Ruakaka Beach

The bar-tailed godwit, a plump wading bird that undertakes the world's most spectacular migration, is under threat in one of its winter sanctuaries in Northland.

Kiteboarders have invaded the Ruakaka Wildlife Reserve, causing havoc among the birds as they prepare for their annual 11,000km migration.

Every spring, godwits fly from New Zealand to their breeding grounds in Alaska, an epic nonstop trip that takes up to nine days.

Conservationists say the birds have been harassed by kiteboarders, who harness wind power to zip across the water on small surfboards.

Ruakaka is an important sanctuary for the godwits because its sandbanks remain exposed during very high tides.

Thousands of creatures flock to the Ruakaka River's estuary from nearby Whangarei Harbour, where they spend the winter months roosting and nesting. Over the past two years, though, the sheltered waters of the little estuary have drawn increasing numbers of kiteboard-carrying visitors.

Bird protection volunteers say they encroach on the sandbanks, disturbing the godwits and frightening them away.

One volunteer, Margaret Hicks, said the birds and the kiteboarders were competing for "the same space, the same sea, the same sandbanks, the same air".

"You can imagine who's coming off worse. If everywhere else is under water, where the hell are the birds going to go? I've seen nests abandoned and eggs left to die."

While most kiteboarders left when told about the birds, a small hardcore of locals paid no heed, and were an "absolute nightmare".

"They are arrogant and selfish, and they don't give a damn about the environment," Ms Hicks said.

She and her fellow volunteers have complained repeatedly to the Department of Conservation and sent video of the birds being disrupted.

But a spokeswoman for the department, Lynnie Gibson, said there was not enough evidence to justify banning the sport, and a ranger had been engaged to research the issue more thoroughly.

The godwits' remarkable stamina was confirmed after birds were fitted with satellite transmitters and tracked during flight in 2006 and 2007.

The Ruakaka refuge is used for other activities, including walking, swimming, boating, jetskiing, windsurfing and horse riding.

But conservationists say that kiteboarding poses by far the biggest threat, because riders spend several hours in the estuary, frequently approaching the godwits and their nests, with their kites sometimes landing on top of the birds.

IN JEOPARDY

* The godwits are under threat from kiteboarders at the Ruakaka Wildlife Reserve.
* Every year the birds travel about 11,000km non-stop from New Zealand to Alaska.
* This is believed to be the longest non-stop migration path recorded for a bird.
* The birds rest here over summer to prepare themselves for the long flight back.
* More than 85,000 bartailed godwits visit New Zealand annually.


SOURCE: New Zealand Herald