Day 187 in the time of coronavirus and I’ve been silent for over three weeks, ensnared in a busy distracting schedule, bobbing up and down in the flow of change and more change, trying to stay steady. But here I am back at the keyboard tapping.
There are times when the weight of many things; this confounding pandemic; the soaring of racial prejudice fuelled by divisive hate rhetoric from the most hateful person on the planet; continuing climate change falls heavily on the spirit. I've wondered whether the recent strong winds on the harbour bridge, so ferocious they tipped over a huge truck causing serious damage to a main support and major traffic disruption to our main city, are another sign of a warming planet So when an invitation arrived in my inbox to spend time on the sandbanks observing birds near the Miranda/Pukorokoro shorebird sanctuary, on the edge of the Firth of Thames, it felt like a gift falling from the sky.
The day dawned bright and still. We drove down the southern motorway, over the Bombay Hills, turned off at Pokeno and headed, briefly, towards the Hauraki Plains, before turning at Mangatangi and winding east and slightly north through brilliant fields of green towards our destination. The sky was a Delft blue, the day warm and gentle, not a breath of movement in the atmosphere. To the east the Coromandel Ranges were a beguiling shade of mauve while water in the middle ground, the Firth of Thames, provided a strip of gentle blue.
We were meeting at the home of one of my book club members. Keith Woodley is the author of the definitive book on the godwit, 'Godwits: Long Haul Champions' and he’s also the manager of the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird centre. On this day he would be on duty there but we knew he would be awaiting our return from the bird hide ready to supply us with all the information and stories, of which there are many, of his research discoveries and experiences plotting the flight path of the bar-tailed godwit, back and forth from Miranda to Alaska, twice a year. He has observed the birds in Alaska at the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta and on the Alaska Peninsula where they breed, and in North Korea too, one of the countries they alight in just once to refuel two thirds of the way into the northern journey. On the return to Aotearoa, the birds cover the distance in a single flight.
It’s an absolute wonder how they manage this. The mother birds have only recently hatched their eggs, and the finely sculpted baby birds are still very young when they make their first journey of over 30,000 kms from Alaska all the way to Pukororo. Truly miraculous. And here is an interesting fact, discovered in Keith’s Godwits book, the female bird is larger than the male her inbuilt design feature allowing her to produce a largeish egg and a largeish chick. Size is essential to the survival of the new bird as it makes its first perilous passage across planet Earth.
The route to the bird hide passed alongside a wetland where on this tranquil day black swans and one white heron had the water to themselves. It had the feeling of walking in a sheltered valley, located somewhere in a bible story with rising landforms on both sides— the hills to the west, the Coromandel ranges in the east. There must be times when this same idyllic place turns into something desolate, windswept and god-forsaken but today I had felt I had found paradise. We were heading, with three enormous telescopes, to the bird hide at the outermost end.
The telescopes were positioned on the shingly bank next to the hide, their lenses focussed on a sandbank, just across a muddy lagoon. Beyond, a slip of water and the deep lavender ranges formed a velvet backdrop. And there they were, the bar-tailed godwit recently returned from Alaska.
I think you have to know what you are looking at to experience the full magic. We are lucky in our book club to have in our group two experienced birders. On this day Will Perry, chairman of the Pukororo Shorebird Trust counted some three thousand godwits. There is a method he explained for counting. It involves grouping the birds in bunches of ten, then twenty, fifty, 100, 1000, 2000, 3000… The godwits stretched out in lines, ten, twenty birds deep along the bank. Mixed in amongst them were other shorebirds: Caspian tern; white faced heron; wrybill; pied stilt; variable oystercatcher and red knot. The air rippled. It was like a mirage, like footage in a David Attenborough movie. Yet it was real, this extraordinary natural phenomenon of birds on mass gathered together pecking at the sand, gorging on food, filling up the hungry void inside. I nearly fell down on my knees and gave thanks to all the Gods and to the intricate evolution process that has produced life on earth for creating this marvellous vision.
My eyesight could be better. I have the beginnings of cataracts. This means that objects in the far distance are always slightly hazy, features indistinct. Would I see the detail? I was desperate to. In breaks between viewing Will explained a diagram affixed to the wall inside the bird hide and its system of banding. Some of the birds carry up to six different coloured bands, including a white flag, on their fine legs. Do they mind? I wondered. Do the bands slow them down? They’re very light apparently. Thinking I couldn’t possibly discern any bands I put my eye to the lens. Not every bird is banded. The process by which this happens at Pukorokoro and at landing places throughout the world is dependent on humans and their volunteer efforts. It involves a clever process whereby a net is set. The birders then lie for hours in mud waiting for the tide to wash in and nudge the birds closer to shore, whereupon a canon fires the net over the birds and the birders rush forward to tag as many as they can. Lots of birds escape before the net descends.
I spied the bands on the left leg of one bird and was the first to do so. The expression of doubt on the faces of my friends was noted. ‘But I have seen a white flag, and a red and yellow band,’ I exclaimed. Will leapt forward, eye to the lens, asking at the same time, ‘Which leg?’ The left. ‘What position?’ Near its ankle. ‘What about the other leg, can you see any bands?’ A pied stilt was blocking my view. Will confirmed my sighting and then everyone jumped up to see. Of course later when I spoke to Keith he told me that, unfortunately, I’d only gained half the story of the bird's flight paths so it was invalid. I don’t care I had a fabulous time.
While we were taking turns to look through the view finder my friend Holly described the spectacle that sometimes occurs when the godwits rise up, as one flock, and fly over. Before we left it happened. Something disturbed them and up they went in a huge puff of feathers, and with a twittering and beating of wings, into the sky moving like a cloud over the water, over our heads. As they flew the sun caught on the pale underside of their bodies and turned them into gold. I wanted to scream and I did silently for it was a truly glorious sight and an epiphany. I have always been interested in birds but in that moment I became a lover of birds.