To celebrate World Wetlands Day on February 2,
which marks the signing of the Ramsar Convention in 1971, Department of Conservation staff provide a rundown of Ramsar sites in New Zealand.
More than 10,450 hectares of Wairarapa Moana became a Ramsar site in August – including the Wairio wetland that Ducks Unlimited has been instrumental in restoring.
The designation highlights the importance of the large and varied wetland which is home to more than 50 threatened species such as tarapirohe (black-fronted tern), tuna (longfin eel) and panoko (torrentfish).
Though Wairarapa Moana has been getting most of the attention recently, there are six other Ramsar sites spread across Aotearoa – some of which have been recognised since 1976.
Some are accessible to the public and, with overseas travel curtailed because of Covid-19, it may be a good time to explore these special places.
Firth of Thames, Waikato
The Firth of Thames is one of two internationally significant Ramsar Convention wetlands in DOC's Hauraki District. The tidal estuarine environment is a biodiversity hotspot for a range of bird species: in peak season more than 20,000 birds can be found on the tidal flats and mangroves between Thames and Pukorokoro-Miranda.
Among the species found across the 8200 hectare estuary are godwits, knots, skua, oystercatchers and tern, plus dozens of others.
The Firth is a key location in the East Asia-Australasian flyway, the lengthy and internationally significant pathway for many migratory bird species in the wider Asian-America-Pacific region.
In fact, it’s the birds that are particularly vital to giving the Firth its Ramsar status, such is the site’s importance to the ongoing protection of the assortment of species.
DOC has a long relationship with the Miranda Shorebird Centre, on the western coast of the Firth of Thames, where visitors can learn about the various species before venturing to the shore to observe the birds for themselves.
DOC’s usual advice applies for visitors – enjoy the birds from a distance, do not get too close, take only photographs (or video) and leave only footprints. The Firth is suitable for more experienced and competent kayakers and canoeists, but those venturing into the area should go properly prepared – wear lifejackets, take communication methods, and advise someone of your plans for the day.
Conditions in the Firth can change quickly and visitors should check tides.
About a 45-minute drive north of Hamilton lies the internationally recognised wetlands of Whangamarino. The 7000-hectare mosaic of swamps, fens and peat bogs has been a Ramsar site since 1989. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for the public to get up close and personal to the raised peat bog as they are both treacherous and delicate – people traipsing through can damage sensitive plants, disrupt cryptic bird species and may introduce noxious weeds into a habitat where they are extremely hard to control.
Those wanting to catch a glimpse of the wetland can visit the Whangamarino Redoubt and Te Teoteo pa or the Meremere redoubt. While in some areas, there is a boundary of introduced willow, just inside this fringe are expansive native wetlands where you can see the endemic wire rush (Empodisma robustum) and tamingi (Epacris pauciflora), key species in the raised peat bog of Whangamarino.
Hiding beneath these are some very rare orchids such as the critically endangered swamp helmet orchid.
There are three rivers, the Whangamarino, Reao and Maramarua, on which kayaking and boating is permitted. If you move slowly and quietly, you may just glance the critically endangered matuku (Australasian bittern).
Whangamarino is home to a wide range of threatened flora and fauna including the swamp helmet orchid, tētē (grey teal), pūweto (spotless crake), black mudfish, North Island fernbird and weweia (dabchick).
Whangamarino is one of two Ramsar sites being enhanced through DOC’s wetland restoration programme, Arawai Kākāriki.
Awarua-Waituna Wetland, Southland
Just a short drive from Invercargill is the 20,000-hectare coastal lagoon, wetlands and estuary system of Awarua-Waituna, one of the largest remaining wetland systems in Aotearoa. The dynamic lagoon periodically opens to the sea, changing its waters from freshwater to estuarine.
The area is home to a wide variety of rare and threatened birds, fish, lizards, invertebrates and plants, including matuku (Australasian bittern), tūturiwhatu (NZ dotterel), koitareke (marsh crake), giant kōkopu, tuna (longfin eels), and several threatened species of moth.
Several walking options ranging from 10 minutes to two hours are on offer. These start at the lagoon and head through the wetlands on a mixture of boardwalks and gravelled tracks and offer good opportunities for spotting wildlife. Kayaks and small boats can also be used on Waituna Lagoon during high tide or when the outlet is closed. Awarua-Waituna is one of two Ramsar sites being enhanced through DOC’s wetland restoration programme, Arawai Kākāriki.
Farewell Spit, Golden Bay
Found at the north-west corner of the South Island, Farewell Spit is the longest sand spit in Aotearoa at 25 kilometres long.
An area covering over 11,000 hectares was listed as a Ramsar site in 1976.
Both estuarine and freshwater wetlands occur and it supports an array of rare habitats in the dune system.
The area is an internationally renowned bird sanctuary with more than 100 species recorded in the area. In spring, it attracts thousands of migratory wading birds from the Northern Hemisphere. During summer, the immense tidal
flats can support more than 30,000 shorebirds, a magnificent sight.
Visitors can walk a short distance out from the base of the spit (but should
stay on the beaches and marked tracks to avoid possible quicksand), but those wanting to travel the full length to the lighthouse at the tip will need to join
a trip from one of the licensed tour operators.
Manawatu River Estuary, Manawatu
About five minutes’ drive from Foxton is the Manawatu River Estuary, which was designated a Ramsar site in 2005. The 200-hectare estuary is an important feeding ground for international migratory birds and offers diverse birdwatching opportunities, including several threatened species such as, ngutu pare (wrybill), matuku (Australasian bittern) and taranui (Caspian tern).
Much of the wetland is saltmarsh which is difficult to access but there is walking access from off Holben Parade near the picnic shelter to the sand and mud flats There are two bird viewing platforms in the area.
Kopuatai peat dome, Waikato
About 25km inland from the Firth of Thames, on the Hauraki Plains, lies the Kopuatai Peat Dome. The 10,000-hectare site is the largest raised peat bog in New Zealand, and is unique globally. Kopuatai is a highly sensitive ecological environment, and as a result, DOC asks wetland enthusiasts to respect requests not to visit the sensitive wetland areas. Access to Kopuatai is not straightforward: the site is surrounded on all sides by privately owned land, and so visits are by arrangement only and require planning.
DOC’s Hauraki District staff can work with researchers and scientists
to arrange visits to Kopuatai, but this takes time so early contact and detailed planning are required.
■ For more information on NZ’s Ramsar wetlands, please visit doc.govt.nz.