Coastal Birds

Key Ideas about Coastal Birds

((Bird detectives, click on the tracks below to see who made them.))

Estuaries are prime habitats for coastal birds and many New Zealand bird species are found in or near wetlands and estuaries. Miranda, in the Firth of Thames, is a major feeding ground for more than 50,000 wading shore birds. Some of these, including Godwits, spend the summer at Miranda and then, in the autumn, fly to their nesting grounds as far away as Siberia and Alaska. Along the way, the birds depend on estuaries in other countries as feeding and resting sites. The loss of even one of these important way points would result in the extinction of the birds.

Beaches are also very important nesting sites for many species of birds. The sand dunes behind beaches are important for long term beach survival. Exotic plants, road construction, and vehicle traffic has damaged sand dunes in many areas.

The New Zealand dotterel is under threat because it builds its nest in vegetation of sand dunes. As more people use the beaches for recreation, the nesting sites are often destroyed by people stepping on them or by pet dogs attacking the nests.

The Caspian turn and the Ferry turn build their nests on open beaches, often on sand shoals off river mouths where they are protected from land animals by narrow bands of water. One of the reasons these may be vanishing from New Zealand's coasts is the loss off sand bars through coastal modification and pollution of these habitats as the rivers have become heavily populated.

The white-faced Heron walks through estuaries on its long legs. It's feet are very big so they don't sink into soft mud. Herons move very slowly, careful not to let its shadow pass over its intended fish meal, and when it is close, it strikes. The long neck is like a snake uncoiling. It is so quick, Herons have no trouble plucking a fish out of the water.

Many wading birds, like the pied oystercatchers, sleep during high tide and walk the mud and sand flats at low tide. They don't eat oysters, they use their long, strong beaks to probe for worms, shrimp, crabs and cockles. They can spot a cockle breathing hole and spear into the shell so quickly the cockle does not have the chance to close its shell. One oystercatcher might gobble up over two hundred cockles in a day.

Sea birds like turns are excellent flyers and can skim over the surface of the sea, and snatch a fish out of the ocean in mid-flight. Many of these birds range more than 50 miles offshore gathering fish. The most impressive sea bird is the giant Albatross which can stay up in the air flying for months at a time, never landing anywhere at all. Like the turns, they swoop down to gobble up fish from the surface of the sea.

Sea Gulls are scavengers and eat almost anything at all, which is why you can find heaps of them at landfills where they pick through the rubbish. They also pick through the rubbish at places like boat ramps, often scattering rubbish everywhere. It's a good idea to take your rubbish home with you after boating or be sure it is put into a covered waste bin so the gulls don't toss it everywhere.

Coastal Bird Activities

Discuss some of the problems faced by birds that lay their eggs on the beach or on sand dunes. Consider dogs and cats, people, cars, pesticides, lights, noise, and other problems that might prevent the birds from properly mating, nesting and rearing their babies.

Act out the roles of the birds with young on the beach and have other students act like children visiting the beach or like dogs. The students playing the birds can't speak until after the game. Then they tell the class how they felt being a bird on a beach. How would they like people to behave?

Look at photographs and drawings of coastal birds. They all have different bills, feet, colours, legs, and other features. Each difference represents a special adaptation for the way the bird lives. What can you discover about a bird's way of life by looking at the way it is shaped?

Invite a friendly ornithologist to help you learn about looking for birds, nests, and how to observe the behaviour of birds.

Visit an estuary and look in the trees, tidal flats, and shore areas for birds. Can you find different birds in the different habitats? Discuss adaptations to different habitats (like feet that can easily hold onto branches in trees versus feet that are good for wading or feet designed for swimming).

Help with a bird census. Talk to the local chapter of the Royal Forest and Bird or the Ornithological Society about helping to count birds as part of the national census of birds of New Zealand.

Join a dune care group to look after sand dunes, replanting native vegetation and protecting bird nesting sites.

Find out who is looking after the interests of coastal birds in your area. Is there a bird recovery network in your area? Invite people who are helping birds to talk to the class about their work.

Useful References

Margins of the Sea, Exploring New Zealand's Coastlines 1985, John Morton.

Field Guide to New Zealand Birds Geoff Moon, Reed Publishers

Sea Shore Birds Geoff Moon and Gordon Ell Reed Publishers

Tauranga's Coastal Birds New Zealand Geographic Magazine #7

Pukeko - indomitable swamp hen. New Zealand Geographic Magazine #21

The New Zealand School Journal:

A Day with Seagulls 1983 Part 1 no.2 8.5-9.5

The Gannet 1980 Part 3 no.2 11-12

Gulls - feeding and breeding 1969 Part 3 no.1 9.5-10.5

Seagulls 1968 Part 1 no.2 9.5-10.5

What Are They Doing?

(Articles about Shags) 1995 Part 3 no. 1 8.5-9.5 years