top of page
  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Pūkorokoro Miranda

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

Mangatawhiri, “That’s my exit!” It is an idyllic country road, its shoulder adorned with epaulets of golden blooms that twist through rolling green pastures; dividing up the fields are tree-lined windbreaks of varied shapes and hues. I start to level off with more twists and turns until, “Ahh, the coast!” I am at the southwest corner of the Firth of Thames, about an hour and half drive from Auckland, New Zealand. I approach an intertidal marsh that is filled with stilts, godwits, and ducks – “Do I have a look or keep going?” I think it best to check in first to get the ‘lay of the land,’ as it were. "Onward!"

The Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Center (PMSC) is a creation of passionate individuals, who fought for years to see their dream come to fruition. Praise to all of those involved then, and those who continue to do so today. It is a “…centre for information, education and research on shorebirds.” (As stated in their website.)

Yes, it is specific to the plight of these feathered friends of ours, but it becomes an all-encompassing endeavor, the need for global outreach to protect "all habitats" from man’s detrimental exploitation. Check out the website: Welcome to the Shorebird Centre - Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre

*Keith Woodley, who manages the center, is not only the local naturalist, but a gifted artist, passionate educator, and a major contributor for the development of the Pūkorokoro Miranda Naturalists’ Trust. I could not ask for anyone more qualified to introduce me to the areas’ activity.

Just inside the entrance, a chalkboard posts the numbers of each species seen for the day. “Cool!” I wanted so badly to rummage through the layout of the center with its assemblage of books, charts, maps, relics, etc. “It has it all!” That will have to wait. I need to take advantage of the high tide.

I am told to walk from here to the blinds would be a good introduction. Thousands of years of wave interaction has created this vast *chenier plain, a result of the constant movement of water over the outer shell banks dumping silt and complementary shells into the intertidal flats.

Mangroves and coastal sedges have become established in these areas. The trail provides great views of the mudflats, marshes, and small ponds on one side, with the Firth of Thames Bay on the other. The Coromandel Range looms in the distance. The name, Pūkorokoro, references the entrance to the Pūkorokoro Stream that was used by the local fisherman, meaning “The long-throated purse net.”

My first waterbird is a fleeting White-faced Heron (Egretta novaehollandiae).

I struggle to peer between the tall vegetation to I.D. the ducks, until several Gray Teal (Anas gracilis) burst into the air. “Kia ora!” (“Thank you!”).

I hear the high piping call of an oystercatcher overhead that leads me to more yapping calls beyond. It turns out to be a bunch of Pied Stilts (Himantopus leucocephalus). Indeed, they do sound like the nasal bark of a tiny dog! Consequently, this body of water has been given the moniker, Stilt Pond.

Actively scrambling along the shore closest to the path are some sandpipers: a handful of Pectoral (Calidris melanotos), a Sharp-tailed (Calidris acuminata)

and some Double-banded Plovers (Charadrius bicinctus). Unexpectantly, the birds take to the air – I had no idea of the numbers. Apparently, a patrolling Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans) set the ‘wings in motion.’

Joining the other noisy throngs, the birds sail across to another mudflat. There is a mix of knots, plovers, godwits, wrybills, and more oystercatchers and stilts. The tide has brought them closer to the blind. The sun may not be ideal for taking pictures, but there is nothing but time to relish the moment.

As I was informed, the two hours before and after high tide are best for viewing. I have arrived at the initial retreat, causing the birds to depart intermittently with a handful here and there. I witness one more sizable clearing before, I too, head back to the center.

I stop for another look at the Stilt blind where a volunteer has scoped out a Broad-billed Sandpiper (Calidris falcinellus).“Nice!” A new species for me.

Driving the car I take the East Coast Road north towards the hamlet of Kaiaua. The further north I go the closer to the coast I get. It appears this coastal road was built atop one of the shell banks. A camping reserve has numerous camper trailers dotting the shoreline. Pulling off on an access road allows a better view of the shoreline, a pure white strip of bleached oyster, cockle, and clam shells.

The tide recedes revealing the gray, silt laden flat that reaches further and further out toward the distant shell bank. Ten, twenty, fifty, probably a hundred or more herons dot the landscape. South Island Pied and Variable Oystercatchers are scattered throughout with groupings of godwits, gulls, and cruising terns. I scan the outer bank and find a jaeger harassing a tern with hopes of it relinquishing its catch. Later I am told it was probably a dark morph Stercorarius parasiticus.

It is time to remove my shoes, roll up my pants, and get a ‘feel’ of the terrain. A small rivulet pools enough water to maintain the interest of a group of S.I. Pied Oystercatchers (Haematopus finchi) - some feed or rest, while others take a bath.

Getting close as possible without disturbing the birds, I firmly plant my tripod in the heavy silt and wait to see what unfolds. It does not take long. One bird carries a cockle as it searches for an ideal location to pry it open.

Soon another bird noisily chases it off to claim the treasure. Others arrive, stimulating the latent birds to lower their heads, lean forward, and raise their wings as a warning to keep their distance. More aggressive individuals will chase the interlopers away.

Back to the main road and glancing out to the fields on my left, I focus on bird activity to my right. Rockier substrate has me pull over, this time l wade out with sandals intact. A sprinkling of New Zealand Dotterels (Charadrius obscuris) blend in beautifully; it is as if some of the stones were given the breath of life to suddenly stand up and move about.

I move on from these local endemics and trace a flock of a more global species that land further afoot. These stocky fellas can be hard to detect, too. Striking, yes, still the irregular, yet bold black-and -white pattern of their head and neck, white belly and rusty-orange upperparts melds nicely with the reflective patterns between the rocks.

These RuddyTurnstones (Arenaria interpres) go about feeding immediately, following up with their namesake behavior, flipping over stones and shells to expose a potential meal.

Check out the furthest bird on the left...

The males striking plumage keeps the motor drive whirring, "I simply cannot get my fill!"

A common display of dominance is the raising of the wings.

All the years observing these colorful birds, I just notice that atop the joints of the toes there is a brownish-gray smudge. It is not like it was an obscure blemish as it readily stands out from their bright orange legs. You just have to pay a little more attention to the details.

Now that I am in the town of Kaiaua, pulling off onto any grassy shoulder area becomes an invitation for Red-billed Gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) to home in on your vehicle and join the picnic.

An occasional Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus) sallies past to scrutinize the activities. I invite myself to pull into the boat launch area to inspect the aerial activity nearby. From the road comes a wide culvert where boats are now beached as the low water continues to empty into the bay.

It has formed a long spit, attracting White-fronted Terns (Sterna striata), their streamlined bodies slicing through the air.

Some arrive with a fish-offering to garner a mate and solidify their bond, still there are younger birds that continue to beg; there are birds at all stages of development.

I see several Pied Cormorants (Phalacrocorax varius) at the far end, a lone individual flies close enough enabling me to see the blue skin patch around its eye.

A Taranui sails by, this is the largest tern there is - Hydroprogne caspia or Caspian Tern.

Further along it is time to chill and grab a meal myself - along with my Red-billed gull chaperon.

Far out can be seen the silhouettes of various shorebirds. There is a commotion along the beach, “Let’s check it out!” Strewn about nearby oystercatchers and squabbling herons forage the flats.

Two first winter Kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus) vie over a very bony

carcass of a fish.

Crying out with loud raucous calls, an adult bird scares off the pair even before it lands.

A bold, black Variable Oystercatcher (Haematopus unicolor) saunters in on bubble-gum pink legs, its deep orange bill, blends nicely to yellow at the tip. Like a bullseye, its blood red eye is circled in a ring of orange, the pupil, jet black.

A bit further the road pulls away from the coast. I pull into the first road on my right, a cul-de-sac named Rua One Pl. It has a small pond with some activity. There is the universal assemblage of mallard ducks but I noticed a surge of water breaking the surface – up pops a Little Black Cormorant (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris) with a small fish!

I nearly overlooked another shag atop a snag opposite me, a Little Pied (Microcarbo melanoleucos). New Zealand has a generous representation of these group of birds, which have many different forms. So, do your homework prior to heading out into the field.

Heading back south, the presence of Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica) has me pulling over again. Many of the birds are molting, there underside will soon become a deep, chestnut-red.

Others are still wearing coats of gray and brown. Anxiously the bird’s probe their way between broken shells and rock, eventually extracting a much-needed morsel. In the background a Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) zips past, I see its barred underwings through my binoculars. That long, scimitar-shaped bill allows it to delve deeper than other waders to reach into the burrows of crabs and shrimp. Having adapted to dietary needs, it is fun to compare the bill difference for each species of bird. The PMNC has a wonderful display depicting examples from various shorebirds.

After a while I notice a godwit with a ring on its leg, and then I discover another with several, and on both legs!

Now I attempt to photograph as many of these birds as I can. I recall a chart on the outside wall of the Wrybill Hide referencing the importance of each. I cannot enforce it enough how important this data is regarding the unanswered questions of

bird migration and thusly aid in taking the

necessary action protecting the future of these amazing creatures.

Look closely at the wire transmitter projecting out from the bird's tail.

I notice a pair of birders out on the spit, scoping out the area. It is a good feeling to see people getting out to watch nature’s drama unfurl.

Back to PMNC to restock my “Road trip!” snacks. The view overlooking the small pond reveals a Australasian Swamphen (Porphyrio melanotus) with a chick; a cute little thing all fuzzy and black. I race back to fetch my camera but by then the little tyke took shelter. It seems mom has proceeded to collect a billfull of raupo (Bulrush, Typha orientalis) adding to its concealed nest. Interesting how this expat has resided long enough in Aotearoa to be incorporated into Māori culture and has been given the name, Pukeko.

Another non-native Aussie, or now considered an “Introduced & Naturalized” citizen, as it were, calls from down at the water’s edge. These are Golden and Green Bellfrogs (Ranoidea aurea). I will see if I can manage to capture one with my torch tonight.

A good omen, before I head down the road, I must reverse the car back onto the entrance of the PMNC as a solo Wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis) reveals itself across the street.

It is still a way off but this is the closest I have been to one thus far. It is the only bird with a bent bill, laterally to the right, that aids in following the contour of riverbed stones to locate invertebrate larvae, such as mayflies. Viewing the bird face-to-face, it looks as if it smacked itself on one of those stones and broke its bill!

Driving along the usual Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) and House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) disperse along the roadside. Gliding over the pasture, a Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans) is on the hunt for such feathered fare… “Whoa!” One of these birds just landed in the middle of the road! Luckily, there are no cars around. My concern is not to flush the bird by stepping out so I turn the vehicle sideways to the direction of traffic and shoot out the window for some quick pix.

My vantage point from the road reveals a nice assemblage of godwits and Oystercatchers (OC's) at Stilt Pond. The former is gathered in the shallows and as you flow your way up the bank, sit the OC’s.

Further along, the play of light with the surface of the water reveals an enchanting scene of a small flock of roosting stilts. If I could hover over the scene, my reflection would reveal a face as bright as a sunbeam.

As I pull in to park at the Robert Findlay Wildlife Area,

I am greeted by a regal flock of Royal Spoonbills (Platalea regia) sailing past;

a large cypress tree is their destination where they will roost for the night. I notice that some Greater Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) utilize the same tree to overnight as well. Sadly, two **invasive species, Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) seem to dominate this area. Adaptability is what keeps nature thriving and here I find a Gray Warbler (Gerygone igata) on one plant, having heard it earlier singing in the nearby mangroves.

Another surprise, feeding on insects hidden under a lacey umbel is a Silvereye (Zosterops lateralis). What a pleasant ending to my day.

Again, at the Robert Findlay Wildlife Area, this time early morning. I turn off the headlights, open the door and enter a world of golden-orange and black, where skylark serenades fill the air. Taking the path that snakes its way toward the blind, the skylarks’ coloraturas have set the tempo > andante, matching the rhythm of my gait. It is not long when a concert of calls emanates beyond, now there is an increase in intensity with each advancing step, moderato > allegro as I near the blind and just before I reach the viewing platform > subito fortissimo! Within seconds clamor and chaos bursts into the air and the amber canvas before me comes to life, filled with a multitude of avian silhouettes! I am so humbled to watch this spectacle unfold I almost forget to raise my camera!

It does not take long for the birds to return, some fly past and join another grouping in the pond. I am the one who needs more time to settle down. “Wow!” The sun is about to ascend the peaks of the Coromandel Range. I turn my back to the first rays of light spilling over the horizon and head towards Stilt Pond. The action continues with birds going to and fro, causing me to pause. For a different way to visualize the show, I take a deep breath and close my eyes. How long I stood there, I cannot say, but the racket of thousands of godwits taking wing has me reeling round and running to higher ground. Several flocks transpire, one shaped like a windblown comma, drifts out over the bay – their outlines inscribed across an orange sky.

Sensory overload has me stymied, “Which direction do I take from here?” Back to the pond it is. The sun is high enough now to highlight the huddled masses before me. In this troop a wall of OC’s are at the forefront, godwits sit in the center; they seem to have a need to keep their feet wet, and following up the rear are the stilts, also brandishing coats of black-and-white.

Once again, they take to the air, mostly godwits and some OC’s.

I relax a bit here and notice the flight pattern, as often a bird or two drops in between these two bodies of water, “Puddle Jumpers,” I call them.

So, it leads me to retrace my steps to higher ground for inflight observations.

The soloists generally compromise OC’s and stilts - sometimes in pairs.

A tight cluster of Red Knots (Calidris canutus) gets the show underway.

Godwits follow the lead; their long, upturned bills give this expression of indifference, as if to say, "What's your hurry?"

Whereas the OC’s with their bright orange eye ring seems to shout, “Hey, wait for me!”

The early morning commute is followed by a spirited flock of stilts. How fortunate for me, Pacific Golden Plovers (Pluvialis fulva) join the festivities.

Someday I hope to see this bird in its breeding plumage.

Another surprise is the number of Double-banded Plovers (Charadrius bicinctus) that zip past, prior I had only seen a few for the entire trip.

Wading birds are the main attraction, however, the marsh has its own secrets to be discovered. Our Skylark songsters nest among the thick vegetation as do Banded rails; I was told there is a family running about in this area. Ironically, a major threat, the Swamp Harrier, enjoys these local digs as well. Windrow algal mats coat the water’s edge; it is the major food source for hordes of brine flies (Ephydra species), and like miniature shorebirds, they rise and fall when a foraging teal or shoveler passes by.

Whitebait ply the shallows and fall prey to the many herons scouting these wetlands or to

the ocassional Sacred Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) peering from overhead.

Without dispatch, all chaos breaks loose. Birds rise from their roosts, a wave of shorebirds drifts my way; the size, the noise, the moment leaves me motionless; it is an

Air Traffic Controller’s nightmare!

The stilts break away, flying ever higher, there has to be a thousand birds.

OC's go their seperate way, too.

Mixed species join the godwits and return in the same noisy, abrupt manner as they departed. Wrybills steal the show however with their acrobatic maneuvers. Like an ocean wave sweeping across the sky, you ‘feel’ the energy as the flock simultaneously shifts directions.

There has to be a lead bird that initiates a descent because once again their pale little outlines grace the flats.

It is not long after the commotion subsides when a harrier appears, initiating another mass exodus. I feel for these waders, it has to be draining their much needed fat reserves. I wish I can take wing, too, as I have a flight to catch myself. I could not choreograph a more picturesque scene with the wrybill flock sweeping across the landscape.

Eventually they rise in a massive murmuration, pulsating like a single giant entity, painting whimsical contortions across the sky. “Kia ora, Aotearoa!”

Location: Miranda, New Zealand

Date: February/March 2017

Paradise Shelduck, Eurasian Shoveler, and Gray Teal

Eurasian Skylark

(Alauda arvensis)

23 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page