In strong contrast to the millions of New Zealanders hunkering down in the Covid-19 lockdown, the kuaka, or godwits, have once again taken wing.
The kuaka/godwit migration finished on March 29.
Massey University Wildlife and Ecology Group Associate Professor in Zoology Dr Phil Battley says 130 kuaka/godwits migrated from the Manawatū Estuary in March, along with 68 red knots.
No red knots went on the day of the Farewell to the Godwits event in mid-March, but 11 left the day after in southerly winds that helped them on their way.
One of the birds that was present during the farewell departed on March 17 and was seen and photographed in South Korea within a few days of arriving in Asia.
It takes at least seven days to reach Asia and it was seen in Korea on March 26 alongside a satellite-tracked adult from Pūkorokoro Miranda.
You can see the tracks of the adults here.
The birds fly to Alaska via the Yellow Sea in March through June, and return across the Pacific in September.
"Those birds should keep tracking right through the year and it'll be worth checking in regularly to see where they are," Dr Battley said.
Jesse Conklin stays in a house overlooking the Manawatū River estuary every March to record the kuaka/godwit migration.
This year is the 13th that Dr Conklin has come to Foxton to watch these little birds with the long upward-curved bill get ready to return to their nesting ground in Alaska.
I asked if it was an emotional time to watch them leave the estuary.
"There are multiple parts to it," he replied.
"One is that it is astonishing and humbling to think that a 300–500g bird will fly from this place and not touch land again until it has reached the Yellow Sea of China and Korea, about 10,000km away.
"We will go about our normal lives for the next week, and it will still be flying for seven or eight days.
"It's still hard to believe this is true."
He continued that another part to his relationship research is the connection to the specific birds that he has built over the years.
"I feel privileged to be the one that is here to see this special moment when each of them departs on its flight.
"And then there is the uncertainty of it, the adventure and difficulty that these individuals will face during the six months they are away from New Zealand.
"With that is the knowledge that some of them will not return.
"They are not just research data, but individuals, some of which I have known for 13 years, that I may not see again.
"So, yes, it can be emotional for me."
I asked, is there one godwit that has a special place with you? If so, why? What is its tag?
Dr Conklin said there were more than 200 individually marked godwits that had been part of his research since 2008.
He mentions two that are special to him for very different reasons.
"4YYYY was the first godwit colour-banded at the Manawatū Estuary in 2006, nearly two years before I was involved in the research in New Zealand.
"The 'YYYY' means she has two yellow bands on her left leg and two more yellow bands on her right leg, and the '4' designates the position of a white flag (indicating New Zealand) relative to these color-bands.
"She was an adult, at least three years old when she was captured in 2006.
"She is now at least 16 years old, but could be much older, since godwits are known to live up to about 30 years.
"She and three other marked individuals that were here when I started my research are still coming back to the Manawatū Estuary, meaning that I have shared the entire 13 years with them, and perhaps many years more to come.
"4YYYY departed Manawatū on March 12 this year, and I hope to see her again in 2021."
Another special godwit to Dr Conklin is 6YBWY that was banded at the estuary in February 2013 when he was probably about eight months old.
Although godwits fly from Alaska to New Zealand when they are only about four months old, they don't return to Alaska until they are about three years old, Dr Conklin said.
"So 6YBWY was here with me for March 2013 and 2014, but did not migrate."
He said it was quite exciting, and yes emotional, when he arrived at Foxton in 2015 to see 6YBWY.
"He had clearly put on a lot of weight and was fat enough to migrate.
"He did indeed depart on his first northward flight on March 15, 2015, and has been migrating regularly since then.
"While I have known him, he has gone from a skinny nervous youngster to an impressively red adult that may have raised chicks of his own in any of his last five breeding seasons in Alaska."
The bartailed godwits/kuaka that are found in New Zealand breed in lowland grassy tundra areas of western and northern Alaska.
"I have been lucky enough to visit their nesting grounds on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Seward Peninsula, and the North Slope of Alaska."
Dr Conklin said godwits had been coming to New Zealand for a long time, as suggested by their place in Māori lore, and in legends about seagoing Polynesians discovering New Zealand by following godwits on their southward flights across the Pacific.
"However, there is little fossil evidence to tell us just how many thousands of years this migration has being happening.
"During the last Ice Age (~20,000 years ago), their Alaska breeding range was largely ice-free, so there is no reason to think that they discovered Alaska recently.
"During that period, sea levels were also much lower, and there may have been much more extensive intertidal habitat for them in New Zealand and elsewhere in the South Pacific.
"So, we think the migration to New Zealand has been occurring for more than 20,000 years, but exactly how long is unknown."
Dr Conklin said there were dozens of sites all around New Zealand where godwits were found.
"They occur just about anywhere there are intertidal mudflats for them to feed."
The largest concentrations are at Kaipara Harbour, Manukau Harbour, Farewell Spit, and the Firth of Thames, where there are thousands of godwits.
"The Manawatū Estuary only has about 200 godwits each year, but it is a place where they are very easy to observe, and that's why I do my research here."
Dr Conklin first heard about the kuaka/godwit when he was a Masters student at Humboldt State University, California in 2002–2005.
"I spent every summer working with breeding shorebirds in Alaska.
"That's when I first heard the idea that godwits might fly to New Zealand without stopping.
"In 2005, I got the opportunity to join the project aimed at proving this non-stop flight.
" After that experience, I knew I wanted to work with godwits for my PhD, and that's what brought me to Massey University.
"During 2008–2012 I lived in Palmerston North and monitored the Manawatū godwits year-round.
"Those three years were part of my PhD research with Professor Phil Battley, but I have continued my research as a long-term project, and I will keep doing it as long as I can."
In 2012 Dr Conklin moved to the Netherlands to do post-doctoral research at the University of Groningen.
"But I have come back every year since then to monitor the migration departure of godwits from Manawatū.
"I am usually here for the entire month of March, during the two to four weeks of departures."
Dr Conklin hails from a southern California beach town of Carlsbad, north of San Diego.
After high school he lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years during which he started birdwatching and then doing bird research and conservation work.