New Zealand wrybills roosting
Standing around doing nothing can be yawn-making. NZ wrybills near Auckland, photo ©Tony Neilson

The slightly awry New Zealand wrybill

If you are having trouble getting good close-up images of birds, try the New Zealand wrybill.

A species of plover, the endearing little creature with the only sideways-pointing bill in the world is almost too blithe about human presence for its own good.

While photographing shorebird flocks on the Manukau Harbour south-west of Auckland city in April this year, I was reminded of the affability of the sanderling-sized wrybill (ngutuparore).

Probably because the location can only be accessed by special arrangement with a landowner and local birders, the big flocks of red knots, pied oystercatchers and bar-tailed godwits that routinely roost and feed at the location are comparatively approachable.

Yawning in the sun

But none was more cooperative for this photographer than the roosting wrybills. I kid you not, as I crunched ‘quietly’ and slowly over the shells just a few metres from where the wrybills were relaxing – even yawning in the morning sun (see image) – they hardly moved a muscle.

(Before somebody accuses me of being over-intrusive, it was my host from Birds NZ who suggested the I get nearer. “If you approach carefully they will allow you to get incredibly close.”)

The tide that would soon require us to wade back to shore had concentrated the wrybills, plus some wonderfully plump and colourful red-necked stints, on the upper slopes of the shell banks. Thus, I was able to shoot from a low angle and create the kind of uncluttered images I strive for, but don’t always achieve.

Red-necked stint, breeding plumage
Fat and ready to breed, this red-necked stint has not gone unnoticed by the wrybill. Photo ©Tony Neilson

Highly cryptic

Birds NZ says counting wrybill on their breeding grounds in the South Island is impractical – the birds are highly cryptic and widely dispersed. But the population is estimated at around 5000, and declining.

The only member of its genus, the wrybill is about 20 cm long and the last third of the longish black bill turns through 12-26 degrees, always to the right. The legs are dark grey to black, the sexes are alike in eclipse plumage; juveniles lack the black breast band. In breeding plumage, males are distinguishable by a black (but highly variable) line above the forehead.

Braided rivers

They breed exclusively on the braided rivers of the eastern central South Island, where the curved bill allows them to extract caddisfly and mayfly larvae from under and around stones.

Most move to the North Island after breeding and up to 75% of the entire global population will gather on the Firth of Thames south-east of Auckland – particularly the Pukorokoro Miranda Wetland.

The main threats faced by wrybills are predation (by introduced mammals and native birds), flooding of nests, and loss or degradation of breeding habitat.

©Natural Images 2018


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Time to go beyond being an end-of-story comment person.
To write a blog post or submit some of your best images with the backstory, please contact Tony Neilson.