Bird Watching Guide to the Kaipara Harbour – Northern Section

Manukapua is one of the two largest wader sites on the Kaipara Harbour, making it an important summer feeding site for thousands of migratory waders using the South-east Asian flyway route to and from their northern hemisphere breeding grounds.

It’s a popular destination for both waders and coastal birds, and keen wader watchers.

Migratory Waders from Northern Hemisphere

Migratory waders typically start arriving from the northern breeding grounds in late September with the peak arrivals in October and November. Departures usually occur from early March to late April, and timing of both arrivals and departures are dependent on the prevailing weather systems.


The Kaipara Harbour is the largest harbour in New Zealand and the Southern Hemisphere. It covers more than 90,400 hectares and has 900 kilometres of coastline, with almost half of that consisting of tidal mudflats. This makes it a signficant feed resource for migratory and local wader populations. The best time for bird watching is high tide and an hour each side – approximate high tide times are listed in New Zealand tide tables for Pouto Point or Onehunga.

The first of these articles focused on birds and birding sites of the Southern Kaipara. This article is about birding sites in the central and northern Kaipara.

Manukapua on the Kaipara

The intention should be to arrive at Manukapua two hours before the high tide, giving you time to walk across dry sand to this dune island. Similarly, if you leave the island, 2-3 hours after the high tide, the tidal sea-level will again have dropped, making crossing easy. A midday to early afternoon high tide is preferable, and pick the highest tide for the month if possible.

This is a day trip, so bring food and drink in a backpack with raincoat and of course telescope and binoculars. The last opportunity for purchasing food and drink is at Kaukapakapa where there are also public toilets next to the community hall.

Directions to Manukapua via Tapora

Manukapua is located on the western edge of the Tapora Peninsula which is about 1.5 hours drive from Auckland. To get there from Auckland, take the North-western Motorway and continue along State Highway 16, through the town of Helensville, and the settlements of Kaukapakapa, Glorit and Tauhoa to Wharehine. At about 95km from central Auckland, or 35 km from Kaukapakapa, turn left down Wharehine Road. Follow Wharehine Road, left into Run Road (sealed) to the settlement of Tapora (23km). At Tapora Hall, continue on along Okahukura Road for 5km until you come to a green roadside sign for Okahukura Reserve. Turn left down the sand-track and follow it over a cattle race (please open/close gates and leave them as you find them), and drive until the gate into the grove of pine trees. You can leave your car parked off the track at this point, or drive through this gate and park in the shade under the pines. Please do not take your vehicle down to the estuary as this damages the local ecosystem. The walk to the estuary takes 10 minutes along a walking track through woodland.

Walk across to the dune island

At the edge of the estuary, if your timing is good, you will be able to walk across damp or dry sand to the dune island of Manukapua (about 50 metres). Once on the island you can turn left and check out the wetland sand-pan where there are often birds such as Pacific Golden Plover, NZ Dotterel, Wrybill and NZ Pipit, on the sarcornia.

Locations of the birds are also dependent on the prevailing wind, so look for birds in sheltered areas. If there is a strong north-easterly, most of the wader flock will be at the south-west roost, so look further south around the island.

Roost sites north and south

If the prevailing wind is southerly or south-westerly, the main roost is usually at the northern end of the island. There are two options for accessing this area. You can either walk across the island, about 1km over sand dunes, and when you get to the western coast, turn right and walk north along the sandy coast to the top of the island. Or you can turn right once across the causeway, and walk up that inside coast, over the tidal mudflats to the northern end.

Once at the northern end, keep an eye out for small wader species such as NZ Dotterels, Banded Dotterels, Wrybill, Turnstones, and Sandpiper species closer to the dunes, often roosting in sheltered areas. Further out towards the edge of the sand pan, you will usually see large mixed flocks of 2-3000 Bar-tailed Godwits and Red Knots, and often Whimbrels and Curlews too. The rare Fairy Tern is often seen foraging and roosting in this area, although it’s main roost is at Papakanui Spit.

Nearby there are usually large flocks of about 2000 South Island Pied Oystercatchers with smaller numbers of the larger black Variable Oystercatchers among them. Also here you usually see flocks of Caspian Terns and White-fronted Terns, and occasionally less common vagrants such as Arctic or Common Terns. Rarities such as Sooty Tern have occasionally been seen too.

Atiu Creek Regional Park

On your way from Tapora on Run Road, you may have time to visit Atiu Creek Regional Park which is on the left, about 10km from Tapora. You can drive throughout the park, and have excellent views of this small northern arm of the Kaipara, Hargraves Basin. This farm park has many native and introduced birds, and several stands of mature native rainforest.

Other birding sites on the Northern Kaipara worth checking out include Tinopai beach and wharf where Eastern Reef Egrets are often seen, (turn left at Matakohe). If you are travelling State Highway 12, it is worthwhile stopping to see what is on the Northern Wairoa River around Dargaville, exploring North Head from Te Kopuru to Pouto, and taking a look at Bayly’s Beach on the West Coast. All these sites have the possibility of not only common local birds, but also the chance of unusual seasonal vagrants.