Off The Beaten Path

One of the benefits of birding as a hobby is the unusual places it can take you. Using eBird, locations with interesting birds can be found in minutes, and most of the time, these places are not ones that many would visit normally.

This weekend, we drove out to visit such a place: Potts Lane and the Ayrlies wetlands, about 40 minutes east of Auckland. We had gone to Potts Lane, a remote mangrove and beach area, before, but wanted to also check out Ayrlies Wetland, a nearby location where someone had spotted some mute swans. These birds are rare in New Zealand (most swans are the native black swans) as they were imported by Europeans wanting a reminder of home. M did not share those old European’s sentiment and was not so enthused about driving out to see a common (in other places) bird. However, we both enjoyed the sunny, traffic-free drive out of the city and into rural New Zealand.

The tides were not in our favour this weekend, as the high tides were in the dark with low tide at noon. The retreating, low tide meant that when we arrived at Potts Lane, all the wading birds were far away at the water’s edge. We spotted a few kingfishers flying above the mud closer to us, as well as a group of guys flying model airplanes, but had more luck examining the fields beside the marsh.

Many pukekos were poking around in the grass and were joined by a large flock of goldfinches. A few pipits, which we’d only seen once before, were also hard at work in the grass. Clearly the agricultural terrain provides lots of tasty bugs and seeds for these and other birds.

We liked seeing the birds in the pasture, but wanted to get a closer look (if possible) at the shorebirds. Luckily, we’d both worn our hiking boots, as the flat turned out to covered in thick mud. Tracks of horses illustrated the best way to cross the beach, but we slogged on until we reached a small, shell-covered “island.”

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Mud and more mud!

The waders were still quite far away, so we scanned the other sandy islands. Signs had warned that most of the beach was closed to human or equine foot traffic as dotterels and oystercatchers nested there. Sure enough, a dotterel flew over us and we spotted two others, one with the standard red breast and one younger, grey bird, on another island. They didn’t seem to mind the model airplanes flying over their heads!

Besides the dotterels and some shy kingfishers, we could see no other birds on the mudflats and so picked our way back through the muck to the car. As we tried in vain to get the mud off in the grass next to the pasture, two shelducks honked at us but made no effort to move away. We got back in the car just as a herd of people on horseback showed up, presumably for a nice, muddy ride on the beach. We left them to it and drove off to the wetlands.

We had not been to the Ayrlies wetlands before so, while we found the entrance fairly easily, we were initially put off by the “private property” signs. A little research on my smartphone revealed that the wetlands are a part of the Ayrlies Garden estate. The garden itself is the work the McConnell family over 50 years and is a “garden of international significance” according to the New Zealand Gardens Trust. While the garden was closed, the website said that the wetlands were open 7 days a week, with free admission, so we parked up and started walking along the well-maintained path.

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The pond, with very obvious mute swan.

After winding our way along the manicured wetland path, we arrived at the main pond. Ducks, black swans (including three fuzzy cygnets), and dabchicks cruised on the glassy water, but the main attraction for us was the magnificent white swan. It had its wings up aggressively and was chasing one of the slightly smaller black swans; clearly the two species do not play nicely together.

With the swan sighted, we enjoyed wandering through the rest of the wetlands. The New Zealand dabchicks, a relatively uncommon bird, was here in force, diving and paddling around in pairs or with the two scaups. Fantails flitted over the water, picking small bugs out of the air, and several parrots flew overhead.

On another pond, we found two additional mute swans sleeping on an island. Since Ayrlies is a private garden, it is possible that these swans are not strictly wild and were brought in by the garden. However, with no indication that these birds are domesticated, I think they “count” towards my total, which is now at 120 species seen in New Zealand.

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The water was very still.

Without seeking out the birds seen here, we would have never come across this beautiful garden and wetlands, hidden away in a rural corner of Auckland. Hopefully, the next place we visit is just as nice, and much less muddy!

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