Caring for the environment  |  24 Oct 2019

A tiny and very lost Arctic wader has been spotted at Kaitorete Spit near Christchurch, one of just a handful of local sightings of the rare bird.

The little stint (Calidris minutus), which is smaller than a sparrow, was seen last week by ornithologist Niall Mugan of Keystone Ecology.

His identification of the bird was confirmed by Christchurch City Council staff who were in the Lake Ellesmere/Te Waihora area carrying out predator control and threatened species monitoring.

Council Ornithologist Andrew Crossland says the unusual sighting is a case of “migration overshoot” and the bird, which breeds in the high Arctic from Scandinavia to far-eastern Siberia, is about 12,000 km from home.

It’s the fourth time in the past 27 years that a little stint has been found at Lake Ellesmere and only the fifth recorded sighting of the bird in New Zealand.

“The little stint rarely reaches the Indonesian archipelago straddling the equator, and is a rare visitor to Australia,” he says.

“For it to have reached New Zealand five times since the first record in 1992 is a remarkable story of migration overshoot.

"This sighting is pretty awesome and it really cements the legend of Lake Ellesmere in the ornithological world. It’s such an amazing place for wildlife and we’re so lucky to have it near Christchurch city.”

The bird is distinctive because of its rich coloured plumage, white throat and yellow “V” shape pattern on its mantle (upper back).

At 12-14 cm in length and 18-45g in weight, the species is smaller than a sparrow and only a fraction of the size of the well-known bar-tailed godwit which weighs about 275-600g.

The little stint, which seems “pretty perky”, arrived solo, but it’s now keeping company with sandpipers and similar-sized red-necked stints, another Siberian migrant for which Lake Ellesmere supports the largest population in New Zealand.

Kaitorete Spit is one of three key areas selected for the multi-agency Banks Peninsula Predator Free initiative.

Mr Crossland says Lake Ellesmere has a unique ecology and is one of New Zealand’s most important sites for migratory birds from Siberia and Alaska, as well as a key transit site for waders migrating between the South and North Islands and Australia.

Christchurch City Council Parks staff protect and monitor wildlife within the Council reserve on Kaitorete Spit and along the adjacent shoreline of Lake Ellesmere.

Predation by weasels, stoats and feral cats on native and migratory waders is a major issue, Mr Crossland says.

“Last week I found two freshly caught weasels in traps only about 150 metres from where the little and red-necked stints were seen. It was a lucky intercept because the weasels would have gladly eaten the stints for lunch.”

The Council, in partnership with the Department of Conservation, is making progress on predator control in Christchurch City Council’s Kaitorete Spit Reserve with over 50 traps in place, he says.

“We seem to have arrested a substantial decline in the breeding population of the threatened Banded Dotterels and this season we’re seeing dotterel chicks surviving, as well as successful breeding by other wader species.”