environment

Tāmaki Estuary’s sleepless shorebirds

Once a welcoming habitat for shorebirds, Tāmaki Estuary has become increasingly inhospitable. Spaces where shorebirds can sleep are disappearing and the birds are vanishing. One man is doing everything he can to give them a decent night’s sleep and is calling on local boards to help out.

A tree is one of the least likely places Tāmaki's shorebirds would choose to take a nap. Most of New Zealand’s shorebirds choose open spaces - not trees - to sleep, eat and nest in.

In Auckland’s Tāmaki Estuary, those open spaces are being swallowed up and the number of shorebirds, some threatened with extinction, are declining.

Local resident Shaun Lee has found himself explaining shorebirds' dislike of trees as a place to sleep multiple times. Lee, who describes himself as a citizen scientist, has been busy raising awareness of the plight that threatened shorebirds face as the city creeps outward and the sea erodes the shore inward.

He wants local boards' Open Space Network Plan to keep areas safe for the birds so they have somewhere to sleep. Currently the draft plan talks about increasing native planting as a way to help birds. He doesn't think this is good enough.

“It’s a big estuary, we have to be able to find somewhere for them.”

Point England Reserve, home to nesting dotterel, is now re-zoned for development and is set to be covered in houses. Former roosts in Pakuranga Creek and Tāmaki River East have been abandoned. Lee isn’t 100 percent sure why; his guess from looking at old aerial photographs is that houses now cover where birds once roosted.

In Mount Wellington War Memorial Reserve the addition of lights over sports fields saw birds abandon a night-time roost.

Tahuna Torea Reserve, saved from the plight of being a rubbish tip, and altered in the 1970s to make it attractive to shore birds is slowly drowning as the sea rises. Whenever there’s a storm surge it gets covered by the sea and roosting spots are submerged.

Threatened banded dotterel used to roost at the Mt Wellington War Memorial Reserve. Since lights have been added, what was the third most popular roosting spot has been deserted. Photo: Supplied

What’s not built over, drowning, or too brightly lit for sleep still has the issue of disruptive people. Dog walkers, drone enthusiasts, cyclists or even people unwittingly taking a walk through their nesting area can disturb roosting or nesting birds.

Lee is worried what was the dominant and defining wildlife in the area is being squeezed out, and concerned there’s no shorebird-specific provisions being made in council plans.

He said the Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Local Board did not seek advice from a shorebird expert when developing their Open Space Network Plan.

To provide information for the board, he and a group of volunteers undertook hours of observation to create an 80-page report documenting the numbers of birds in the area. Between them they counted birds at high and low tide, from boats, and even in darkness using thermal imaging and night-vision technology.

“We set off with high hopes to find missing birds on undiscovered roosts. In the end it was quite depressing to write up as we didn’t find them, the declines in my lifetime have been massive.”

Bar-tailed godwits used to sleep at Tahuna Torea Reserve. Now they commute between feeding grounds at Tāmaki and sleeping spots. This daily commute makes it harder for the migratory birds to gain the weight they need to endure their 12,000km annual journey to Alaska. Photo: Supplied

They found abandoned roosts and a decline in numbers. The number of birds at Tahuna Torea Nature Reserve has decreased by a factor of 10 since the 1970s. Breeding pairs of Pied Shags at Panmure Basin had reduced from 150 pairs in 1997 to just five pairs. If the trends continue Lee believes shorebirds will become locally extinct.

So far, he's unhappy with the draft Open Space Network Plan. Instead of open spaces, the birds appear to be getting native trees. The only mention of birds is a bullet point under the heading of 'Increase native planting'. Trees aren’t much use to the threatened dotterel, Caspian tern, oystercatchers, wrybill, shore plover or bar-tailed godwit which among others, use the estuary.

He’s shared the 80-page report with the Ōrākei Local Board, who is party to the open spaces plan. He said Ōrākei’s board immediately started investigating solutions to create an artificial roost at Tahuna Torea reserve. The Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Local Board has not been so quick to respond.

“The report has not been very well received by the Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Local Board who first ignored my submission on the ONSP then my shorebird report and signed off on the OSNP.”

Lee worries it’s now too late for shorebird provisions to be included in the plan, which extends to 2032.

He would like areas set aside for bird roosts for the different species which have traditionally made their home on the estuary. This could involve better protection of existing roosting areas, or new areas.

The Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Local Board is working with Lee on mowing the grass in Point England Reserve. Since cows were removed from the area the grass grows higher than dotterel are comfortable with. The small ground-nesting birds like to see what's around them so they can quickly escape danger. Lee describes mowing as a small, but necessary, win. 

After meeting with the board last week he's been told the author of the open spaces plan has been asked to present back to the board July 23 on how the plan takes shorebirds into account and what "further actions could be considered to address these issues". It's expected the open space plan will be re-endorsed by the board at this meeting.

Self-employed designer Shaun Lee volunteers hours each week to predator control. Photo: Farah Hancock

Softly-spoken and unfailingly polite, Lee is continuing his quest to give the shorebirds of Tāmiki a good night’s sleep while he waits to hear back from the board. Every week he spends hours clearing and resetting predator traps, making an effort to chat with dog-owners and park-users.

"As the city intensifies, we all have to work, we all have to be more and more polite and well-mannered, as we all get squeezed in together."

Awareness helps.

“I think if all the joggers, walkers, kite surfers and picnickers knew that the birds they were disturbing were at risk of extinction and trying to get some sleep they would be more sympathetic. When I explain it to people they are always apologetic. They just don’t notice the birds.”

Simple compromises may help too. Lee wonders if the Mt Wellington reserve didn't have lights on during nights with high tides, birds may return to sleep there. 

His dream would be for Tāmaki Estuary's bird population to rise to the levels of the 1970s and 80s.

“If you’ve ever watched a big flock of birds swoop and bank over the water, it’s just amazing. It’s one of those Attenborough-type scenes, a marvel of nature. I want to see that come back”

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