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The Pied Shag of Otarawairere Bay: A personal story

Pied Shag

Otarawairere Bay: half an hour’s walk from the stunning, rugged, Pohutukawa-laiden west end of Ohope beach. The path to the bay takes you up wooden stairways, past overhangs that glisten with glowworms at night, and through thick green bush, until you emerge on the shelly sands of this secluded spot.

As my family often does, we headed out walking on this sunny but gusty Sunday afternoon. On approaching the north-western end of the bay, we saw a dozen or so people splashing around in the shallows of the calm, sheltered waters. As we’d expected we saw Moko — the friendly if not somewhat cheeky bottlenose dolphin that has recently frequented the beaches round here. But as I rushed to the high-tide mark to de-robe and enter the water, I noticed something else.

Nestled amongst the driftwood and completely motionless, I assumed the bird was dead. I approached it slowly – a beautiful and elegant bird: white and black plummage, blue-ringed eyes, and distinctive yellow colouring just behind the beak. This was a Pied Shag – or Karuhiruhi – a protected native bird, and this particular one had its right wing entirely wrapped in thick fishing line, swivels, a sinker and two large hooks that pierced the skin.

Judging by how the fishing line had eaten away at the skin where it wrapped the wing joint, the shag had been trapped for some time. It was clearly impossible for it to fly, hunt and feed itself. Indeed, the bird was a shadow of its former self: its body condition was slight, bony, withered. But as I came closer and attempted to free the bird, it moved its head and looked at me with its deep blue eyes. So weak from starvation, the energy it mustered to turn its head was its last reserve, and as I picked it up to release the fish hooks, it drew its last breath and died in my hands.

Walking with my family is what I’ve always done. Since my legs could hold my own weight I’ve ventured with the whanau deep into the beech forests of Fiordland, I’ve tramped through the wind, rain and mud on Stewart Island, and I’ve strolled countless times along the beaches of the Coromandel. But it is only in the past few years that the plastic bottle caps, the shreds of supermarket bags, and the tangled birds nests of fishing lines, have stood out so much from the driftwood, the flax, the seaweed and the sand. This is not to say that these problems have only recently appeared: instead that I am rapidly becoming more aware of them.

I have always had a fascination for dolphins, for sharks, for creatures of the sea. I have always admired and been intrigued by the beauty and grace of schooling fish, diving gannets and gliding seabirds. And now, I’m finding them dead, and want to do all I can to be a part of stopping this from happening.

Awareness and action. This is why I write this story. Awareness of the problem, and action towards a solution. This is not intended to be a cry of desperation for the state of our world. Sure, I found a dead bird, killed by human trash. And sure, there are plenty, plenty more stories like this. But the Pied Shag of Otarawairere Bay is just another reminder of why we do what we do, and why others around the world leave the office for the beach, and why protecting and sustaining our coastlines is of such critical importance.

If you’d like to be a part of the solution, please do come and join us on our next event, we’d love to see you there.