The riverbed bird breeding season is about to begin, so I am spending increasing amounts of time down on the Ashley-Rakahuri River looking for early arrivals. Today I inspected the stretch of riverbed just above the new road bridge north of Rangiora and was excited to see my first wrybill for the season. Last year I saw the first one on August 13. (Editor’s note: Steve Attwood spied one in the Ashley estuary August 13 this year). This one was a female bird feeding constantly in a small braid, and as is often the case at this time of the year, it allowed me to watch from only a short distance away. This was fortunate, as the bird was banded and it was not easy to see the colour combination while it moved quickly between stones and through shallow water. My routine in such situations is to view the bird through binoculars and then write down a combination as soon as I can – in case the bird takes flight. Then, I take time to look more closely through our spotting scope. The combination was M (metal) WG-YO. The scope showed me that my first recording was wrong – I had mistakenly written down the green for a blue, and the orange for a red. Readers might wonder ‘is he colour-blind or something!’, but I can assure you that such mistakes are easily made, even by experienced observers. That is why one must always take time (if allowed) and be studious when trying to record colour bands.
The female bird I saw was not only the season’s first – it was unusual for another reason. Since wrybill banding started on the Ashley-Rakahuri river in 2001, 24 birds have been colour banded. Last year, just 6 were present, and I quickly realised that the wrybill I was looking at was not one of them. What’s more, when I got home, I found that MWG-YO was not amongst the full list of 24 banded birds. So, I emailed our wrybill banding expert, John Dowding, and he soon replied that this bird was one he had banded in the upper Rakaia in October 2011. He went on to comment that ‘It is unusual for wrybills to move from one river to another once established’. Indeed, wrybills have what is known as ‘natal site fidelity’, which means that they usually return to breed in the river where they were fledged. On the Ashley-Rakahuri, I have never heard of anyone seeing a banded wrybill from another river. Maybe this bird was just stopping off on its way back to the Rakaia? Only time will tell – and so far, despite a number of return visits, I have not seen it again.