Muriwai Madness

Last weekend we decided to take advantage of the sunny summer weather and took a drive out to Muriwai Beach. Muriwai is one of the few west coast beaches, like Piha, but luckily the road in is much less treacherous and winding, if a bit further away. Besides the surf and the large flat beach, Muriwai’s main attraction is a gannet colony on the southern end of the beach. It’s one of the few places in the world that these birds nest on the mainland, and early November is right in the middle of their courting and nesting season. Of course we had to check it out!

Our plans were slightly complicated when we took a wrong turn. New Zealand has an unfortunate tendency to signpost important locations well right up until the last or second-to-last turn. In our quest for the beach park, we ended up driving down a gravel road to a dusty parking lot with not a gannet in sight. It turned out that this lot was the staging area for horses and dirt bikes, both of which accessed the beach via a sandy road. One would think that having horses in such close proximity to teens zooming around on dirt bikes would lead to problems, but these beach tour horses seemed unfazed. Since we were here and Godzilla has four-wheel drive, we took a quick drive on the beach, dodging horses, gliders and other cars. It was fun, but we were keen to move on to the main event.

Can't go south.
Can’t go south.
Horse tour ahead!
Horse tour ahead!

Luckily Muriwai had more parking spaces than Piha, but we were still lucky to get a spot in the main lot instead of on the grass. As we drove in, some paragliders spiraled overhead, eventually coming in to land on the beach. We joined the families and surfers heading to the beach. Their destination was the wide flat sands and the ocean (though it still seemed too cold for swimming), but we headed up the rocks on our left.

Busy day at the beach.
Busy day at the beach.

The rocks, as you can see, were flat and covered with seaweed and algae; the vegetation plus the occasional wave made them slippery. We carefully made our way over the rocks and up and over an inlet, and found ourselves underneath the gannet colony. Birds flew back and forth overhead, between the sea and their roosts on the cliffs above. Though some flew directly overhead, we somehow didn’t get pooped on.

The cliffs themselves were neat too!
The cliffs themselves were neat too!

We wandered under the cliff for a while, watching the gannets fly back and forth. One brought back a hunk of seaweed, presumably for the nest, and his lady was very appreciative of the gift. Gannets mate for life and show affection by clacking their beaks together, like they’re kissing, and preening each other. From our vantage point, we could see several bird couples doing this on a variety of clifftops. We could also see that we could get a much better view from above:

The person on the right climbed halfway up the cliff for some reason, but we were more interested using the path to get to the viewpoint. We made our way around the tide pools and baby oysters on the rocks to some stairs, which led to several views and signs along the path.

The path also had great views back to Muriwai Beach.
The path also had great views back to Muriwai Beach.

Once we got to the top, we had several great views of the gannet colonies. These areas are actually the overflow nests from an offshore island, and when the gannets expanded over to the cliffs they displaced white-fronted terns. These smaller birds now have to make do with the grassy areas around the bare clifftops. As you might expect, the nesting areas of two different birds produces quite a racket.

Kissing gannets in front, terns in the back.
Kissing gannets in front, terns in the back.

Even though these are the overflow nests, there are still many birds nesting over the three different clifftops. They are affectionate in their pairs but defend their chosen spot against their neighbors, resulting in the nests being spaced very evenly apart. This pattern is easiest to see on the triangular cliff:

Very symmetric.
Very symmetric.

The stack-like rock in the background was the most impressive nesting site, as we could see gannets perched both on top and on the sides.

Birds nest in the grass as well.
Birds nest in the grass as well.

The last site had a steeper slope and so was less densely populated than the other two, but still had wonderful views of the sea.

Seals often bask on the rocks below, but we couldn't see any today.
Seals often bask on the rocks below, but we couldn’t see any today.

We spent a while watching the gannets come and go. We were hoping to see some eggs as their chicks hatch in December, but the birds seemed to be at the stage before eggs.

Some post-coital preening.
Some post-coital preening.

The gannets didn’t seem to mind having people so close to their nests, as some were only a few feet away from the overlooks. We will definitely return in December once the chicks have hatched. Look forward to some adorable baby bird pictures!

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