Okarito (West Coast) White Heron Field Trip

02 Jan 2011

In perfect weather, nine participants journeyed to the West Coast for a viist to the White Heron Sanctuary on the edge of Okarito Lagoon -- weekend 6/7 November. On Saturday three groups travelled separately to Whataroa, en route variously visting: the salmon farm on the Paringa Riverat; Okarito beach with viewing of Banded Dotterel nests; Ship's Creek; and the DOC Okarito lookout track. Contact was made with Ian Cooper who has the DOC concession for Okarito Kiwi Tours in Okarito. This operation is apparently one of the best birding options in the country with a 95+ % sighting rate, in part due to only scheduling trips in good weather. In the evening Alex Miller (currently pilot/ manager of the Franz Josef ski plane enterprise) gave a fascinating account of his long Coast experience with Lands & Survey, DOC, creation of the Westland Park, and support by air for mountain rescue and hut building. Next morning the party left with White Heron Sanctuary Tours - a DOC concession run by Shirley and Ken Arnold with their son Dion as chief guide. The 20 minute jet boat ride down the Waitangitaona River provided stunning views of the still heavily snow-coated Southern Alps, including the summits of Elie de Beaumont, Tasman and Aoraki/Cook.

We were off-loaded onto a trailer and towed by tractor across to the Waitangiroto Stream; then a 15 minute barge trip up the stream to a dock accessing a 500m boardwalk through dense kahikatea bush which leads to the viewing hide. The sanctuary site extends no more than 100m along the river bank and contains 46 nesting pairs of White Herons (in full breeding plumage), about half with hatched chicks. In addition, there were an equal number of Royal Spoonbills, mainly nesting higher in the trees behind the herons, and dozens of Little Shags with nests interspersed with the herons. Since the hide is located 30m across the river from the site, and the birds are quite unperturbed by human presence, one gets a grandstand view of this spectacular conglomeration of wildlife. The nesting area was first identified in the early 1860's and randomly visited ever since, which explains why the birds are not particulaly concerned by viewers. Howerver, when heron plumage became valuable in the 1930s as a fashionable decoration for women's hats, numbers dwindled to 4 pairs. Overall, this trip was a great success, helped by wonderful weather and good tour operators.