14 Dec 2016

Birdwatchers around the world have their eyes firmly on Lake Ellesmere after the world’s rarest bird was sighted on the lake.

The Cox’s Sandpiper, sighted around the globe less than 40 times since it was first discovered in 1955, was spotted by local bird photographer Mike Ashbee in late November.

The Cox's Sandpiper

The Cox's Sandpiper is one of world's rarest birds. Photo: Michael Ashbee

Considered by ornithologists to be the ‘rarest bird in the world’ given the lack of sightings, its breeding grounds are unknown and no one has ever found a nest.

The Lake Ellesmere sighting has sparked a huge national buzz among bird watchers, with kiwi experts from as far away as Auckland flying in to view the bird.

Christchurch City Council Project Manager Wildlife Management Andrew Crossland said the bird had been sighted just over 30 times in Australia, had one sighting in Massachusetts, and one in Japan.

“No one has ever discovered its breeding grounds, or even what country it breeds in, though we think it is almost certainly in eastern Siberia in Russia.

“The most recent sighting globally, and the first sighting for New Zealand, was on the shores of Lake Ellesmere on 25 November. It has been moving about the lake and has caused great excitement in the ornithological community.”

Mr Crossland said the bird was discovered by local bird photographer Mike Ashbee who originally labelled the bird as a very similar Pectoral Sandpiper and posted photos on his website.

“As soon as wader experts saw it they realised that Mike had stumbled upon a bird everybody had heard about but no-one in New Zealand had ever seen - a Cox's Sandpiper. Very quickly over the next few days ornithologists went out to the lake to refind the bird and images were sent to overseas experts, who all agreed that it’s a Cox's Sandpiper,” Mr Crossland said.

The Cox's Sandpiper was a complete mystery bird from the 1950s to the 1980s until specimens were finally obtained for the South Australian Museum and a scientist named it as a new species (Calidris paramelanotos). However, subsequent DNA research revealed that Cox's Sandpiper is in fact a very rare hybrid between a male Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos) and a female Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea), both of which also occur at Lake Ellesmere.

The Cox's Sandpiper.

A Cox's Sandpiper at Lake Ellesmere. Photo: Michael Ashbee

“The occurrence of a Cox's Sandpiper at Lake Ellesmere highlights the national and international importance of this lake to birdlife, especially to waders and wetland birds. With over 200 bird species recorded on the lake and along adjacent Kaitorete Spit, and a maximum wetland bird count of over 92,000 birds, Lake Ellesmere ranks as New Zealand's number one site for both the number of species recorded and the highest number of wetland birds.”

Mr Crossland said the lake faced many environmental threats and Council was working with the Department of Conservation, ECAN, WET (the Waihora Ellesmere Trust) and other agencies to safeguard the birdlife and other natural and human values of the Lake.

“Council's regional parks team undertakes predator trapping around the eastern and southern sides of the lake, monitors and protects breeding birds, and contributes to the bird surveys of the lake three times each year.”

*Lake Ellesmere lies half within the Christchurch City District and half within Selwyn District. It is one of the most important sites in New Zealand for migratory wading birds. These migratory birds move about Lake Ellesmere as habitat conditions change and favoured areas are the Greenpark sands between The Selwyn Huts and Greenpark Huts on the northern side of the Lake, and Kaitorete Spit on the southern side of the lake.