Lawrie said the move was an interesting one, because it showed the birds were capable of rational decision-making, rather than forging onwards regardless as a matter of pure, driven instinct.

Not-quite there and back again: The godwit known as 4BWRB (but dubbed Kupe by Twitter users) made it part-way to New Zealand, before giving up and heading back to the Yukon Delta in Alaska - a round journey of 57 hours and 4200 kilometres
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Not-quite there and back again: The godwit known as 4BWRB (but dubbed Kupe by Twitter users) made it part-way to New Zealand, before giving up and heading back to the Yukon Delta in Alaska - a round journey of 57 hours and 4200 kilometres

Each year the godwits make the 12,000km, non-stop flight from the arctic circle to New Zealand, where they spend the next six months feasting on marine worms and small shellfish they find on the mudflats, before heading back each March to the northern breeding grounds.

About 5000 kuaka, as they are known to Māori, spend the summer at Miranda, on the Firth of Thames.

Kupe would have burnt through a good portion of his fat reserves on his aborted journey south, Lawrie reckoned – so a decent rest and restock of food was in order before he made another attempt.

“He would have used up a fair dollop of his fat reserves. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens now. He won’t be able to stay up there, because it won’t be long until the ground starts to freeze over.”

The bar-tailed godwits that can be seen on the mudflats near the Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre make for an at-times inspiring spectacle.
RICKY WILSON/Stuff
The bar-tailed godwits that can be seen on the mudflats near the Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre make for an at-times inspiring spectacle.

However, like his mythological explorer namesake, Kupe should be able to find his way to Aotearoa soon.

“I would be pretty confident he will get here eventually. It’s just going to be a week or two later than he expected.”

Lawrie, who has been keenly studying the godwits at Miranda each year since 1975, made a post on Twitter detailing 4BWRB’s stymied progress, which piqued the imagination of other tweeters.

Among those keenly following the bird was the Twitter user known as @KiwiDiva.

“Aue! Ka aroha ki a koe e Kupe. Kia kaha! Hoki pai mai ki Aotearoa,” she wrote. “Sending aroha to the bird I have named Kupe. May he regain strength and favourable winds to return again to Aotearoa!”

Another tweeter, @opportunz chimed in: “Biggest yeah, nah ever!”

Queried @PetrelsInPeril: “Got the news about the Covid lockdown?”

“Wow, I wonder if godwits feel emotional because he would be pretty down about that,” opined @MsShira50.

A year ago another godwit being tracked by the Miranda group set an apparent record for the trans-Pacific migration, covering more than 12,000 kilometres in 9.3 days, touching speeds close to 100kmh.

That bird, known as 4BBRW, left Alaska on September 18 and arrived in the Firth of Thames about 9.30pm on September 27.

The shorebird centre is a popular destination for bird watchers, due to its proximity to more than 8000 hectares of inter-tidal flats – prime real estate for many species of shorebird.