Kuaka Tales

Today, Zeacology‘s first guest post. My dad was inspired by the story of the kuaka (also known as the bar-tailed godwit, or Limosa lapponica) from the first time he read about their herculean migration. When he visited me on the South Island in July 2016, he was able to see the long-admired birds in person. But, here, I’ll let him tell it…

Kuaka Tales

Zeacology has kindly agreed to host a kuaka post…

Given the opportunity to extol the terrific scientific work of American & Kiwi ornithologists & conservationists, the fine writing of Don Stap, the artistic vision of Chris Soria, and centrally, the mystery and wonder of kuaka migration…..here goes.

Kuaka, feeding in the Avon-Heathcote Estuary in Christchurch

The Alaskan bar-tailed godwit, the kuaka, breeds on the southern coast of Alaska, migrating annually to NZ & Australia to avoid the northern winter. Their migration north has long been well documented: up the Southeast Asian coast, skirting the Yellow Sea, Korea and Kamchatka and across the North Pacific. The route south, however….remained a mystery.

Remained a mystery to modern science, that is. It seems Polynesians knew all along, for as legend has it, their discovery of Aotearoa was inspired by consistent sighting at certain times of year, far at sea with no known islands to the south, of shore birds flying overhead in that direction. Confident that there must be land, they followed…..the genesis of the Maori homeland and culture.

Where would they have arrived and by what route, had they followed that flight path north, instead?

As reviewed masterfully by Don Stap in his essay “Flight of the Kuaka”, scientists Nils Warnock and Bob Gill nailed this question in 2007, when a radio tagged female kuaka was traced, flying roughly diagonally across the open Pacific, a non-stop journey of nearly 7,000 miles accomplished in about 8 days. This feat is stunning….an endurance record unsurpassed by any creature…and becomes even more astounding in its details, for the birds must cope not just with distance, but with the challenge of varying weather cells and prevailing winds along their course. It appears that they turn adversity to their favor, for the birds launch their migrations on the tail end of north Pacific storms, ramping their flight speeds as high as 90 mph. Along their route, they navigate the Northeasterly Trades, the Doldrums, the Southeasterly Trades and local weather systems, adjusting headings, riding wind currents like the Polynesians that they once guided. Even more astounding, each autumn older birds head south first, leaving the young of the year to make this epic journey guided only by utterly unfathomable instinct. How ineffably wondrous…..

Seeking kuaka at sunset in the Avon-Heathcote.

On a trip south of my own, Zeacologist Eliza introduced her sister and me to the kuaka, first on the Avon-Heathcote Estuary and later at Farewell Spit. ‘See that bird over there? That’s a kuaka. Right, it flew about 7,000 miles non-stop to be here to greet you……”

Their saga fires my imagination, filling my heart with both wonder and trepidation. Just how vulnerable is their wind-tuned migratory strategy to the changes that we all see coming, but can’t perfectly predict?

We shared Don’s essay and our wonderment with a young artist from Brooklyn, Chris Soria; inspired, he created a masterpiece. I find magic in Chris’s painting…the DNA like cloud streams, the tessellated compass points, the movement, the shadowy forms evoking all those generations leading to the foreground, the flyers on their epic journey, at the tip of their evolutionary spear, this very moment…

Chris Soria’s kuaka piece.

May we all walk in wonder…

Would you like to learn more?

Check out Don Stap’s essay at the Cornell ornithology website: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/flight-of-the-kuaka-a-godwit-makes-the-longest-nonstop-flight-ever-recorded/

The Ornithological Society of New Zealand can tell you when and where to find kuaka, or any other featured feathered friends…check them out at www.osnz.org.nz

Want to learn more about Chris Soria?  Check out https://www.instagram.com/chrissoria/

The artist with his creation



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