On the west coast, close to Auckland, lie 5 famous beaches of black sand and rolling waves: Whatipu, Karekare, Piha, Bethells and Muriwai. While it’s possible to see them all in one day, you’ll need a car for this, because there’s no public transportation. I didn’t have a car, but there was something I really wanted to try: hitch-hiking.
I had never done that, but I knew New Zealand was a good place for hitch-hikers, and since I wanted to travel on the cheap, it sounded like a good idea. I told how I got to Muriwai in my diary, but again, I’d like to thank Charlie, my first hitch-driver ever, for making the detour to Muriwai even though that’s not where he was headed!
Of course, I chose Muriwai among the five beaches for one reason: birds. There’s an Australasian gannet (Morus serrator) colony there.
For those of you familiar with the Northern gannets (Morus bassanus) that can be seen in the North Atlantic, this bird will probably not look very exotic. There’s a bit more black on the wings, and on the tail, but apart from that the two species are almost identical. The third species, the Cape gannet (Morus capensis), is even closer: the whole tail is black, otherwise it’s like an Australasian gannet.
In New Zealand, the Australasian gannet is rather common, while the Cape gannet is a rare vagrant from the South Atlantic. However, as is the case with most seabirds, colonies are usually located on remote islands. That’s why Muriwai is so interesting: initially, in the beginning of the 20th century, the birds settled on a small islet called Oaia. When there was no room left there, they colonized Motutara Island (the pillar), then the mainland proper in 1979.
From the car park, a path winds through bushes towards the sea, but you can’t see the gannets yet. Then, at a turn, the wind brings to your nostrils the distinctive smell of a seabird colony, and shortly after, you reach a viewing platform overlooking the coastline.
It looked exactly like the pictures I had seen. Several other visitors were there, but it wasn’t overcrowded, and I could work on the picture I had in mind: a long exposure, with the sea turned into a silky smooth surface in the background. My main challenge was to slip my lens through the railing, for the wide angle is actually quite wide itself, but I got what I was looking for.
Then I focused on the birds themselves. It was the beginning of their mating period, so there was no egg yet, let alone young birds, but the adults were starting to build or improve their nests, while reinforcing the bond they have with their mate.
The male gathers material for the nest while the female guards it. Usually it’s made of seaweed, but I caught some cheaters picking grass from the top of the slope, then clumsily gliding down to their nest, proudly displaying their catch!
These birds are proficient flyers and divers, but on land they look incredibly awkward: after large flapping motions to slow down, they crash onto the earth on their breast. To take-off, they sometimes run through the whole colony towards the edge, where they disappear as they drop before coming up, in their preferred element once again.
My time in Muriwai was limited, for I feared I would have to wait quite long before finding someone who would give me a ride back to Auckland. Therefore, I left long before sunset, and wished I could stay longer to enjoy a better light. I had no trouble hitch-hiking back to the city, but I decided I would go back one day and stay maybe a couple of days at the local hostel, to enjoy this fantastic location better.