Stockton Sandspit

Settled alongside the Hunter Estuary, just a short drive from the city, Stockton Sandspit is a haven for threatened shorebirds and an ecological jewel in an industrial landscape.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stockton Bridge, so it seemed fitting to begin The Zones, our series of site visits, with a place that sits right at the northbound foot of the bridge: Stockton Sandspit.

Stockton Bridge under construction, 1971
Stockton Bridge today from Stockton Sandspit

Part of the Kooragang Wetlands National Park, Stockton Sandspit is a mudflat and estuarine ecosystem that serves as a roosting area for a wide variety of shorebirds. While local birds often come to feed here, many migratory birds from the Northern Hemisphere will visit the spit for rest on their epic journeys, including the Bar-tailed Godwit, who embark on a non-stop, 11,000km flight from Alaska.


Unless you are a resident of neighboring suburbs like Fern Bay, the best way to come to Stockton Sandspit is across the bridge. Take the Stockton exit and then take a hard right towards the shore. Drive or ride carefully on the single-lane road that takes you under the bridge and you will find ample places to park. Immediately under the bridge, you will see a series of large-scale shorebird murals; one on each pylon. The sandspit is directly to your right and easily accessible on foot.


The bridge looms in the background of Stockton Sandspit, and while there is a constant hum of traffic, it is a remarkably still and peaceful place. This narrow area of land is directly connected to the north arm of the Hunter River, close to the mouth of the harbour, and you will often see small fishing boats and kayaks nearby. Opposite the spit, you will see various industrial buildings on Kooragang Island, including coal loaders to fertilizer factories, though they have a low profile and virtually none of the noise or smell carries across the water.

While people are welcome here year-round — particularly birdwatchers — visitors are warned that this is part of a fragile ecosystem. There is a small but essential set of rules to follow: no dogs; no littering; and no walking on the saltmarsh.

Shorebirds roosting in the Hunter River

The sandspit provides respite for over 40,000 migratory shorebirds comprised of 37 different species each year. On the early spring morning when I visited I saw plovers, egrets, and seagulls peacefully grouped together in the water while a small group of ibises were hunting around for food in the mud. If you have only ever seen an ibis in the city then you have never really seen them at all. They are elegant in the wetlands, a million miles away from their reputation as “bin chickens”. Sadly, the reason ibis have migrated to major cities in such large numbers is due to their natural habitats being destroyed.

For those interested in birding, the Hunter Bird Observers Club has produced a very good guide to local shorebirds for download.

Casuarina

There is a small forest lining the roadside, which provides shade and a sound barrier for the birds. The arboreal character of Stockton Sandspit is not unlike most of the surrounding coast, and features mangroves, banksia, and casuarina. The mangroves border the mudflats and extend far off along the river towards Port Stephens. At low tide, it is possible to walk through the mangrove forest where you are likely to find red-fingered marsh crabs, estuarine marsh crabs, as well as an assortment of debris, including tires, bottles, children’s toys, and ghost-traps. If this concerns you, consider following the Hunter Local Land Services where they will often organise river clean-up trips.

Saltmarsh and native grasses

More notable are the native grasses and succulents, particularly saltmarsh, which includes Samphire (Sarcocornia quinqueflora), Saltwater Couch (Sporobolus virginicus), Sea rush (Juncus krausii) and Streaked Arrowgrass (Triglochin striata). The importance of these plants cannot be overstated. Saltmarsh provides habitat for a diverse range of fauna including crabs, clams, prawns, and worms, all of which in turn provide food for the roosting birds. Like mangroves, saltmarsh also acts as a living water filter. Sadly they are now critically endangered due to runoff, weeds, and land-clearing — which means that Stockton Sandspit is an area of great ecological value that provides a critical service for the river.

Sun-bleached and worm-eaten driftwood

Surprisingly the area is kept fairly clean. On the day I was there I saw only a few empty water bottles and most of them looked as if they had been there for several weeks, possibly even coming from downstream. The various pools of water and ever-changing ox-bow tributaries that flow directly to and from the river are clear and enough to see tiny fish, plants, and insects within.

The ground is primarily mud, due to daily tidal flooding. While it may not look particularly interesting on the surface, this mud is teeming with life below, from bacteria to small crustaceans. It is full of broken-down organic matter, giving the mud its distinctive dark colour and odour and providing life for the many creatures that live in this thick, airless, underground world. Walking out onto the river shoreline provides a shocking contrast as the brown-grey mud abruptly ends and white-gold beach sand begins. Oyster, scallop, and cockle shells can be found in abundance here, as can driftwood. My visit was late-spring, and so there was a seasonal glut of washed-up mangrove seeds too. These pods are bright green when ready to germinate, but turn a dark maroon when exposed to the elements for too long.

Hunter River shoreline
Shells embedded in the sand
Exposed mudflats

A great experience for visitors, particularly children, is to come at low tide in the afternoon where you’re likely to catch thousands of tiny Soldier Crabs. These beautiful and shy creatures are notable for their distinctive saphire carapace and for being the only type of crab to walk forwards. Come too close and they will, en masse, dig themselves into the sand and mud. In fact, when you visit during the day and see little round piles of mud all over the ground, you are seeing the evidence of these creatures burying themselves.

Stockton Sandspit is a peaceful place, one that rewards careful exploration. It is an invaluable part of our river ecosystem that requires our protection and responsible behaviour. Be sure to visit, but when you do, be sure to tread lightly.

Published
Categorized as The Zones
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.

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