Shorebird from New Zealand spotted in Yukon after overshooting its destination in Alaska

·3 min read
Two bar-tailed godwits on Lake Laberge, north of Whitehorse, on June 2 2021. A bar-tailed godwit was recently spotted in northern Yukon after it overshot its breeding grounds in eastern Siberia and western Alaska. (Submitted by Cameron Eckert - image credit)
Two bar-tailed godwits on Lake Laberge, north of Whitehorse, on June 2 2021. A bar-tailed godwit was recently spotted in northern Yukon after it overshot its breeding grounds in eastern Siberia and western Alaska. (Submitted by Cameron Eckert - image credit)

A New Zealand shorebird that flies halfway around the world to its breeding grounds in the Bering Strait overshot its destination and was spotted in northern Yukon.

"It flew right over Alaska and it landed just west of Herschel Island, at Qikiqtaruk [Territorial Park], along the coast along the Yukon's North Slope," said Cameron Eckert, a conservation biologist with Yukon Parks and a bird enthusiast who co-edited a book about Yukon birds.

Every year, about 10,000 bar-tailed godwits, which are typically seen along lakeshores and in ocean estuaries, migrate from the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Sanctuary in New Zealand to areas along the Bering Strait in Siberia, Russia, and western Alaska, according to Eckert.

He said he has seen a few of them in the Southern Lakes area, just south of Whitehorse, but this is the first time he's heard of a sighting in northern Yukon.

"It is a big deal," he said on CBC's Airplay. "It provided a really cool Yukon connection to what really is a global migration story."

One 10,200 km non-stop flight followed by a 7,400 km non-stop flight

Eckhart said in early 2011, scientists started putting satellite tags on bar-tailed godwits to track them from space. The scientists expected to be "blown away," according to Eckert, but even they were surprised by the flying accomplishment of one particular bar-tailed godwit.

Known as E7, one bar-tailed godwit left its wintering site in New Zealand and flew 10,200 kilometres non-stop to the Yellow Sea in China and then stopped for a few days to fuel up, said Eckert.

The bird then continued to fly another 7,400 kilometres non-stop to its breeding grounds in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska.

"Now, that alone would have been nothing short of a monumental finding, but the incredible part happened in fall migration," Eckert explained.

Submitted by Cameron Eckert
Submitted by Cameron Eckert

He said the scientists expected the transmitter to die out over the summer but it kept on transmitting, allowing the scientists to track it as it flew back to New Zealand from Alaska.

It flew 11,680 kilometres non-stop.

"That means this bird flew nonstop for 10 days from Alaska to reach its wintering areas in New Zealand," said Eckert.

"And it didn't do this by flying on the backs of whales or Canada geese – you know, sort of stories that you hear – it didn't do this by jumping up into the jet stream and being whistled down there.

"It was often fighting headwinds. It did this under its own power. And after sort of fuelling up and flattening up in Alaska, off it went," he said.

The scientists were shocked. They didn't know a bird was capable of that type of flight.

Since then, added Eckert, scientists have continued tracking the migration of the birds to better understand their conservation and what they need to make such monumental migrations.

And as for the lone bar-tailed godwits that overshot its destination and flew to the Yukon?

"I think that bird will be fine," said Eckert, who expects it will make its way back to western Alaska.

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