Mangawhai Estuary

It’s the school holidays and while the first week was wet the second week has had moments of calm, dry weather. For me this is an opportunity to get out of Auckland and indulge in some R&R – a little bird spotting.

Mangawhai Harbour is a large, tidal estuary about an hour and a half north of Auckland. The settlement is sprinkled with holiday homes. It has a popular surf break, an open, sandy ocean beach with surf club patrols in summer and calmer estuary waters for swimming and boating. While more houses are sprouting up, for most of the year there are few people around and the habitat is reasonably untouched.

A long, narrow, sand spit protects the estuary from the open sea. This is a wildlife refuge  because it is one of the most important breeding areas for the rare, endangered tara-iti (fairy tern), which nest along the coastal beaches between Waipu and Pakari. It is believed that a total of about 42 of these birds survive with around 11 or 12 breeding pairs. DOC and local volunteers monitor an extensive predator trapping program, which is helping to keep rats, stoats and weasel out of the nesting areas however the spit is close to land and these pests are capable swimmers. I was lucky enough to spot a fairy tern flying above the water hunting for fish. On the spit I observed tūturiwhatu (NZ dotterel), several pairs of tōrea pango (variable oystercatcher), gulls both karoro (black-backed) and tārapunga (red-billed), a pair of tarānui (Caspian terns) and pīhoihoi (NZ pipit).

An evening walk at low tide showed me how just important this estuary habitat is to our avian neighbours. I spotted an amazing number of different bird species. Kāruhiruhi (pied shags) chased fish trapped in the pools by the outgoing tide. There were quite a few kōtare (kingfishers) in the trees along the shore. Kuaka (bar-tailed godwits) just arrived from their long flight from the Arctic circle were busy feeding along the shallow water channels, ditto ruddy turnstones and huahou (lesser knots) both arctic migrant birds. Further out in slightly deeper water I spotted the beautiful kōtuku ngutupapa (royal spoonbills) sweeping their long black bills from side to side, focused on catching aquatic prey.

The mudflats provide a smorgasbord of invertebrates for sea and shore birds. Tūturiwhatu are very well camouflaged and hard to spot as they run across the shells and sand. There were poaka (pied stilts), tōrea pango, tōrea (SIPO – South Island pied oystercatchers), karoro (southern black-backed gulls, tarāpunga and spur-winged plover. Other species are found here but the mudflat area is extensive and some birds are hard to spot from a distance – perhaps next time I’ll see other species. This is what makes birding so interesting – you can never know exactly which birds you might score.

Earlier in the day I checked out a wildlife pond where I saw pūkeko, mallards,  pāpango, (black teal or NZ scaup duck) and duckling, song thrush and pīhoihoi (NZ pipits).

Beside the estuary at high tide I watched mallard ducks patrolling the reedy margins, Australian gannets diving for fish, kāruhiruhi, karoro and tarāpunga, kōtare and kawau paka (little shags) drying their wings in an old pōhutukawa tree.

Collect shells

The weather, the tides, the time of day, the season, the people and animals nearby; all these are variables that impact on the birds you are likely to glimpse during a visit to an estuary habitat. Binoculars help increase your ability to spot the smaller, well-camouflaged birds and when you get bored you can always collect shells.

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