Birding at Lake Papaitonga

An hour or so north of Wellington, Buller Road runs west off SH1 to the birdwatching sanctuary at Lake Papaitonga

Papaitonga Scenic Reserve is home to several rare or uncommon species of water and wetland birds, including the Australasian bittern, the dabchick and the Spotless Crake. But on a visit with some fellow birders last week, laden with binoculars, guide books, checklists and our competitive natures, the only birds we encountered were a few fantails, a tui as fat as a kereru and a grey warbler warbling invisibly in the bush nearby.

A few duck-like creatures on the distant lake could have been dabchicks, but it was just too far away to tell, and given that the dabchick is actually a grebe rather than a duck we were probably just looking at a bunch of ducks. Despite our dismal failure at clocking up any more birds on our “life lists”, we had a lovely half-hour walk through native bush to the lake. While it was a pity we couldn’t get closer to the water, the track offered two lookout points where the bush thinned and we had a fine view over the flax-covered wetlands to Lake Papaitonga with its two small islands.

Buller Road, which runs over the Horowhenua coastal plain to link the reserve to the highway, is named after Sir Walter Lawry Buller, who purchased the land surrounding the lake in 1897. As well as being a lawyer and magistrate, Buller was an amateur ornithologist, acclaimed for his stunning two-volume book A History of the Birds of New Zealand, first published in 1873. Along with Johannes Keulemans’s much-reproduced watercolour illustrations, the book includes Buller’s vivid descriptions of the habits and ecology of many New Zealand birds—along with tales of his hunting expeditions.

Although Buller got most of his bird skins from dealers, he occasionally went on his own excursions in search of kiwi and huia. On an 1883 trip to a North Island mountain forest, Buller described how “a pair of huias, without uttering a sound, appeared in a tree overhead, and as they were caressing each other with their beautiful bills, a charge of No. 6 brought both to the ground together”. At the end of the three-day trip Buller had bagged 16 huia. While it is astonishing today to learn that Buller shot huia, in the late nineteenth century this was accepted ornithological practice, says Ross Galbreath, Buller’s biographer. Buller, like many naturalists of the day, believed that New Zealand’s endemic species were doomed, destined to be superseded by “superior” exotic species. Collecting bird skins, therefore, was considered vital to the scientific description of the species and to ensure specimens were available for display in museums in New Zealand and Europe.

Buller did have enough hope for the survival of New Zealand bird species, however, to support the creation of island bird sanctuaries in the late nineteenth century, and he bought the land that included Papaitonga with the intention of protecting the land for bird life for future generations. A few years after he bought the land, an area of bush around the lake was established as a reserve, with the lake added in 1991.

Our excursion last week was only a half-hearted birding trip, more an excuse for a picnic and an hour or so at Otaki’s outlet shops. To read about some serious competitive birdwatchers, also called “twitchers”, check out Mark Obmascik’s hilarious and compelling 2005 book The Big Year: A tale of man, nature and fowl obsession. Or for a moving and beautifully written—funny too, of course—account of a fascination with New Zealand’s bird life, read Steve Braunias’s How to Watch a Bird.