Tawharanui Open Sanctuary

A few weeks ago, we visited the lovely and remote Tawharanui Regional Park. We’d passed the turnoff for it on our way back from Goat Island but were too exhausted to stop, so we repeated our journey north the next weekend. Wanting to miss the traffic we left early, but not early enough! It was a beautiful weekend and everyone wanted to get out of Auckland so traffic was heavy on the motorway north, even on the toll road. Our route also took us through Matakana, which has a popular farmer’s market on Sunday. We stopped and explored the cute town, hoping to get some nice farmer’s market treats, but sadly we arrived just as it was finishing. Luckily, the rest of Matakana is also a yuppie paradise (artisanal grocery store, upscale pubs, etc.), so we still enjoyed a very nice lunch (mmm, mussel fritters!) at a local cafe.

After lunch, we got back on the road to Tawharanui. This route wound through hilly vineyards and, unsurprisingly for us, turned into a gravel path as we got closer to the park. Finally, we arrived at Tawharanui. In normal conditions it is about an hour’s drive north of Auckland, but it took us closer to two hours (plus lunch). The special thing about this place is that it is on a peninsula and a predator-proof fence runs along the park’s mainland boundary. With this protection, native species of plants and birds have been introduced as they won’t have to compete with introduced predators. As such, it’s a haven for native birds!

The birds are enough of a draw for us, but the real attraction of Tawharanui is Anchor Bay. This beach features on many “top beaches of Auckland” lists and has definitely earned its place.

Rock pools with exciting sea life in them, probably.
Beautiful white sands and gentle water, what more could you want from a beach?

Most of the visitors seemed to be here for the beach, but we’d done a lot of sea activities the week before at Goat Island so elected to try the bush walks. One of the unique birds at the park is the elusive kaka, a large brown parrot that introduced itself to the sanctuary. We asked a ranger the best place to see them and were helpfully pointed towards the aptly named Ecology Trail. He also told us that the park’s kiwis (birds not people) were easier to spot than most, as they liked to forage in a field adjacent to their forest. If you wait quietly on the nearby trail at dusk, you can see them as head out. We weren’t planning to hang around that long, but we’re definitely going to try it when the days get shorter!

So, we started off on the trail, which took us past the rightmost rock pools on the beach. We saw a crab and some dotterels, but worryingly not many indications that we were on an actual path. At the end of the beach, some very narrow and steep trails led up the hill to the top of the ridge. The beach probably wasn’t the optimal way to get up there, but we saw other people headed down that way so it must have been the actual path.

This guy was rocking some leg bands. By the amount of birds with these bands in the park, it must be a research hotspot.
This guy was rocking some leg bands. By the amount of birds with these bands in the park, it must be a research hotspot.

The path on top of the hill took us through a stand of trees buzzing with bellbirds, which we hadn’t seen since Tiritiri Matangi, to the field/forest boundary where the kiwis could be seen. Of course, it was the wrong time of day so the field was full of pukekos instead. The trail took us into the forest on the Ecology Trail. The dense native bush is like crack for birds and we saw many (and heard even more)!

Sub-tropical jungle.
Sub-tropical jungle.

Of course, we were here for the kakas, but we spotted some other residents too. Tuis made themselves heard and seen:

Hello there.
Hello there.

and we found an adorable family of grey warblers. The chicks were huddled together on a branch, but when the mother bird returned they jumped up and milled around her, begging for food:

The baby's mouth is yellow to act as a target for the momma bird to stuff food in it.
The baby’s mouth is yellow to act as a target for the momma bird to stuff food in it.

We also saw some rarer birds that we’d only seen on the island sanctuaries. The whiteheads looked similar to the grey warblers but had leg bands on so researchers could track them:

Preening time.
Preening time.

The robins had the same:

The robins were a bit shyer here than on Tiri.
The robins were a bit shyer here than on Tiri.

At one point M caught a glimpse of a large brown bird flying overhead, but couldn’t tell if it was a kaka or a teenage seagull. We were running out of trail, and while the other birds were cool, they weren’t large forest parrots.

Finally, we reached a part near the end of the trail that was a bit more open. We were just done with watching a New Zealand pigeon sit on a branch and were moving off when something large flew past us into the same tree, scaring the pigeon. Quickly reversing, we were rewarded with the sight of a kaka. He had clearly stopped by to munch on some berries and we watched him eat for a while, trying to get some good shots through the foliage. After a few minutes he flew off, but we’d gotten what we came for: our first look at a wild large NZ parrot!

His head's behind a leaf, annoyingly.
His head’s behind a leaf, annoyingly.
A master of staying just out of sight.
A master of staying just out of sight.

This encounter only took a few minutes, but at this point it was noticably cooling down and wasn’t too far off sunset. Sadly, we’d run out of time to head to the far eastern reaches of the park where the seabird colonies and Takehe lived; they would have to wait for another day. Instead we headed back to the car and headed out of the park, stopping for a quick walk around a marshy area near the entrance.

What's a NZ park without some sheep?
What’s a NZ park without some sheep?

We got a good view of one more rare bird, the brown teal, in the sunset light; a nice end to a busy day.

These birds are hard to spot in a group of mallards, but easy by themselves!
These birds are hard to spot in a group of mallards, but easy by themselves!

The traffic was much lighter on the way home, of course. We immediately resolved to return to Tawharanui soon, with more and even rarer birds to see (and a beautiful beach to properly enjoy)!

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