Marine Life

Goat Island is the best place on the New Zealand coast to see snapper and other fishes in a natural habitat. In summer, schools of kingfish, kahawai and jack mackerel appear. On the reefs red moki, banded wrasse, spotties, kelpfish and goatfish share the habitat with leatherjackets and blue cod. The blue maomao schools are often mixed with sweep, trevally and parore.

Spiny rock lobster, best known as crayfish are common in the marine reserve but far harder to come by on the rest of the coast. Rock pools at Goat Island and Matheson Bay can be explored at low tide where crabs, sea shells, small fish, nudibranchs and shrimps live amongst different seaweeds.


New Zealand fur seals often winter over on the outer rocks at Goat Island. Occasionally a leopard seal has appeared on beaches but remember these are wild animals and should not be approached within 5 m.


Common dolphin

Dolphins & Whales

Bottlenose dolphins often pass close to the coast and in recent years have spent hours, some days at Goat Island interacting with snorkellers. Common dolphins are smaller and seen away from the coast where they move in large pods. They often feed where the gannets are diving in large numbers. Pods of orca (killer whales) are also frequent visitors and hunt for rays close to the coast. They are the largest dolphin and are being studied in NZ by Dr Ingrid Visser.

Bryde’s whales are the most common whale seen in the Hauraki Gulf and it is believed that they are resident in the area, moving further out of the gulf or coming in closer to the coast when there is plankton about. Other whales occasionally seen include humpbacks, southern rights, blues, minkes etc.

Sea or Coastal Birds

Reef herons breed on Hawere Island (Goat Island). White-faced herons often feed in the rock pools at Goat Island and Whangateau Harbour on low tides.

Red-billed seagulls are the most common seagull and will approach picnickers hoping for a handout. Black-backed gulls are larger seagulls and are also known at Dominican gulls.

White-fronted terns nest and feed at Goat Island and flocks often rest on the sand at Pakiri, along with the rarer red-billed Caspian terns. These large terns feed in the water of the marine reserve. Endangered fairy terns breed at Pakiri.



Australasian gannets feed all around the coast and sometimes form large flocks above schools of fish. When feeding the gannet folds its wings and dives at great speed into the water, popping up seconds later with its catch if lucky.

Little blue penguins frequent the coast during the day and form flocks off the coast. They will usually disappear underwater if approached by a boat. At night they come ashore to their nests.

pied shag

Pied Shag

Pied shags nest above the beach at Goat Island and from the cliff top they can be viewed as they create their nests or feed their young. They often stand on the beach below, drying their wings out. They can also be seen sitting on dinghies in Leigh Harbour and at Whangateau Harbour. The much smaller little shags are occasionally seen at Goat Island and Leigh and Whangateau Harbours.

Variable oystercatchers feed over rocky reefs, often in pairs. They prod for food with their bright orange beaks. Most local beaches have a few pairs. They nest on the sand and will actively defend their nests. Pied oystercatchers migrate from the south and appear around Whangateau Harbour and Domain in late winter and spring. Pied stilts also migrate from the south and can be seen at Whangateau in late summer and autumn.

New Zealand dotterels and banded dotterels are well camouflaged against the sandy beaches where they live. Good places to see them include Pakiri, Tawharanui, Whangateau and Omaha.

Migratory waders such as knots and godwits feed over the sandflats at low tide at Whangateau between September and March.

Other birds

Mallard Ducks are common at Goat Island Beach and Matheson Bay especially around the streams. The males have emerald green heads, yellow bills and a white ring around their neck. The females are brown all over with some purple patches amongst their feathers. Paradise ducks are distinguished by their white heads (female) and black heads (male) and are at Tawharanui, Whangateau, Goat Island and other areas.

Kākā, large native parrots are often seen flying very high at dawn or dusk. Like all parrots they squawk very loudly. They are resident on Little Barrier Island and fly between the island and the mainland. Eastern rosellas are very beautiful parrots that range in colours of red, blue, yellow, black, white and green. They commonly fly in flocks of up to a dozen or so.

Morepork are more often heard than seen. They are small owls that hunt at night.

North Island brown kiwi have been reintroduced to the Tawharanui Regional Park. Although these birds are nocturnal, occasionally they can be seen feeding during the day.

Bellbirds are the most musical birds and will often be heard before they are seen. They fly to the mainland from Little Barrier Island and have now regularly been seen at Leigh and Tawharanui.

Tūi are very common bush birds and have beautiful songs. They are one of the most dominant birds and feed on kowhai, pohutukawa, flax and the nectar of other flowers. They make a range of noises and have a white throat tuft.



Kookaburra, large kingfishers were introduced to Kawau Island from Australia. They have spread and are often seen on power lines between Leigh and Warkworth. New Zealand kingfishers are bright blue and common. They will sit on a line or branch watching for food, then dart down to catch their prey.

Native pigeons are very large birds that glow a mix of colours when lit by the sun. They are green above and white below. They feed on berries and are quite common.

Pūkeko, also known as swamp hens, are blue and black and are often seen feeding alongside roads. They fly untidily with their legs dangling. They are very common feeding over the grass areas at the Tawharanui Regional Park.

Welcome swallows are were self-introduced from Australia. They will often sit in flocks of up to a dozen on powerlines and have distinctively pointed wings. Silvereyes are pretty little greenish birds that flit about between the trees as they feed, often in flocks.



Fantails are small brown birds with distinctive fan-like tails. The tail aids them in fluttering around and feeding on insects.

New Zealand pipits are small brown birds that feed along the cliff at Goat Island. They spend most of their time on the ground and when standing still flick their tails.

Spur-winged plovers are distinctive with a bright yellow mask on their faces. They have a black head, and brown above and white below bodies. They prefer grassed areas, where they feed on invertebrates. Good places to see them include Whangateau and Tawharanui.


Pōhutukawa are the most spectacular coastal tree, also called the New Zealand Christmas tree. Early summer they are covered with brilliant red flowers. They grow very large and branch out at interesting angles and can tolerate some salt water.

Kōwhai trees have beautiful yellow flowers from August to end of October.

Flaxes grow well in many places and the leaves are used by Māori for weaving. Early summer they flower with long spikes that attract tui and other birds that feed on their nectar.


Silvereye / Waxeye

Cabbage trees have tall straight trunks with sprays of leaves at the top. In spring they have bunches of delicate white flowers below the leaves.

Tī trees – manuka and kanuka are very common at the edge of stands of native bush. They flower in spring.

Kauri are a magnificent, long-lived tree that reach a great height. While much of the kauri forest was removed for its timber, small stands are regenerating around the area. They can be seen around Leigh Harbour, Matheson Bay and Tawharanui.

Pūriri are large leafed coastal trees that have small pink flowers and are very common.

There are several varieties of tree ferns including the large black tree fern or mamaku and the smaller silver fern which has distinctive silver coloration on the underside of its leaves.

Nīkau is the only native New Zealand palm tree. They are found in low lying valleys near the edge of streams.

Mangroves are unusual trees that tolerate salt water. They are prolific in Whangateau Harbour.