I love birds. I love birds in the bush, and I love birds on the shore. I will not pass up an opportunity to look at birds, and that is how I ended up in Miranda at the Pūkorokoro Shorebird Centre at the wrong time of day, picking up some pamphlets from a man named Keith, who tried kindly to warn me that I mightn't see many. The tide was running well out, and when it's gone, the birds — most recently seen floating and paddling — touch the sandy seabed with their variously webbed feet, and gap it.
I smiled at Keith, unperturbed. I had a good feeling about the birds out there today, I said. I had my mother with me, and we were up for a good jaunt regardless. He escorted us out of the bird centre looking dubious, showing us in the direction of where the walking track began, across the road, and toward the rapidly disappearing tide. We set off in the late morning, the sun surprisingly hot for a winter's day. "We might see some early godwits!" I said. "Mmmnh" said my mother, examining one of the information displays, with a variety of the shorebirds printed on it. "We'll definitely see some spoonbills!" I cried. Mum squinted at the tangle of mangroves that lined the gravel track, and stayed silent. We walked on.
At Pūkorokoro there are bird hides set up across a few kilometres of walking track that hugs the coastline there. It is home to half the population of our endemic wrybill, and more famously home to the bar-tailed godwits when they come down to rest after their flight home from Alaska. The mature birds fly north via China to breed, and then they and their juvenile offspring all return to New Zealand, travelling the some 12,000km, the longest non-stop flight of any bird in the world. At the right time of year - September to mid October - there are thousands of godwits in the water at Miranda. On this day, there are none to be seen. There are no spoonbills either. In fact most of the birds listed on the website - pied stilts, caspian terns, dotterel, and bitterns among them, are elsewhere. In the bush that lines the track we mostly see sparrows and pīwakawaka flitting about. I train my eyes on the mangroves as we pass, hoping to see a kōtare, but I am let down.
What there are, are swans. There are swans lurking in every marshy bit of water, everywhere we look. I am not a champion of the swan. I harbour grudges and I will not forgive the humiliation of being bitten on the bum by one as a child, in full view of my class, on a school trip to Auckland Zoo and Western Springs. I have to admit, however, that they do look serene out there. Against the sandy, tidal flats they are sleek black musical notes on a song sheet.
We walk and listen to our crunching feet, and the thrumming of insects, and my mother forges ahead to the first bird hide, which is timber-clad and unassuming. We perch on the bench and peer out through an envelope of window on to a little stretch of water, and wait. I don't realise it, but I'm holding my breath, and I let it out in a noisy exhalation when into view, with a great flapping of wings, comes ... another swan. My mother laughs at me. It's peaceful out here. The bush hugs close and low, and the sky is high, wide and blue. The briny smell of salt pushes at our faces as we head on to the next bird hide, where we think we see a spoonbill, but eventually realise it's a seagull. The other thing we have forgotten is a pair of binoculars.
I'm not selling Pūkororo in the way that it deserves. It's a wonderful education centre, and not just for bird lovers, but for anyone who loves being outdoors, and near the sea. You can stay in accommodation there, to make the most of your trip if you're inclined. It's a neat place to go for a walk. The highlight this trip was meeting Keith, who has run the centre for 27 years, and is deeply knowledgeable about our feathered friends. We went back into the centre after our failed bird mission and had him on: "If anything, Keith, there were too many spoonbills. We're sick of the sight of them." He had a good twinkle at that, and suggested we come back another day. We definitely will, and this time we'll check the tides on the Pūkorokoro website, pack binoculars, and lunch to chew on while we watch the godwits, who will be returning any time now, crowding the water so there is very little room for the swans.