On 7th February I and 9 other members of Forest and Bird went to the Embankment Road area of Greenpark Sands. This area is well known for its scarce wading birds - well they are scarce in New Zealand if not globally. Less well known are the special plants that grow in the area as a low turf or clumps on the mudflats here.
We walked the 20 minutes from the road end to the pools behind the lake edge through introduced grasses, including the rather annoying barley grass, which if the spiky seed heads get into your socks will prickle you to the point of distraction. Skylarks sang and a few ducks and waders flew over, but nothing compared to the numbers ahead.
Finally one of the pools along the fenceline was reached. Immediately a flock of about 30 Bar-tailed Godwits could be seen. In April most of these birds will fly non-stop to Korea or China to refuel, then most of those will fly on to breed in Alaska. One bird, a male, had already moulted into its beautiful red breeding colours. A small number of Wrybills were soon picked out, mostly roosting on a higher area across the fence. Up to around 700 of these New Zealand endemics can be found at any one time in mid- to late summer at the lake staging between their breeding grounds on the braided rivers and their wintering areas on estuaries around Auckland. They are the only bird species with a bill that turns to the side - always to the right.
Closer examination of the lake sent a flock of Grey Teal flying with their twisting group aerobatics and white wing triangles flashing. Unfortunately they took many of the waders with them. The teal joined the vast flocks of Black Swans at the lake edge, the godwits flew further back from the fence. Scanning the pond again with binoculars and telescope led to the discovery of a Red-necked Stint with its sewing-machine pecking action threading its way around the pond's muddy edge. Red-necked Stints are about the size of sparrows and most fly each year to breed in Siberia - a truly mammoth journey for a small bird. A small number of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers were also on view striding around the mud showing their rufous caps and streaky flanks. Lake Ellesmere currently holds about 12 of these birds and is one of the species's main sites in New Zealand. A nearly Black Stilt was also present - a very dark hybrid (with Pied Stilt) showing only tiny amounts of white.
The plants comprised glasswort (Sarcocornia quinqueflora), complete with seldom seen tiny yellow flowers. It is a typical halophyte with fleshy stem-like leaves to reduce water loss in the harsh environment of the lakeshore, which is sometimes saltier than the sea. A few plants of Maori Musk (Mimulus repens) were still showing their pretty lilac and yellow flowers, as were some clumps of white Sea Primrose (Samolus repens) and yellow Batchelor's Button (Cotula coronopifolia).
A wind change to the south at about 10.30 exhibited the mudflat's less welcome feature of being rather exposed to the elements and participants made their ways back to the road end. Altogether an interesting selection of birds and plants had been seen in the short time on the flats.