Bird flies 2100km into Pacific Ocean on its way to NZ, decides it's too hard and turns back

Most of us at some point or another have left the house, only to turn back 'cause the weather turned bad. 

But it's unlikely any of us made the call after already travelling 2100km. That's just what a godwit tracked by the Department of Conservation did last week, abandoning 33 hours' of progress across the Pacific Ocean after hitting strong winds. 

Most godwits breed in Alaska, but fly right across the Pacific in September to the warmer climes of New Zealand for summer - specifically the Firth of Thames. One of them, known to scientists as 4BRWB, is very good at telling the time - he left Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim delta this year on September 11, the exact same day he did in 2020.

But he should have waited, Massey University associate professor of zoology Phil Battley told The AM Show on Tuesday. 

"It didn't really wait for the good winds that were coming a week later. It got 33 hours into its trip and decided actually, things weren't that great. It hit headwinds, turned around and came back."

It's the first time scientists have seen a godwit rethink its southern migration, but probably not the only one, considering tens of thousands of them make the journey each year, but DoC is currently only tracking 20.

When they go north, usually in March each year, they take a longer route via Australia, eastern Asia and Europe. Last year they tracked a bird that spent an entire week unknowingly flying straight towards a cyclone off the coast of Queensland. It turned back, wasting a couple of weeks and flying 6000km to go nowhere. 

"Two weeks later it got up and did the whole thing," said Dr Battley. "So this bird in Alaska will probably be getting fat again, in maybe a week's time should take off and hopefully will do it."

Sometimes godwits get lucky. Last year a bird on its way here decided to spend five weeks in sunny New Caledonia, before resuming its journey here, arriving significantly late. 

Most do it in just one go though - an 11,000km flight that takes just over a week. Just why they come here to wait out the Alaskan winter remains something of a mystery. 

"If they can get good winds then they can do it, and it works for them. We've had birds do it in seven to eight days, the longest we've had a bird tracked is just over 10 days of non-stop flight."

The record is held by a bird called 4BBRW, whose roundabout route from Alaska to New Zealand in 2020 covered more than 12,000km.