On 20 March 2014, Helen Smith and Gwenda Pulham had nearly completed bird surveys for the day when they saw a bird that was unfamiliar to them. The two members of Birds New Zealand (a.k.a. the Ornithological Society of New Zealand) had been counting New Zealand dotterels at the bombing range roost at Papakanui Spit, at the south side of the entrance to the Kaipara Harbour. This remote site is accessible only at low tide (unless you have a boat) – and only when the bombing range is not in use by the Royal New Zealand Air Force or the New Zealand Army bomb disposal squad.
The bird that Helen and Gwenda found was a small wader, about the size of some nearby banded dotterels. Its most distinctive features were its bright yellow legs, prominent pale margins to the feathers on its back and upperwings, and buff-coloured face and underparts. At the time, they suspected that it was a ruff (a rare visitor to New Zealand that neither had seen before). However, as soon as they were able to check bird books, they realised that they had found a buff-breasted sandpiper – a species not previously recognised as occurring in New Zealand.
The buff-breasted sandpiper is a migratory wader that breeds in the Canadian and Alaskan high Arctic and migrates to southern South America in the northern winter. Like many long-distance migrant waders, buff-breasted sandpipers often end up at sites off their normal migration route – perhaps as a result of unusual weather, or joining in with the wrong crowd (i.e. flocks of related species heading to a different destination). Buff-breasted sandpipers frequently reach Europe, are occasionally seen in southern Africa, and there are more than 30 records from Australia. They had long been considered a species likely to reach New Zealand – and almost certainly had before 2014.
There had been at least two suspected sightings of buff-breasted sandpipers in New Zealand – near Napier in March 1968, and near Invercargill in March 2007. Both birds were seen by single observers, and were not found subsequently. The first sighting was before there was an official process to assess claimed sightings of rare vagrant birds in New Zealand, and the second was insufficiently documented to be fully accepted (see below).
Soon after realising the significance of what they had found, Helen and Gwenda took two actions that ensured that their sighting would be accepted by the New Zealand birding community. The first was that they spread the exciting news by phone calls and (via others) by posting on the web-forum BirdingNZ.net. Fortunately the bird stayed in the vicinity for several weeks, allowing time for many experienced bird watchers to see and photograph it, and to check and confirm its identifying characteristics.
The second was that they submitted an Unusual Bird Report to the Records Appraisal Committee of Birds New Zealand. This committee was established to assess reported sightings of ‘unexpected’ birds – including rare visitors from other countries, New Zealand species occurring beyond their normal range, and species otherwise considered extinct. Birds New Zealand maintains a list of reportable species, and any species not known from New Zealand is automatically ‘reportable’.
In order for a new species to be added to the official New Zealand bird list, all five Records Appraisal Committee members have to accept the record – and in this case, they did. Not only did Helen and Gwenda submit a detailed description, but it was backed up by superb photographs taken by others, and the bird was seen by many observers.
Congratulations Helen and Gwenda!
Postscript Within a day of the buff-breasted sandpiper being discovered, Michael Szabo had drafted some text about the species for the New Zealand Birds Online website. Bill Abbott photographed the bird on 22 March, and agreed to his images being used on the website. The page was published on 23 March, less than three days after the bird was first seen. For the next 15 weeks, the page included the caveat “The buff-breasted sandpiper has yet to be added to the official New Zealand list. For this to occur, details and images of the bird first seen on 20 March 2014 will need to be submitted as an Unusual Bird Report to the Records Appraisal Committee of Birds New Zealand, and the members of the RAC will have to accept the record unanimously.” This caveat has now been removed.