Holidays are an opportunity to do new things, see new places or take a break from the everyday routines we all keep. They can be full of surprises, unexpected adventure and fun. I recently spent five days on the West Coast at a place called Okarito. Much of this area of South Westland has been untouched for hundreds of years. Okarito rose to significance during the gold rush days and then quickly faded. Today its claim to fame rests on its natural habitat.
Okarito has New Zealand’s largest untouched estuary. A uniquely beautiful, unspoiled corner of New Zealand. Its a small, out of the way settlement with around 30 permanent residents next to the wild Tasman Sea. The beach is stony and littered with driftwood. It is a place for hardy souls, white baiters, fishing folk and for birds. Its a place tourists visit to see our native birds, our stunning scenery and to kayak the wetlands.
The only NZ breeding place of kotuku, white herons, is nearby. This was the main reason for our visit. In this isolated location we went by jet boat along a shallow river, through farmland, past and into dense rainforest. Still wearing life jackets and wet weather gear we followed the short boardwalk to the viewing hides across the river from the White Heron Sanctuary breeding colony.
There were 43 pairs of white heron nesting as well as royal spoonbills and little shags. The nests crowded into a small area, one beside the next, more above and below. There were chicks in the nests some just hatched and some larger. Birds were flying in and out, bringing food for their offspring. It was a busy colony and the views from the hides were amazing.
Growing alongside the track we spotted native orchids in flower as well as several predator traps. These birds deserve all the protection we can give them. The forest is home to the rare Okarito or rowi kiwi and an extensive monitoring program called Operation Nest Egg is in place to help these kiwi survive and increase in numbers.
Early next morning we took a boat tour onto the estuary. It’s a beautiful place with a backdrop of snow covered mountains and ancient rainforest to the water’s edge. It was worth it despite the rain and the cold temperature.
We went to see white herons in their breeding plumage but we saw much more. We saw a family of South Island Pied Oystercatchers (one chick), who hadn’t made it to the braided rivers on the east instead nesting at Okarito. We watched banded dotterel foraging on the beach and hunting for worms in the fields. We were lucky to see and photograph mātātā (South Island fernbird) for the first time. There were several families of paradise shelducks in the village. One pair had seven, very cute ducklings.
All in all we saw 30 different species of birds during our stay as well as rabbits and deer. What an amazing holiday.