By DOC’s Government Support Manager (and keen photographer), Brian Sheppard
New Zealand’s magnificent shorebirds are masters of their elements but they only reach this supreme state of being after rigorous training of mind and body.
To a casual observer, the birds are just mooching around, or foraging for food, but look closer. You might be surprised to see what they are really up to.
I dropped in on a couple of Wellington’s shorebird chapters: the beach chapter at Petone, and the city branch at Wellington Harbour, to watch their training sessions.
A pair of oystercatchers were just finishing their afternoon tea at the beach to fortify themselves for their self-improvement class. The first one led the way, closely followed by an inquisitive red-billed gull.
The tide was in and pounding against the end of a concrete pier.
The pair of oystercatchers took their positions at the end of the pier where the raging sea would drench them. They showed no fear but just stared down the approaching waves.
The gulls arrived shortly afterwards but they were the new entrants to the class, taking a back row – watching and learning from the masters.
With the skills learned from the beach, the gulls tried to apply them, in the comparative privacy of Wellington Harbour. Their test was to hone their flight skills on a spectacularly windy winter’s day. Their test area was the outfall from the wetland next to Te Papa.
As they arrived, their first task was to stand their ground in the face of the wind that was blowing the falling water back the way it came.
Following the example shown by the oystercatchers, the lead gull stepped to the edge to show no fear while being pelted by the spray and then to execute a flawless take-off.
Clearly a bit more practice was needed. He was nearly wiped out by a cross wind. It must have dented his confidence as I saw him later retaking his beginner’s take-off class. By that time, I had to get back to work, so I never witnessed the landing.
More than a third of the 80 or so species of sea and shore birds that breed in New Zealand are found nowhere else on Earth, including the variable oystercatcher.
Both variable the oystercatcher and red-billed gull are native to New Zealand and are often found around our coast.
Do you have a ‘chapter’ of these shorebirds near you?