Sunshine, fishing, and changes in Coromandel birdlife over 45 years

Sunshine, fishing, and changes in Coromandel birdlife over 45 years

From welcome swallows to Australian magpies, bird expert Colin Miskelly looks at the variety of birdlife who’ve come to call Coromandel home over the past half-century.

Spending the summer at the beach is part of the great New Zealand holiday tradition.

For many families, attachment to a particular location results in them returning to the same site year after year, or even generation after generation.

These long time periods create individual or collective memories of social and environmental changes, often including increasing urbanisation and the loss of treasured native species – particularly kai moana!

Rolling green hills
The family farm at Papa Aroha. Photo by Colin Miskelly

My own family gravitate to a small coastal valley between Coromandel and Colville, where my newly-married maternal grandparents settled in 1935 to establish a sheep and dairy farm.

Farming practices have changed greatly since then, and the tar seal snaked slowly north from Thames, bringing increasing numbers of holiday-makers to the northern Coromandel Peninsula.

Each year during my childhood we observed with dismay as the road-killed possums progressed north along the coast road, eventually over-running the entire peninsula.

Beach landscape
Papa Aroha beach. Photo by Colin Miskelly

It was at Papa Aroha that I developed basic natural history skills, through barefoot exploring of bush, paddocks, swamps and shoreline, and joining my siblings, parents and uncles on fishing expeditions around the Motukawao islands offshore.

While snapper and mussels were the main focus, my eyes would be drawn to the gannets nesting on the crests of some of the islands, or their spectacular mass diving into a maelstrom of feeding kahawai, shags and shearwaters.

Part of the Motukawao island group. Gannets nest on Motukaramarama (Bush) Island on the left. Photo by Colin Miskelly

Bird arrivals

From the time that I was able to put names to most of the birds, I became aware of any new arrivals to the family farm.

Some were introduced species (like the possums) expanding their New Zealand ranges. Others were recent colonists from Australia that had flown across the Tasman to populate new lands, and a few were endemic New Zealand species reclaiming turf following successful conservation initiatives.

Swallow chicks in nest
Welcome swallow nestlings. Image: Gordon Miskelly, NZ Birds Online

The first to arrive, about 1975, were welcome swallows (colonists), followed later that decade by eastern rosellas (introduced).

Black and white bird with yellow face
Spur-winged plover. Image: Phil Battley, NZ Birds Online

The 1980s brought paradise shelducks (endemic, first bred 1981), followed by Australian magpies (introduced) and spur-winged plovers (colonists, first bred 1988), which at the time were a rare species in the northern North Island.

Conservation successes

Predator control programmes to protect nesting New Zealand dotterels on eastern Coromandel beaches from the 1990s led to increasing numbers of dotterels being seen on the Thames to Colville coast.

Since 2010 they have occasionally bred at Papa Aroha – but it is a challenge for them to fledge their chicks before the Christmas influx of holiday-makers. It is a narrow beach, and there is little room for both birds and people when the tide is full.

Dotterels on a beach
New Zealand dotterels, Papa Aroha, December 2016. Photo by Colin Miskelly

More recent predator control programmes to protect kiwi populations in some of the larger forest blocks on the peninsula have benefitted kaka, which have been a regular presence at Papa Aroha for the last decade.

It is a delight to see and hear these raucous native parrots on their evening flights – they were not present in my childhood, though I occasionally heard them in the back country during Coromandel Peninsula kokako surveys (organised by the Ornithological Society of New Zealand) in the late 1970s*.

Brown duck
Brown teal, Papa Aroha, December 2016. Photo by Colin Miskelly

Brown teal (pateke) were reintroduced to the northern Coromandel Peninsula from 2003.

Supported by extensive predator control, their numbers have burgeoned and they have spread south. They reached Papa Aroha in 2010, and have bred there – including the two fledglings we saw this summer.

Feral geese have also arrived in the valley in recent years.

Stoat trap box above little penguin nest site
Stoat trap box above little penguin nest site, Papa Aroha, January 2017. Photograph by Colin Miskelly

Successful breeding by the teal is possible due to the predator-trapping efforts by a dedicated team of volunteers, who visit the valley each month to maintain lines of stoat traps.

The traps near the beach also provide protection to the New Zealand dotterels, variable oystercatchers, and nesting and moulting little penguins.

Moulting little penguin in burrow
Moulting little penguin, Papa Aroha, January 2017. Photo by Colin Miskelly

Changes for the worse

The most recent (and less welcome) addition to the Papa Aroha bird list was a spotted dove this summer. This introduced species has become abundant in Auckland suburbs over the last 30 years, and is rapidly spreading through the northern North Island.

Spotted dove
Spotted dove. Image: Sonja Ross, NZ Birds Online

We recorded 49 bird species during our nine days at Papa Aroha, with the only noticeable gaps being the two larger species of shearwater (Buller’s shearwater and flesh-footed shearwater) that are usually seen among the more numerous fluttering shearwaters around the islands.

I suspect that there were fewer large schools of kahawai this summer, as we saw few aggregations of feeding seabirds. I do not know if this is part of a long-term trend, or whether these seabirds (which breed on islands outside the Hauraki Gulf) will return when feeding conditions allow.

Spotted shags
Spotted shags, Firth of Thames. Image: Jenny Atkins, NZ Birds Online

One species that has disappeared in recent years are the spotted shags that formerly bred on Motuwhakakewa (Easter) Island within the Motukawao group.

Formerly breeding on half a dozen islands in the Hauraki Gulf, this elegant species is now apparently restricted to three breeding sites around Waiheke Island (though they remain a common breeding species around the South Island).

They can still be seen roosting in flocks along the Thames coast, but the long skeins of shags flying low over the water off Papa Aroha are now a receding memory.

Deserted spotted shag nesting colony on Motuwhakakewa Island, Motukawao group, December 2016. Photograph by Colin Miskelly

*North Island kokako became extinct in the Coromandel ranges in the 1990s

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  1. Hi Colin. Great article on home. There are a couple of people from nearby Coromandel who regularly come out and set various traps for stoats, possums etc and the last few visits home its amazing to hear the birds singing. I think Dad is still setting the magpie traps and if not he has lent them to other locals to use! Really noticable when they have had a magpie cull how much native birdlife returns.


    1. Author

      Hi David

      Thanks very much for your comments. Yes, we met up with a couple of the volunteer stoat trappers. It was great to hear their views on the value of some of the forest remnants at Papa Aroha, particularly the patch opposite the packing shed, where Tom & Elizabeth used to host boxing day picnics. There are few other such diverse lowland forest patches left in the Coromandel.


  2. Very interesting read Colin. Annette and I saw those Golden Cross kokako in March 1982 on one of our first birding trips together – the first either of us had seen. It’s amazing how quickly spotted doves are spreading these days – two birds have appeared in our garden (Gordonton, Waikato) within the last couple of weeks, and now seem quite settled here.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your comments David

      It is so sad that Coromandel kokako faded out a decade or two before the development of predator control and translocation techniques that may have provided them a lifeline.


  3. An interesting read Colin – add to your loosing list from the Coromandel Red Billed gulls, these breeding colonies are disappearing from this area as well, perhaps there are bigger changes to the Gulf than we are aware of.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your comments Rob

      I had noticed how few red-billed gulls there were around – apart from the mob of 50 or so at the camping ground at the north end of the beach.

      This highlights one of the main problems facing red-billed gulls. Noisy, squabbling flocks are still in everyone’s faces (and consciousness) as they congregate at picnic sites and coastal road-ends, hungry for food scraps. But in the meantime their huge outer-island colonies have disappeared or dwindled to tiny remnants (e.g. the former colonies on the Three Kings, Mokohinau and Cuvier Islands). The colonies were dependent on swarms of euphausid krill (mainly Nyctiphanes australis) being driven to the surface by schooling fish.

      The disappearance of schools of skipjack tuna and kahawai is hitting many seabirds hard, as their prey is no longer accessible. This is a likely driver behind the decline of spotted shags in the Hauraki Gulf, and why Buller’s shearwaters endure the huge energetic cost of feeding 100s of kilometres away on the Chatham Rise, instead of in the waters of the Gulf, near their sole breeding site on the Poor Knights Islands.


  4. Thanks Colin,
    Trapping volunteers at Papa Aroha have no budget, but we can pay in dead stoats…frozen six pack?
    Looking forward to seeing you back in Coromandel for the Mid winter lecture series.

    1. Author

      Hi Carol
      An offer too good to refuse! Throw in a few dead rats, and I’ll pencil in a date.

  5. An interesting read. The extinctions are sad, of course, but its great to hear of the pest eradication efforts being made.
    The list of arrivals was very interesting – I grew up in the 50s in Chch and although I wasn’t very interested in birds then, I’m sure we didn’t see swallows and spurwinged plovers until the 70s.

    1. Author

      Thank you for your comments Marie-Louise, Ian and Olwen

      My first encounter with kokako was near the summit of the Tapu-Coroglen Road on 23 Oct 1978. They were courtship-feeding on the bases of tree fuchsia flowers, and my original bird log-book still has some pressed petals that they dropped at my feet. This was the same pair that Geoff Moon photographed for his 1979 book The birds around us.

      At the time, there was only one other pair known on the Coromandel Peninsula (at Golden Cross near Waihi). Stoats and ship rats were probably the main cause for their decline during the 20th century, but their disappearance coincided with the arrival of brushtail possums.


  6. Very enjoyable reading, though with some mixed feelings about extinction. Beautiful photos. What a honey of a beach and site.

  7. A great read; thanks

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