To appreciate what wetlands offer, you really have to see them, walk in them and have a good look at what's living there. They are extraordinary places and extraordinarily important to the environment. We want everyone to know that and the way to achieve this is to encourage people to get out and explore."
So says Auckland Council senior biodiversity adviser Miranda Bennett, and I can see what she means. We're standing just 7km from downtown Auckland, in the middle of the LeRoys Bush and Little Shoal Bay wetland in Birkenhead, but we might as well be in another country.
It's tranquil. A gentle breeze offers respite from a scorching sun and stirs native swamp plants such as raupo (native bulrush) and carex grasses. We seek shelter from the sun on well-built paths which meander through cabbage trees, nikau palms, karaka, kowhai and coprosma.
The environment looks primitive; it's easy to imagine a dinosaur plodding out of the swamp. Instead we see tui, kingfisher (kotare), the recently introduced Eastern rosella, grey warbler (riroriro), silvereye (tauhou), mallard ducks and banded rail (moho pereru) footprints.
Wetlands are places many of us seldom visit, yet they are accessible, beautiful, and environmentally, culturally and frequently historically significant, and free to visit. The Auckland Council, along with groups such as Fish & Game NZ, the Department of Conservation, Forest & Bird and the National Wetlands Trust, want us to get out with our children to explore these diverse habitats, to encourage their restoration and preservation.
With World Wetlands Day last weekend (what, it wasn't in your diary?), February is a great time to do just that. The annual international event celebrates wetlands for their environmental value and benefits. These include being habitats for wildlife and maintaining biodiversity, but also playing a role in flood control, filtering run-off pollution from the land before it reaches the sea, erosion control and recharging groundwater.
They're not just a pretty face, then.
Wetlands form in boggy places or where water pools: swamps, gumland bogs, dune lakes, rivers, lagoons, estuaries, remnant swamp forests, gullies and volcanic springs. Freshwater wetlands blend almost seamlessly with lakes and rivers, or with the brackish and salty coastal wetlands.
It is estimated a quarter of the Auckland region used to be wetland of one sort or another, but draining and reclaiming them for farming or residential developments means there is just 0.5 per cent remaining.
Tomorrow and the next two weekends, Auckland Council offers a series of free, family-friendly guided walks to highlight these many and varied spots. As well as showing off these "biodiversity jewels", the walks aim to show the efforts made by dedicated volunteers to restore the habitats and encourage others to think about wetland creation. Here's our pick of the top six to visit now, plus one to watch in future:
Tawharanui Regional Park
This is the type of glorious setting that makes you proud and happy to be a New Zealander. Situated on the Takatu Peninsula north of Matakana, a chunk of the park is contained by a predator-proof fence which has allowed native flora and fauna to thrive.
North Island brown kiwi, bellbirds (korimako), North Island robins (toutouwai), NZ dotterels (tuturiwhatu), reef heron (matuku tai) and spotless crake (puweto) and bittern have happily moved in. There's 588ha to explore, including restored freshwater and saline wetlands, a lagoon, coastline and forest. With such a variety of walks, there's something to suit all abilities.
On the day I visited, I was lucky to spy a pair of banded rail, while rare brown teal (pateke) are now breeding within the park. You can stay in a campground less than 100m from a white sandy beach. Paradise! See aucklandcouncil.govt.nz or tossi.org.nz for more.
Remote and wild on the West Coast, Whatipu is a sandflat where dunes have trapped water, creating miniature inland lakes. New Zealand dotterel breed here and the area is also home to white-faced herons (matuku moana), little shags (kawau paka), bitterns, spotless crake, fern birds (matata) and pied stilts (poaka). Walk along coastal or forest tracks and you're likely to spy rare indigenous plants including herbs and the sand spike sedge.
You can camp here, but swimming isn't recommended because surf and tidal conditions can be dangerous. See aucklandcouncil.govt.nz for more, including which activities are allowed in this scientific reserve.
LeRoys Bush/Little Shoal Bay Wetland
It is hard to believe this coastal and freshwater wetland is so close to the CBD. The area includes streams and walkways which run from Highbury down to Little Shoal Bay Beach. As well as native birds, it is also home to endangered native fish species including trout such as the kokopu and inanga. You can take a guided walk through the area on February 17, starting at 10am. See aucklandcouncil.govt.nz or leroysbush.org.nz.
On the Glendowie side of the Tamaki estuary, this 25ha coastal reserve is a salt marsh and freshwater habitat which includes a sand bank you can walk out on at low tide. Some say it reminds them of one of the islands the Famous Five or Secret Seven might have explored, and it's easy to imagine treasure washing up on the shore - but the treasures here of the natural kind. Thirty years of restoration and tree-planting mean a number of native plants flourish here and so, too, do birds such as oystercatchers (Tahuna Torea means "gathering place of the oystercatchers"), migratory godwits, herons, pukeko, a number of species of duck and forest birds such as tui, gray warblers, fantails, silvereyes and New Zealand pigeons (kereru).
Well-built paths mean the area is accessible to all - you could take a pushchair through most of it - and there are bird hides which provide lookouts across the area. Explore Tahuna Torea Reserve tomorrow at 10am, with guides from the Auckland Council's biodiversity team. See aucklandcouncil.govt.nz.
In the heart of Meadowbank, this is the largest urban constructed wetland in New Zealand and is mainly a stormwater-treatment system where drains, weirs, bunds and sediment traps remove pollutants from waterways.
The restored freshwater wetlands are surrounded by paved walks suitable for those who want to jog, walk, and take the family and the dog for a day out. The 40ha reserve also features viewing points where you can keep an eye out for birds such as - among others - harriers, Caspian terns (taranui), little black shags, shoveler ducks (kuruwhengi), white herons (kotuku) and pukeko. See aucklandcouncil.govt.nz or waiatarua.com.
Ambury Regional Farm Park
Best known and much-loved as an urban farm, Ambury's intertidal mudflats form a natural gateway to the Manukau Harbour foreshore. Wading birds gather in their thousands to breed, roost and eat before winter migration, making it a top spot for birdwatching. You can walk along the foreshore and surrounding farmland where there's good information about the history of the area and its environmental significance. See aucklandcouncil.govt.nz for more.
On the Te Atatu Peninsula, this stretch of coastal and urban land looks across the Motu Manawa (Pollen Island) Marine Reserve and Waitemata Harbour to Auckland city. Three small streams flow into the harbour, which is bordered by a salt marsh wetland where fern birds, New Zealand dotterel, oystercatchers, herons, Caspian terns, godwit and various gulls feed, roost and breed.
Stormwater ponds have been created to slow the flow of water off the land, allowing sediments and nutrients to collect and be filtered before the water hits the salt marsh and harbour.
Learn more about the natural and cultural history of this reserve and the Motu Manawa Restoration Group on the guided walk on February 24 at 10am. See aucklandcouncil.govt.nz or forestand bird.org.nz (go to the "Branches" page).
Need to know
Bookings are essential for the Auckland Council's free guided Wetland Walks (outlined above). These can be made by email to firstname.lastname@example.org Each one takes between half an hour and an hour to complete.
Guide to Auckland's Wetlands, new from Auckland Council, features 27 wetlands in the Auckland region with tips and hints for what to look out for.
Magical Places: 40 Wetlands to Visit in New Zealand. Published by Department of Conservation. Download it from doc.govt.nz
If you are lucky enough to have a wetland on your property that you want to restore or protect, there are many agencies that can help. Auckland Council's biodiversity advisers can provide assistance and wetland factsheets are available at aucklandcouncil.govt.nz. Fish & Game can also help and there are 12 offices around the country. fishandgame.org.nz