Saturday, April 3

Rarotonga’s Alaskan visitors

Every September Rarotonga is targeted by a number of native Alaskans of the feathered sort.
The Pacific golden plover (local name torea), wandering tattler (kuriri) and bristle-thighed curlew (teue) breed in Alaska and northern Canada then head south to avoid the rigours of winter in the far north. They end up on various Pacific islands, and Pacific rim countries.
The ones that reach the Cook Islands have covered about 9000 kilometres, many travelling non-stop, taking five days or so. They are pretty thin by the time they get here!
The plovers mainly feed on wide open grassy areas. The airport is a favourite spot along with sports fields and large lawns. They like short, freshly cut grass which makes you wonder what they did in the days before lawn mowers, and they’re territorial, usually just one bird to quite a large area. Plovers are a common sight over the summer, standing still for a while and then making a short run to peck at an insect or seed. They are also waders but the birds that gather on the shore along Nikao beach aren’t territorial. They seem to congregate in the afternoon and evening and just sit around without seeming to hunt for food. I’ve seen groups of up to sixteen taking flight together when disturbed by wandering tourists.
In February and March the birds develop their breeding plumage. The males in particular are very handsome with black faces and breasts and a white band running from forehead to flanks. By now they’ve fattened up and in early April they head back to Alaska. (For more about golden plovers check the CI Biodiversity database here.)
The wandering tattlers are a little smaller than the plovers and forage along the shoreline. They’re very busy little birds, running and bobbing over the rocks and sand. They also feed on the mud flats at Ngatangiia. They are quite solitary – sometimes two might be fairly close to each other but usually it’s only a single bird. Apparently they do have different breeding plumage but I’ve never noticed it, they all look grey to me.
The third bird, the bristle-thighed curlew, is much rarer. I haven’t seen any this year and in fact only noticed a pair for the first time last year. (There is a photograph here.) They are a bit bigger than the plovers but the same sort of speckled colour. Unfortunately they are seriously endangered so the chance of seeing them is remote.