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Motueka Sandspit

For those who visit the Motueka Quay and walk or cycle the Estuary Walkway directly east of the town centre, the sandspit running parallel - just there over the full-tide stretch of water or the low-tide mudflats - is a beguiling option for those prepared to make the effort to stride its length from its starting point.

You can get to it from two directions. The easier one is from the carpark at the end of Staples Street, the other from the northern end of Motueka Quay, just north of the Harbour Road intersection where the Golf Course is based.

From Staples Street the sandspit separates off from the "mainland" after about 400 metre stroll south down the walkway, and from Motueka Quay it's more like 1400 metres before you get to the spit's base. A signpost marks the start, with information about the birdlife and a plea to respect the indigenous life on the spit, specially if you're walking a dog. (Dogs are not permitted beyond the sign just short of half way down the spit. And fires are not permitted anywhere.)

The information board was designed by Damian Stones, a graphic artist from Ngatimoti. It has plenty of interesting facts about the journeys that the birds undertake to get to Motueka Sand Spit and which species to look out for.

You need to be reasonably fit to do the full length and back, but of course a stroll down to roughly opposite Harbour Road makes a pleasant bit of exercise. Beyond here, once you get to the grassy and lupin bush vegetation, the environment gets more interesting and remote but every step means another one when retracing the path later. It took me nearly 2.5 hours to complete the distance.

Unfortunately for anyone wanting to stride out, the sand is soft, even the wet bits where the tide is receding. So take your time and stop frequently to breathe in the fresh air off Tasman Bay. If there is a strong northerly wind blowing, you will find it quite hard pushing back in the fully exposed environment.

In fact, with the wind blowing and the waves breaking on the Bay side coming from a nor-easterly direction, it's not hard to see how and why the spit changes shape quickly and why its length grows to encroach upon the Moutere Inlet at its end.

According to Pauline Samways, who spends more time on the spit looking after the birds than most others, the spit is constantly changing. "Old timers remember it being covered in lupins and other vegetation - there is a photo in the museum that shows it. It has been extending south towards Jacketts Island, and the rate it is growing seems to be faster now," she says.

"There have been two attempts that I know of to stop it growing. Around 25 years ago a geo-textile groyne was built and placed across the spit to prevent it moving further south. It was a very expensive failure, it didn't work, and the remains of it is still down there, split open and giving an idea of how much further the spit has grown since.

"Then around 2004 Talley's helped pay for a channel to be cut through opposite the entrance to the wharf. It was about 10 metres wide and nearly as deep, but within 2 weeks it had started to fill in, and in a month was no more. Both these attempts were to help the boats get in and out of the wharf - the present filling-in of the breakwater is supposed to do the same." Thanks, Pauline, for that interesting history.

My next tip is to stick mainly to the seaward side once the spit broadens (about opposite the old wharf), as the estuary side comprises many inlets and dead-end peninsulas and even islands at high tide. The walk is definitely more picturesque around high tide. However, from a conservation point of view it's best to walk at low tide and on the wet sand.

Experts say the birds do not get disturbed as much at low tide as they are feeding on the estuary. It is best to walk well away from dry sand as that is where the birds have their nests. The nests are easily trodden on as they are only a slight dip in the sand and eggs are camoflaged.

I walked it in November, when the godwits were present, and there were thousands of them, keeping a good distance - I got no closer than about 30 metres to any - but remaining nearby. You could get some great shots if you have a reasonable zoom lens. In the strong northerly they sit all aligned with faces directly into the wind - until, that is, you get too close. Other common birds include the variable oyster catchers, which showed some brave territorial stances when they considered I got too close. Respect the birds and try not to approach past a point where they are clearly disturbed. (Godwits do it through a leader raising its wing to signal to the others.)

Several sites found via Google give this bird count sometime in the recent past: Variable Oystercatchers 128, Pied Oystercatchers 375, Banded Dotterels 50, Bar-tailed Godwits 800, Lesser Knots 140, Turnstones 80, Caspian Terns 4, White-fronted Terns 4, Little Tern 1, Siberian Tattler 1, and various Shags, Gulls and Herons. (I'll take their word for it, but I did see a few I couldn't identify as an amateur.) You can find more information about most of these at this website.

Driftwood, shells and pinecones abound in the northernmost section, with signs that driftwood comes over the spit during high tides and storms. The pinecones could only have got there as a backwash from the Motueka River entrance a few kilometres north, which carries forestry material from inland. The Motueka River delta consists of the rivermouth, the Motueka sandspit and the 'Kumaras' estuary.

The delta is formed of sediments from the Motueka and Riwaka Rivers, swept into continually changing shapes by the sea. The whole area is ecologically important. It has extensive areas of rushland and saltmarsh where whitebait spawn; it is rich in shellfish and therefore a major feeding ground for wading birds, up to 10,000 of which feed or roost on the sandspit in summer.

Near the start, at full tide

One of scores of oyster catchers

About one-third of the way, opposite Harbour Road

Near the end, looking north into Tasman Bay

Talley's factory seems a long way from the end of the sandspit

Nearing the end of the spit, on the estuary side

Some of the thousands of godwits about half way along the spit


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