Ōkārito Lagoon covers more than 3000 hectares of shallow open water, and is internationally renowned for it’s outstanding native and endemic birdlife. The lagoon is notably the main feeding ground for the rare Kōtuku/White Heron, seen at close quarters without disturbance by kayakers year round. It’s rare any time of year to head out on the water and not see the graceful Kōtuku feeding.
This precious environment needs our help though, to remain free from invasive pest species that threaten predation or loss of habitat, and to keep it’s very high water quality. This help needs to be both practical and educational; one, without the other, just doesn’t work.
That the remarkable native birdlife of Ōkārito Lagoon remains abundant and diverse is a tribute to the decades of conservation work that has gone on around the lagoon – from the nationwide battles fought to protect the surrounding forests from logging in the 1970’s and 80’s, to the low-key volunteer predator trapping or invasive weed control that has been done by locals for decades.
However, perhaps the most significant of these efforts will be the incredible Predator Free South Westland project, which aims to rid an area of 100,000 hectares surrounding the lagoon of the predatory threat of rats, possum and stoats by 2025 –https://predatorfreesouthwestland.nz/
Kayaking with agile, silent craft, offers the most flexible and least intrusive way to view the diverse native birdlife of the wetland and surrounding forest. The freedom to manoeuvre in the shallow waters wherever you choose, whist sitting low on the water without any noise, allows some incredibly intimate bird viewing opportunities.
Drifting completely silently in the shallow wetland channels, inaccessible to motorised boats and away from road noise, listening only to a regenerating and thriving bird population, is a rare and valuable moment to experience complete natural quiet.
We provide detailed advice on kayaking routes, from knowledge built up over thirty years of operation, to get the most out of your bird-viewing opportunities. We send our kayakers out with a bird identification guide, after an environmental briefing on what to look out for on the water. Robust, modern dry-bags, always within arms reach on the top of your kayak, are great for carrying a good camera or binoculars on the calm waters of the lagoon.
We are famed for the White Heron/Kōtuku here in Ōkārito – it’s rare not to see these birds on the water, any time of year, but we always recommend visiting the Kōtuku nesting site, only accessed with the excellent White Heron Sanctuary Tours, if this is the one thing you are determined to see.
However, there are over seventy different recorded bird species that feed in and around the lagoon. Wading birds include the comical looking Kōtuku-ngutapapa/Royal Spoonbill, head down, feeding like a over-caffeinated vacuum cleaner, and the shy Matuku moana/White-Faced Heron, hiding in the rushes. Mātātā/Fernbirds also hide in the saltmarsh, their strong metallic-sounding ‘chip’ carrying across the shallow channels accessible only by kayak on high tide.
Tōrea pango/Variable Oystercatchers distract themselves battling in a squawking contest on the mudflats, along with their brethren endemic Tōrea/South Island Pied Oystercatcher, whilst delicate Poaka/Pied Stilts and Pohowera/Banded Dotterels scurry in a hurry around them, to steal the wriggling worms they’ve forgotten about. We think Oystercatchers may have Avian Attention Deficient Disorder.
Shags of various size and shape stretch out their long wings on forest debris scattered above the waterline in the lagoon; their effort to dry out their waterlogged bodies after a diving for food looks like a cross between a yoga pose and a Karate Kid impression.
Spring sees the arrival of the Kuaka/Eastern Bar-Tailed Godwit, one-time NZ Bird of the Year (yes, we have one!), here to feed and get plump again after it’s incredible 12,000km migratory flight from Alaska. Many of our kayakers have had to endure long flights across the Pacific to get here, so spare a thought for the Godwits – they lose up to as third of their body weight on this flight alone. Makes you think of airline food more sympathetically now. Godwits will spend the summer here feeding up, identifiable on the lagoon by their slightly upturned long probing beaks.
Early summer is also a really active time for forest birds feeding on the abundant flowering flax, Kōwhai and Rātā that lines the lagoon edge. Calls from Tui and Korimako/Bellbird dominate, but you can also hear and occasionally see a host of Warblers, Robin, Cuckoo, Tomtit and Australasian Kingfisher’s out there. There’s the chance of seeing a Kārearea/NZ Falcon dive across the forest edges, or hear the chaos of a post-lunch semi-inebriated Kerurū falling through the spindly twigs of the Kōwhai tree it ill-advisedly chose to rest and feed on. Kerurū’s understanding of basic physics is limited, and these puffed-up pigeon’s still don’t seem to understand that tiny tree branches might not support the weight of their over-sized torso. Still, that’s probably good thing, as Kerurū probably wouldn’t even try to fly if they had seriously studied aerodynamics and weight-to-wing ratios.
There are local conservation projects in and around the lagoon to study and protect populations of elusive Matuku/Bittern, and the long running Operation Nest Egg has had tremendous success in recent years in growing the critically endangered population of Ōkārito Brown Kiwi/Rowi that roam our forest here at night. Rowi have been found curiously poking around the tents of overnight kayakers, and their survival in the Ōkārito forests are testament to some incredible work that has been done in the last twenty years by DOC. However, the game changer here is that ongoing Predator Free South Westland project, that aims to eradicate, for good, possum, rats and stoats from a 100,000 hectare area, with Ōkārito Lagoon at it’s centre, over the next few years; the largest, active Predator Free project in the country.
We can tell you more about this on one of our guided kayak trips; it’s an endless topic …. the lagoon and it’s waterways are different on every visit, and time of day and season, water height and salinity, and even your own explorations and interest-level provide for an incredible array of bird-watching opportunities out there.
Ōkārito is a small, peaceful village on the western sea coast of the South Island of New Zealand.
Only 10km off the main highway, Ōkārito is about 25-minutes drive north of Franz Josef Glacier. Look for the signposted turn-off between Lake Mapourika and Lake Wahapo.
You’ll find spacious, private car parking at our two red sheds on the left just as you enter the village, with a homely base building and bathrooms for comfort.
1, The Strand, Ōkārito, West Coast
+64 3 753 4014