Manu toa – following the Kuaka from Aotearoa to Alaska

Flocks of determined Kuaka (Bar-tailed Godwits) are on the move, making their extraordinary hikoi from Aotearoa to Alaska.  We’ve joined the Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre, and more than 10,000 other followers, who are tracking four of these amazing manu on their Facebook page.

Kuaka navigating ahead, lasting the distance

This journey is fraught with challenges, but these inspirational birds can teach us a lot about endurance, resilience and preparing well to navigate the winds of both opportunity and adversity. 

Renowned biologist Professor Michael Walker (Whakatōhea) highlights the magnetic sense of the kuaka for long distance navigation and how these birds provide a metaphor for facing and overcoming obstacles, encouraging us all to “keep your compass fixed despite challenges”.

A kahukura leads a flock of kuaka in flight. The Kahukura provides the impetus for movement and change – as they move, they gather their group around them and, in doing so, other leaders emerge.
Kuaka in flight, led by a kahukura, in Yalu Jiang National Nature Reserve in China, which is the main refuelling site on migration north to Alaska. Thanks to Dr Phil Battley, Massey University for this photo.

The four manu we’re following are the first tagged and monitored kuaka to depart for this eight or nine day, 12,000km long trek from our shores to their breeding grounds in Alaska. These birds waited until they were almost three years old – fat and well prepared – before making their first northward migration. Thousands will follow and then return to Aotearoa in spring to fatten up and do it all again next year.

Kahukura – collective leadership to sustain the journey

The Kuaka have a special place within the E Tū Whānau kaupapa. This is on account of their spiritual connections to Aotearoa and the remarkable leadership qualities that drive and sustain their migration formation together on their annual pilgrimage.

In 2011, our founding kaiwhakahaere, Ann Dysart, and a group of kaumātua at the Iwi Chairs’ Forum in Waitangi came up with the name Kahukura to describe leaders of change within whānau, hapū and iwi.

The origin of the term lies in this story of the Kuaka and the behaviours that whānau have observed over the years. It was told that when Kuaka fly into Aotearoa, they arrive in a swirling mass. Within that mass are small groups that each have a leader whose role is to cleave the air and provide the initial lift for those in their flock who are following. That lead bird – the Kahukura – provides the impetus for movement and change. As they move, kahukura gather their group around them and, in doing so, other leaders emerge.

Te Rarawa Chair, Haami Piripi, says kahukura provide a powerful metaphor for the leadership required to achieve things collectively, to reach a shared destination.

“One bird will take off first and one will land first. It’s a symbol of leadership, breaking new ground and making a path for others to follow.”

Haami Piripi, Te Rarawa Chair

Want more?

Look out for further E Tū Whānau stories as we follow the current migration of the kuaka to their Arctic breeding grounds.

Find out more about E Tū Whānau Kahukura.

Read about the E Tū Whānau vision.