Published on 17 November 2020

Wader Identification course recap

I was fortunate enough to spend the last weekend doing a wader identification course at the Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre. After having had to postpone it the last two seasons, I was really looking forward to it and boy, it didn't disappoint. What an epic weekend of birding.

Bar-tailed godwits

A flock of bar-tailed godwits under the late-afternoon light

I did the NZ Dotterel management course at the centre a few years ago, so I was familiar with the place and the great bunch of people that run it. Despite not knowing the details of the course I knew it had to be good - every year it's always full! The course started on Friday evening and ended on Sunday afternoon, making the most of the best conditions for birding, two hours at either side of the high tide. While the majority of the participants came from the Auckland region, there were folks from other parts of the North Island such as the Wairarapa, Napier, Waikato etc.. Courses held at Miranda are a good way to meet like-minded people and to learn about interesting conservation projects occurring across the country.

The course touches on basic shorebird taxonomy, anatomy, ecology and has a strong field component, with outdoor sessions on the three days of the course. Telescopes, binoculars and field guides are provided if the participants don't bring their own. Wader counts and tracking techniques (banding, satellite transmitters, etc..) are also explained and you certainly don't need a PhD on shorebird ecology to understand all that's taught in the course.

Out in the field

Out in the field with tutors Ian Southey, Keith Woodley and Gillian Vaughan.

Most of the theory taught in the classroom is put into practice in the field, which is a great way to quickly consolidate the learnings. The provided telescopes allow you to keep a close eye on the birds even though their roosting spots might be far away from the hides. We were lucky to have a bunch of godwits get really close one evening, allowing us to spot the differences between an adult and a juvenile (first-year bird) in terms of plumage patterns.

Heading to one of the hides

Heading to one of the hides

Some of the species I got to see during the course:

I was very familiar with most of the species except for the lesser sand plover and the curlew, which were a first-time for me. One of the lessons that I took from this course is that it is important to pay attention to details when identifying birds you are not so familiar with ; go through the distinctive traits, pay attention to the surrounding conditions, the environment and the behavior of the individual/s you are watching. Then rely on your field guide as a complement to the gathered information for an ID assessment. It is important not to base your identifications solely on a book as more often than not your mind might be trying to trick you (the classic case of you are seeing what you want to see).

The use of telescopes allowed me to find some banded birds that otherwise would have been difficult to identify (unless you own one of those DSLR with long-range lenses). I was able to identify ZKT, a bar-tailed godwit banded in Victoria, Australia. I also spotted M-OKW, a female NNZD likely to have been banded by John Dowding (see picture below).

Northern NZ dotterel M-OKW having a wee snooze. Taken with my phone through the telescope.

Northern NZ dotterel M-OKW having a wee snooze. Taken with my phone through the telescope.

Update from John after I submitted the sighting:

She was banded in November 2002 at Whakanewha Regional Park on Waiheke Island. Straight-line distance from there to Miranda is roughly 45 km (but in my experience dotterels never travel in straight lines, so the distance is only an absolute minimum travelled). At the time of banding M-OKW was breeding (incubating a 3-egg nest); I have her as a female based on the much darker colour of her mate. She bred every year at Whakanewha after banding until last season. I last saw her there in April 2019, so I strongly suspect she has lost her mate and is going walkabout looking for a new one—very typical NNZD behaviour. Because she was breeding at the time of banding she would have been at least 2 years old then, so a minimum of 20 now. Not a record, but definitely getting toward senior-citizen status.

Practicing counts in the field was challenging at a times. It was a good reminder of how hard is to encounter the perfect conditions for a count and how you get to deal with conditions such as:

These are issues that are highly common and when you are doing a count you have to work around them. The key points I took from doing counts are:

  1. Try to have a quick count first, in case something happens and the birds disperse or for some other reason you are unable to count them
  2. Do a more detailed count, varying your counting strategy depending on density, species and location
  3. The use of manual counters is of great help to keep track of numbers
  4. Do the count with someone else so you're able to compare results
  5. Pictures might be of help but might also be deceiving. Apply common sense when using them for counting purposes

We were able to count more than 5,000 bar-tailed godwits, ~1,200 red knots, hundreds of SI pied oystercatchers and smaller numbers of other species. The video below is an attempt to capture the magic of a flock of birds re-distributing themselves along the shell bank to roost. It is quite a sight and I recommend a visit to Miranda so you can enjoy it in person.

Overall I had a great time and I feel l learnt a lot. If you are into shorebirds, in particular arctic vagrants, I definitely recommend you to do this course. But remember to book it well in advance!

A big thank you to the Pūkorokoro team and to all the tutors (Adrian Riegen, Gillian Vaughan, Ian Southey and Keith Woodley). Such legends.

I'd also like to thank the Auckland Biodiversity team for helping me get into the course, much appreciated.