Susan Buckland gets in some bird-watching at Miranda's sanctuary.
Instead of risking a bumper-crunching day trip on the road north out of Auckland, we headed south to Miranda on the Firth of Thames and were soon wondering why we hadn't visited this mecca of wading birds earlier. Shunning the faster, one-hour trip down the Southern motorway and out along SH2, we meandered through the rural green of Clevedon.
A happy choice. The scenic route took only about 20 minutes longer with its bonus of light traffic and views of the Hunua Ranges and Coromandel Peninsula.
The Miranda Shorebird Centre had recommended we arrive three hours either side of the high tide.
"You'll see birds in their thousands. It's a wonderful sight," promised the person on the phone at the Miranda Naturalists' Trust, which operates the centre to promote awareness of the birds and their habitat.
You don't have to be a "twitcher" - one of those avid bird watchers who travel long distances to sight rarer birds - to be impressed by Miranda's avian inhabitants.
The area attracts no less than 132 species.
Star among them is the bar-tailed godwit, an Arctic bird that undertakes a remarkable, nonstop flight from its breeding grounds in Alaska and Siberia to reach Miranda every spring. The godwit's 11,500km flight takes an average of eight days, an amazing feat of endurance and one of the longest migrations of any bird species.
To ensure we got a close up view of the legendary godwit, not to mention the plovers, wrybills, red knots, dotterels, terns, oyster catchers and many other species that flock to tidal coast of Miranda, we hired binoculars from the Shorebird Centre.
An estuarine expanse where both twitchers and birds like to gather. Photo / Greg Bowker
The path to the shore plunges through head-high fields of fennel. There's a car park closer to the shore and bird-watching hides, but our pungent fennel path opened to ponds full of birds we might have missed if we'd not approached from the bird centre. En route, too, were information boards about birds and their habitat on the Firth of Thames' western shores.
In the ponds and mudflats different bird species flocked with their own kind while we sat mesmerised. About the size of a magpie, the godwits are comparatively modest in appearance, despite their legendary status. They were looking content, having been storing fat from the time they arrived from the Arctic, exhausted and emaciated. By the middle of March each year they are ready to embark on their epic migration back to the Alaskan and Siberian tundra.
"It's really something to see these gallant birds setting off on their journey to the other end of the earth," a man sitting in the same hide told us.
The walk back was rewarded with views of dotterels, the endearing and endangered little native New Zealand shore birds that struggle to survive in many of their traditional breeding grounds. Another half hour went by watching their antics before an urge for coffee took over.
A couple of kilometres away on Miranda Rd, looking across the water to the Coromandel, we found the Miranda Farm Shop, an appetising combination of cafe and shop stocked with product organically grown on the property.
Having refuelled on freshly made egg sandwiches and a fine coffee brew we wandered into the garden where sculptures by such notable New Zealand artists as Michael Smither, Fatu Feu'u and Barry Brickell were on display among the fruit trees and flower beds.
In their midst is an attractive straw-bale building that serves as both a gallery and a home for Annie and Sean Wilson. The resourceful environmentally conscious couple pursue a sustainable form of land use.
The bar-tailed godwit travels annually between Miranda and Alaska. Photo / Greg Bowker
They built their home with recycled materials - even making the plaster that covers the wooden frame. "It came from the earth - it will collapse back into the earth," says Annie, a former landscape designer whose artistic flair is evident inside and out. Even the public lavatory is a sculpture.
For the past four years they have held an annual sculpture exhibition in January. The gallery operates year-round.
Much of the farm's organic product is sold at the Parnell Farmers' Market in Auckland, but buying it from the farm shop felt like the next best thing to plucking the aubergine, garlic, plums, apples, beans, scallopini, tomatoes and zucchini straight from the garden.
Below on the Miranda shore, the tide had receded and with it the birds. By the middle of March the Godwits will wheel a final time over their summer feeding grounds before departing on their marathon migration back to the other side of the world. Twitcher or not, this would be a memorable time to visit Miranda.
Getting to Miranda from Auckland: South on SH1. Take the Coromandel/ Tauranga exit onto SH2. Next take LH exit, which reads Mangatangi/ Kaiaua/ Miranda. After Mangatawhiri, look for the Miranda/Kaiaua sign on the left.
Scenic route via Clevedon: Take the Papukura exit from SH1
Miranda Shorebird Centre: Phone (09) 232 2781.
Miranda orchard and farm shop and sculpture garden: 1107 Miranda Rd, beside the old cheese factory, off SH2.