Shorebirds of New Zealand: Sharing the Margins

Keith Woodley
Penguin, $50

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Every year over June and July, the shores of Miranda, south-east of Auckland on the Firth of Thames, host a raucous avian pageant. The intensity heightens as winter progresses and various species prepare to migrate southwards. Small flocks of black and white oystercatchers are the first to depart, heading out in ragged and restless formations. “They are invariably noisy affairs, their calls tumbling from on high, urgent and noisy,” writes Keith Woodley.

A few weeks later, the wrybills discreetly vacate Miranda, in time for the arrival of the birds of the tundra. The godwits and the knots, turnstones and sandpipers land ragged and exhausted, having travelled tens of thousands of kilometres from the mudflats of Asia and North America—the godwits fly direct from Alaska, the longest non-stop migration of any bird in the world. All return with feathers that were grown here 10 months earlier.

Woodley, the manager of the Miranda Shorebird Centre, watches each year as another shorebird migratory cycle plays out. His passion for birds has developed over his lifetime—from a fledgling ornithologist to a “born-again” birder. Shorebirds of New Zealand is Woodley’s ode to avian species.

“At certain times, at certain places, these birds are prominent in our landscapes: the beaches and bays, harbours and estuaries, rivers and lakes around which many of us live, or where we gravitate for recreation,” he writes. “This is the world where shorebirds find themselves living alongside us, sharing the margins.”

An estimated 60 species of shorebirds inhabit the coastlines and estuaries of New Zealand. The chapters begin by methodically examining the lifecycles, habits and histories of each species, colourfully detailing their complexities and characteristics.

The wrybills, for example, are set apart by their aerial activities over June and July. At the time of the evening tide, more than 2000 can be seen swarming together in a kinetic spiral. “It [is] a fantastic display—frenetic twists and turns followed by languid loops as the flock teases apart then coalesces, flashing white underparts twisting to dark as they turn away,” Woodley writes.

“Ironically, given their prominence at certain times—such as a massed roost of oystercatchers on an urban fringe—much of the time our shorebirds remain off the radar.”

Nearly 90 per cent of New Zealanders live within 40 km of the sea, where a plethora of avian species roost. “We have a tendency to take our coastline for granted—we overuse it, overdevelop it and pollute it. But how well do we know the creatures we share these places with?” asks Woodley.

Coastal habitats have changed dramatically over the past century, slowly being developed commercially. Along with the habitat, some of the birds have gone, too, he writes: “the North Island snipe to extinction; [the] shore plover surviving only on the Chatham Islands and a few offshore sanctuaries”.

As the numbers of fairy terns and black-billed gulls slowly dwindle, Woodley urges New Zealanders to get involved. The later chapters of the book detail the work of recovery groups and provide information on predators, changing water flows and polluted waterways that also threaten avian populations. And finally, a call to action: pay attention to those co-inhabiting the coastlines, the birds “sharing the margins with us”.

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