Awarua Wetlands is one of the largest remaining wetland complexes that have long been recognised as an important area for its biological diversity and cultural values. The local Maori people Ngai Tahu traditionally utilised the wetlands as a food source (e.g. fishing native eels) and for other resources.
The site includes four major wetland types: Coastal lagoons (notably Waituna Lagoon), freshwater swamps, extensive peatlands, and estuaries. Each ecosystem is unique and maintained by different ecological processes.
It is frequented by diverse trans-equatorial migrating and wading bird species, as well as threatened plants and insects including sub-alpine species.
Aerial view of Awarua Wetlands
Awarua Bay is of particular interest because most years it holds the second highest number of waders and a greater number of species than other sites in Southland. It also attracts rare visitors to New Zealand such as Siberian tattler, greenshank and sanderling. Most migratory waders are present only from October to late March but some of the more common species are present through the winter.
Waituna Lagoon and the surrounding wetlands area was one of the first in New Zealand to be officially recognised as a wetland of international importance. The 3500-hectare wetland, known as the Waituna Wetland Scientific Reserve, was listed as part of New Zealand’s obligations when signing the Ramsar Wetland Convention. This international convention promotes wise or sustainable use of wetlands and recognises wetlands of international importance.
The lagoon is periodically open to the sea and its brackish waters are an important habitat for wildfowl, native fish and trout.
The surrounding wetlands have some unusual plant associations, like the cushion plant Donatia, which normally grows in subalpine areas. In the cold, peaty conditions low growing moor-like vegetation dominates. Manuka and turpentine shrub overtops wire rush and tangle fern. Native orchids and the insectivorous sundews and bladderworts, are common. The southern shore gentian flowers in profusion in late summer along the shingle banks of the coast.
- Information panels
The Awarua Wetlands are located 20 km south east of Invercargill, Southland.
Access into the Awarua Wetlands area is difficult although you can view some of the cushion bog and other communities near the road end at the head of Awarua Bay located approximately 20km south of Invercargill.
To go bird watching at Awarua Bay travel towards the Tiwai smelter from Invercargill until the bridge over Awarua Bay. Turn left and follow the road to a parking area at Muddy Creek.
To reach feeding areas and roosts walk around the head of the bay and be prepared for some knee-deep wading. Although you can see birds at any stage of the tide, the best viewing is gained over high tide (1 to 1.5 hours after Bluff).
Waituna Lagoon is located 40 km south east from Invercargill at the end of Waghorns road and can be reached by road at several points. To get to the outlet it is necessary to walk along the coast from Waituna Lagoon Road (1.5 hours) or along the beach after crossing the head of Awarua Bay (2.5 hours). At high tide or when the outlet is closed kayaks or small power boats can be used to explore the margins of the lagoon.
Bird and wildlife watching
Kayaking and canoeing
More than 80 different species have been recorded here. Some, like the Eastern bar-tailed godwit/kuaka are international migrants, making an annual journey from their Siberian breeding grounds for the southern summer feast. The wetlands also provide a vital refuge for rare residents, including the southern New Zealand dotterel/tūturiwhatu, marsh crake/koitareke, fernbird/mātā and Australasian bittern/matuku.
Since early Maori settlers arrived in Southland the Waituna Lagoon area has been a focal point for collecting food especially kai moana. In recent times local families have also used the lagoon and surrounding wetlands for recreational hunting and fishing. There have been many reports of “super-sized” trout being fished out of the lagoon.
Situated within the Awarua Wetlands complex Waituna Lagoon is easily accessed and only 40 minutes (by car) from Invercargill city. Access to the spectacular, white quartz beach is on an unmarked track off Waituna Lagoon Road.
Tracks and walks
There are many great places to explore in the Awarua Wetlands but a good starting point is the Boardwalk Track at the end of Waghorn Road.
This winds through low-growing mānuka and shrubs to a viewing shelter overlooking Waituna Lagoon (10 min return).
Information panels provide a wealth of information about the wetland.
From the shelter, a 2 hr loop takes you out into the peat bog community with a chance of seeing or hearing fernbirds/mātā.
You can explore the eastern end of the wetland from Tiwai Road or continue to explore from Awarua Bay Road.
Places to stay
There is no DOC accommodation within the Awarua Wetlands complex but there is a range of other accommodation available.
Plan and prepare
It is best to visit the head of Awarua Bay over high tide (1 to 1.5 hours after Bluff) and you should be prepared for knee-deep wading and exposed conditions.
Access into the peatlands is difficult and there are many areas where the surface may give way. Always leave your trip intentions (return time, planned route, party numbers etc) with a reliable person. Remember to check in on returning.
Other places to visit
New River Estuary - a walkway along the shoreline of the estuary and around Sutton lagoon.
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