Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Spitting Spotted Shags

Well they don’t actually spit, they barf. They throw up a big pile of stones and nobody knows why for sure.

Hundreds of Spotted Shags (Parekareka), congregate en mass every winter morning just before sunrise on Golden Bay’s Tata Beach, and only on this beach.

I include a disclaimer here- my early photos were taken in virtual darkness, a long exposure & a little bit of processing has made them brighter but the downside of that is the photos are not as sharp as they could be.  Here's how it looked when the shags first started arriving.

Tata Beach is not far from Pohara, nestled between Ligar Bay & the Wainui headland on the way to the Abel Tasman Park. And because I forgot all about this strange natural phenomenon when we were staying at Pohara I have now twice made the 40 minute journey to the beach from Collingwood. This has involved getting up at 4:30am and being ready to leave just after 5am. (It was lovely to have company on the second trip, Diane, one of our camp neighbours was very keen to see this intriguing activity too.)

The beach is in total darkness when I arrive but with the aid of my head torch I make my way along a path that runs in front of the holiday homes. I’m looking for the third sand ladder (my contact has told me that this is the best position to witness the arrivals) I clamber down the ladder, the dune underneath has partly washed away, and sit patiently waiting for dawn. The beach is deserted and the air cold & still, the sea is calm & I can hear the gentle lapping of waves onto the golden sand. It all looks so peaceful, & well, normal. I’m thinking “have I got the right beach?” “what if they don’t arrive?”, “do they come every day”, “surely this beach is no different to a hundred others” “why here?”.

And then as the first shafts of light brighten the sky, they start arriving. Silhouettes of shags fly in, individual birds at first, small groups of twos & fours.

Then six, ten and more, all silently winging in from their roost at nearby Tata Islands, 1km offshore. At first there is little sound but as the numbers increase so does the noise; they grunt & croak greetings to each other and there’s the constant noise of flapping wings on water.

As they arrive they drop into the surf and start diving for stones. After each dive they surface and flap their wings noisily, before diving again. Soon they waddle up onto the beach where they extend their necks and ‘spasm’ their throats to regurgitate the stones into a pile on the sand.

A few red-billed gulls wander in amongst the shags, scavenging for whatever else has come up with the stones.

Scientists don't really know why they throw up the stones. It’s thought that perhaps the birds need to swallow the stones to help cleanse their guts of parasitic worms. The coarser sand at Tata Beach may provide just the right sized pebbles, unlike the finer sand at other nearby beaches.

Once they have got rid of the stones some of them waddle up the beach to the driftwood and dried seaweed, they’re collecting nest material and will fly back to the islands with it. They look so comical and remind me of penguins.

They also squabble with each other as some try to steal twigs and seaweed. Others try to drag great clumps of weed or matted vegetation away but fail to get off the ground when they try to fly.

Many stay near the waterline and begin their morning preening, feathers are carefully pulled, separated & tweaked, wings spread and shaken to help them dry and then heads tucked in for 40 winks!

Spot the odd man out? A Pied Shag wonders what all the fuss is about……

…..the party must be up here.

With so many birds arriving and leaving it’s hard to count the numbers but it’s been reported that there are sometimes as few as 100 birds and at other times there has been a few thousand (5000 being the most ever counted). On both of my morning visits (5 days apart), I would estimate there were between 300-500 birds.
From NZ Birds Online- Adult breeding birds have small black spots on the pale silver-grey and brown back and wings, pale grey-blue underparts, and black thighs, rump and tail. A distinctive curved broad white stripe runs from above the eye down both sides of the neck, separating the black lines of the throat, pale silver-grey and brown back, and long neck to the base of the wing.
White filoplumes grow diagonally from the black neck and thighs, and a distinctive black, decurved, double crest grows erect on the forehead and nape. Bare facial skin between the eye and bill turns green-blue before the breeding season. The eye ring is blue, the iris dark brown. and the long, slender, hooked bill orange-brown. Non-breeding adults are duller, lack crests, have a neck stripe obscured by dark feathers, yellowish facial skin, and paler underparts. Immatures are paler and browner, and lack distinct head or neck markings.

And then they were gone.

Well almost…. this shag wandered about aimlessly, he seemed to be thinking "where's everybody gone?" Perhaps he slept in.

By sunrise, and in less than an hour they have finished their strange ritual & fly off, individually & in groups, out to sea to feed or back to the Tata Island cliffs. All that remains of their presence are hundreds of piles of little stones. Tomorrow morning, cleaned by the tide, they'll be ready to be swallowed again.


  1. Amazing Shelly, can we swap lives :)

    1. Not on your life Ria! :) Thanks for stopping by, much appreciated.

  2. Well....I'll be shagged....amazing.....once again!

    1. Haha, you always make David laugh (and me smile) with your comments Jimu. Good one! Once again. ;)

  3. Really enjoyed this, Shelley. I hadn't known about the regurgitation. Shags are such funny birds - so odd to see them in trees with their webbed feet. I've also seen them on power lines! That didn't look comfortable.

    1. I thought of you while I was there Olwen, it was such a amazing spectacle. I've not seen a shag on a wire yet (that sounds a bit naughty), I'll have to look out for that. :)


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