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