White herons are among more than 70 species of birds in the Okarito Lagoon.
White herons are among more than 70 species of birds in the Okarito Lagoon. Jim Eagles of NZ Herald

Reserve time for rare sights

WHEN a white heron suddenly appeared from the rushes on the edge of the water, skipper Swade Finch stopped the boat so I could get a good look.

After all, while the Okarito Lagoon is home to more than 70 species of birds, the white herons are its most famous residents.

But the heron wasn't inclined to co-operate with the paparazzi. It quickly took flight, then started circling the boat to turn the tables on the pesky photographer who had disturbed its early-morning snack.

Round and round it went, keeping a beady eye on me and Swade in the boat below, turning me dizzy as I tried to follow its progress with my camera lens.

"I've never had one do that before," said Swade, who runs Okarito Boat Tours, as the heron circled us for the third time. "You must be a bad influence."

I was beginning to think that myself.

The previous night the weather in south Westland had been so vile that Swade's wife, Paula, rang to warn that my planned exploration of Okarito by boat and kayak was unlikely to happen.

"Why don't you come down and we'll see how it looks," said Paula doubtfully. "We can always do a walk round the village."Even in the calmer conditions of the next morning, the kayak trip with Okarito Nature Tours was definitely off and even going out in Swade's big flat-bottomed boat seemed unlikely.

At Okarito, the wind was blowing and rain was falling steadily - but the waves on the lagoon were pretty small, I had good waterproofs, I'd been wanting to visit this legendary lagoon for years and I didn't want to miss the chance.

"Can we give it a go?" I asked Swade. Having spent several years fishing off the coast of Alaska, he wasn't the least bit bothered by a bit of a shower, so off we went.

The lagoon covers a huge area - about 3000ha, making it the largest unmodified wetland in the country - but it is very shallow, so we followed the channels marked by lines of sticks across the vast tidal flats.

Visibility was a bit restricted by the rain and the birds were mainly along the distant shoreline, but Swade was still able to point out a small flock of eccentric-looking royal spoonbills, a cluster of godwits resting on a sandbank, some graceful flotillas of black swans patrolling the waves, a couple of little shags perched on branches sticking out of the water and pied shags fishing busily.

Conditions improved as we left the tidal flats to head up the Okarito River, which brings the waters of Lake Mapourika down to the lagoon, and the wind dropped and the rain eased.

Here, as we cruised close to the great forest of kahikatea and rimu, the birds were much closer.

I could hear the tui and bellbirds singing in the trees, see waxeyes flitting about and plump kereru resting in the branches, and admire the aerodynamics of the kahu soaring overhead.

Swade pointed out a grassy area where a few days before he saw a bittern standing on the bank. As this is one New Zealand bird I haven't seen, despite several attempts, I watched carefully as we glided past but it didn't appear.

Instead, as we came round a bend in the river, there was our first white heron, feeding gracefully on the bank.

Perhaps prompted by the sight, Swade mentioned that Booker Prize-winning author Keri Hulme - Okarito's second-most famous resident - still lived in the village.

I must have looked a little taken aback since I hadn't intended to mention her, because he added: "Everyone asks about her."

Next we saw a kotare fly across the river and land on a branch.

"Look, there's another one beside it ... and there's another ... and another," Wade added, amazed as kingfishers kept appearing at what was presumably an assembly point.

Altogether we counted a dozen of them. "That's amazing. I've never seen anything like that."

This time he didn't blame me, but instead mentioned that a while before he had seen an Australian kookaburra - a much larger kingfisher than our own kotare - perched beside the river. "Apparently they come here now and again."

A bit further on, another white heron appeared from the rushes, squawked angrily at being disturbed, flew a short distance up the river and then returned and landed back at its feeding spot.

Altogether we came across three of them feeding - including the one that circled us three times - and another three flying overhead.

"We're lucky here," said Swade, "because there are always kotuku around here. In the breeding season, they come over from the nesting site, which is about 10km north of the lagoon on the Waitangiroto River, to feed.

"And, afterwards when they spread out across the country, there are at least four resident birds that stay on the lagoon."

As we came back across the lagoon on our way home, the rain had gone, so I got a much better view of the spoonbills using their spoon-shaped beaks to sieve the water for food.

"Personally," said Swade, "I find the spoonbills more appealing than the herons. The herons are beautiful, sure, but they're loners. Apart from when they're breeding, they lead solitary lives. Spoonbills are more sociable. They live in groups and interact. They're more interesting to watch."

True, I thought. And spoonbills don't fly over your head in circles and make you dizzy, either.

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