Godwits Galore at the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre
On the next leg of our trip, between Auckland and our next lodgings in Rotorua, Bob and I planned a stop at the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre. Its reputation as being home to thousands of shorebirds made it a must-see destination, and we were keen to add some new birds to our life list. The area did not disappoint. Thousands of Bar-tailed Godwits had returned to spend summer on New Zealand’s North Island.
The Pokorkoro Miranda Shorebird Centre is only about an hour’s drive south of Auckland, so we had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery along the way. Hedgerows of beautiful blooming flowers had us recalling our drive along the Garden Route in South Africa. The colourful blossoms painted a pretty picture along with other varieties of wildflowers in the ditches.
The countryside on the North Island is really a vast sea of green that was very pleasing to the eye. Frequently, Bob pulled the car over, and we mounted a stile to get a splendid view of the distant horizon, woodlots and rolling hills.
Fields of Rapeseed (Canola) covered vast stretches of roadside farmland and were in sharp contrast to the neighboring empty slopes.
The pastoral setting seemed complete when we spotted a small flock of sheep nibbling grass beneath a shade tree. Startled by our approach, the lambs gamboled off through the meadow looking for safer ground.
As we drew closer to the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre, the terrain started to reflect the influence of the coastal environment. The Centre is on the western shore of the Firth of Thames where the Hauraki Plains drain into the Hauraki Gulf.
Located on one of the finest chenier plains in the world, this internationally recognized wetlands covers 8,500 hectares of tidal flats and saltmarsh bordered by shell banks along the shore.
The Miranda Shorebird Centre was established to promote education and public awareness of the Firth of Thames wetland area, its flora and fauna, efforts to protect and conserve species and their habitats, and ongoing shorebird research.
Upon arrival at the Miranda Shorebird Centre, staff informed us that high tide would not occur for another 5 hours, at 4:30 p.m. To visit the bird hide any sooner would provide only distant views of the shorebirds. So, we availed ourselves of the excellent facilities, had a picnic lunch, and wandered to the nearby pond and stream where a brace of Pacific Black Duck/Mallard hybrids wandered over to greet us.
Around 1:30 p.m., some local birders were heading off across the saltmarsh to the bird blind, so Bob and I decided to tag along. The best viewing is 2 hours either side of high tide, and by going early, we could take our time and enjoy the sights along the way.
The trail meanders through the saltmarsh that has developed over the last 4,500 years as shell banks or shell bars (akin to sand bars) were pushed inland.
The walk was tranquil though we were surrounded by action. Overhead, the air was full of birds swooping and squawking all within sight of distant mountains while at our feet, delicate wildflowers provided a spot of colour.
Closer to the coast, already we could see why the Miranda-Kaiaua chenier plain is so attractive to migratory and endemic wading birds. The wetlands are dotted with pockets of saltwater left behind from previous high tides, and the shell-packed land provides a rich food source for the over 130 bird species that visit the area.
Striding along the edge of one flooded basin was a White-faced Heron.
In fact, there seemed to be quite a number of White-faced Herons patrolling the tidal lagoons. They are the most common heron species in New Zealand despite their recent arrival in the country in the 1940s.
This immature White-faced Heron was treading stealthily through the saltmarsh and made frequent pokes into the mud in search of aquatic worms and crustaceans.
The bird blind is only a 30-minute walk from the Shorebird Centre, and other birding enthusiasts were already on site when we arrived.
Bob and I promptly claimed a spot at a couple of the windows and started scanning the tidal flats for shorebirds.
The tide still had a long ways to come in, and with it, the wading birds would move closer and closer to the bird blind so they could continue foraging in shallow water. In the distance, we saw some of the shell banks and a swirling flock of Variable Oystercatchers.
You can see a shell bar stretching across the centre of this photo. An accumulation of sand and cockle shells forms a shell bar on the foreshore and becomes the foundation of a chenier or beach ridge. Over time, shell bars are pushed inland by wave action, and looking inland from the bird hide…
we saw how the accumulation of sediments and colonization by saltmarsh plants leads to shell bars growing larger and eventually becoming solid ground. Now separated from the shore by tidal flats, the stable ridges are referred to as cheniers. A series of cheniers makes up a chenier plain because mud collects behind them, essentially reclaiming land and building up the plain. The boardwalk extends across the chenier plain to a parking lot.
Patience was required as we waited for the tide to come in, but we thoroughly enjoyed the setting and scenery not to mention the clouds of birds that ebbed and flowed over the tidal flats.
Slowly but surely, the water level rose, and with it came the birds.
The wetlands provide feeding grounds for flocks of migrating wading birds, and when not foraging, thousands of birds use the shell bars as convenient roosting areas.
The Miranda-Kaiaua chenier plain is home to nearly half the population of the endemic Wrybill during New Zealand’s winter, but we were witnessing the influx of Bar-tailed Godwits that inhabit this region during New Zealand’s summer months, as their wintering grounds.
Thousands and thousands of Bar-tailed Godwits had just completed a non-stop 9-day journey from Alaska. It was like nothing we had ever seen before!
This destination was chosen by the Bar-tailed Godwits since it offers the perfect habitat for them to ride out the Arctic’s winter months while basking in the Southern Hemisphere’s warmer temperatures.
We were lucky to get a break in the clouds when the Bar-tailed Godwits were near the bird blind. The views were exquisite.
After completing the 10,000-kilometre flight from the Arctic, there is no wonder that the birds seem to feed continuously.
It would be a few short months before they would strike out on the return flight, and the birds would need to be well nourished to get that job done.
It was so relaxing sitting quietly in the bird blind with other keen birders. I was grateful that we had waited for the high water level so the finer characteristics of the wading birds could be appreciated. The very long bill of a Bar-tailed Godwit facilitates probing in the mud for food. It was with interest that I learned that a female’s bill is longer than a male’s so she can forage in deeper water.
It was helpful to have local birders on hand who were familiar with the bird species, although, in their absence, interpretive signage within the hides helps with bird identification. The diminutive Red knot in front of the Godwits in the above photo would have eluded us if not for help.
Red Knots are another species of shorebird that breeds on the Arctic tundra. Those that winter in New Zealand had flown south from the northern reaches of Siberia and Europe. They will depart en masse in March/April on the 12,000-mile journey back to their breeding grounds.
Over the course of an hour or so, a good number of Pied Stilts moved in to join the Bar-tailed Godwits.
Pied Stilts are dainty wading birds that are aptly named because their plumage is simply black and white. The plumage on this juvenile has yet to grow in.
Out of the thousands of birds, we were lucky to spot a Far-eastern Curlew, the bird on the far right of this photo,
and a Black-billed Gull. Try as we might, neither Bob nor I could pick out any Red-necked Stints or Turnstones, both of which return to this wetland from Alaska.
Bob and I explored the chenier plain before heading back to the Shorebird Centre.
Pied Stilts were flying above the tall grasses,
and where the sediment was evidently saturated with salts, we spotted an juvenile Pied Stilt.
In the field adjacent to the Shorebird Centre, we were happy to see a flock of South Island Pied Oystercatchers…
that are distinctly patterned compared to this Variable Oystercatcher observed from the blind.
The Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre is well worth the stop if you’re in that area of the North Island. After spending several hours on site in the wetlands, Bob and I continued on to Rotorua and the next leg of our adventure.