Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Sitting in Santiago

Well hard to believe another stint at home is over.  I've been back in NZ since late September...must be one of my longest periods in the country at least for a while.  Spent time getting some local contract work done, trying to sort a few photos for the book, etc. doing a NZ tour for Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ and trying to keep up with building a new house!  So a pretty busy period.

Managed to finish off the bird monitoring work I have been doing for the Hawkes Bay Regional Council at Napier Hill and down at Porangahau, with this being the fifth year I have completed the work.  At this stage it looks like that might be the final year for a while, but hopefully with some longer term monitoring down the track.

Also worked on a contract characterising the ecological (bird) values of the Ngaruroro River catchment, with this being a collaborative effort and fieldwork extending over a six month period or so.  I'll have some to complete when home in Feb/Mar and final report due middle of the year.  Part of this was the 'quick' reccie down the river a couple of days ago, where I taught my quad bike to swim...a long story, but lets just say it is amazing how a quad doesn't sink to the bottom of 3m of water and can actually be man-handled back to the shallows by a single person.  All in the name of research!

So it's off to the South Pacific for the next month.  I'm currently sitting in Santiago Airport, awaiting a flight to Easter Island, where we board the ship tomorrow for a month up through the Pitcairn group, French Polynesia and then westwards to end in Fiji on 20 Jan.  Should be a great trip, and of course for me the highlights will be landing on the Pitcairn group...as long as I get to see my target bird!  Of course my nemesis bird is the Henderson Island rail...how can a birder miss this flightless rail...when just about everyone else who set foot on the island that day saw it?  I even had another 45 minutes during lunch!  That day haunts me (and so does Sue Flood, who very 'kindly' got a copy of 'The Life of Bird' autographed as below for me ;)  This is NEXT time!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Last day

With bags packed for the last time we headed off towards Christchurch.  We grabbed some lunch and made a couple of quick stops along the way, but there wasn’t a lot of time to bird with the focus being to get everyone to Christchurch on time.

We passed through some stunning scenery though, with Mount Cook again standing magnificently clear again, and the surrounding mountains covered in snow.  As we got closer to the coast we entered the Canterbury Plains, the low flat arable land that surrounds Christchurch and the other coastal cities.  Crossing several large braided rivers we could easily see the extent of the weed problem with most of these rivers choked with introduced lupins and other weeds.  The Ashburton River however did have a massive black-billed gull breeding colony which was great to see, and hopefully they are successful in rearing their chicks to fledging this season.

We then arrived in Christchurch city, dropping off at several hotels near the Airport, and then finally the last of the group at Christchurch Airport.  After 21-days on the road we said our good-byes to new friends, hard to believe it was all over.

Day total – Seen = 31; new for the trip = 0; total for the trip to date = 162

Black stilts forever!

We grabbed some breakfast and lunch and it was time to head inland again. We headed towards Omarama and then through to Twizel, and the hunt for black stilt began. We checked out a couple of spots, seeing black-fronted terns hawking over paddocks and searched a couple of small lakes for crested grebe, but no sign. Did get some nice views of scaup and grey duck, and then moved on to our next black stilt spot.

We found some banded dotterels, and there were quite a few pied stilt, but no black stilt….damn! Searching, searching, and then as if out of nowhere there was one standing in shallow water, where moments before there hadn’t been one! It was hard to explain how we had missed it, but it must have been up on the shore and amongst the rocks, and had luckily moved into view. We enjoyed watching it through binoculars waiting for everything to settle down before getting the scopes out and getting them on to the bird. A really nice dark adult bird, with beautiful red legs and glossy black plumage. What a treat!

We continued watching it for some time, with pied stilts nearby the whole time. But nobody saw what was about to happen coming…all of a sudden one of the pied stilts approached the black stilt, displayed briefly and then mated with her! What! Right there in front of us, one of the very reasons this species is in dire straits, with the problem of hybridisation ever present. And we had just witnessed a cross-species mating. We continued to watch the bird for a while, no more mating, but we decided to move on and see what else we could find. We had stunning views of a completely clear Mt Cook as we drove northwards and so stopped to take a few photos against the backdrop of Lake Pukaki. We then continued on with the hope of finding chukar. We drove a section of road, with Phil glimpsing a falcon, and then stopped to have lunch at a good viewpoint. Within a few minutes the characteristic chuckle of a chukar was heard, and then spotted, and we assembled the group to get good but distant views of a chukar perched up on a rock calling. It sat there obligingly for everyone to see. We then set about looking for any other critters that could be found, finding a red admiral butterfly without too much difficulty, then a common skink, and then a tussock ringlet. We had great views of this male butterfly up close, a real treat to see with the beaut eye spots and silver gilding on the underside of the wing.

After admiring the views, with Mount Cook still prominent, we headed off and soon the call went up for more Chukar – Lee’s sharp eyes had spotted another bird perched on a rock, and nearby there was another with several feeding in the grass. Much closer and better views.

Next stop was one for an extremely difficult bird globally – Baillon’s crake. I’ll never forget showing this to two birders back in the early days of Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ, with both of them having seen around 5,500 species and it being a lifer for them. Just shows how difficult it can be! We got into position and waited, scanning the edges and tussocks. After a little while there was a response to the calls, and then a fleeting glimpse of it moving between clumps of vegetation. But over the next 15 minutes we had excellent views of this little guy swimming, creeping along the edge of the vegetation, and standing motionless with head poking out. Awesome! It is definitely a great bird, and a really excellent bonus bird.

So with that in the bag we left it in peace and headed to our accomodation and the last supper. Over dinner we voted for the favourite birds of the trip, always interesting to see the spread and hear why, but as with other years there are always clear favourites.

Day total – Seen = 41; new for the trip = 3; total for the trip to date = 162

Mount Cook in all its glory across the beautiful Lake Pukaki.

Nearby mountains covered in snow across Lake Pukaki.

The group with Mount Cook in the background.

Mount Cook.

Tussock ringlet with wings closed as it feeds on a small flower.

Merino sheep looking up from its meal.

Baillon's crake skulking in the undergrowth.

Bailon's crake zipping along the edge of the vegetation.

The beautiful Catlins

Best morning ever! There was a venison pie in the pie warmer! We hit the wharf, boarded the ferry and headed back towards the mainland. The sea was pretty flat, with a bit of wind, but not an awful lot of birds. But we did get a brief good look at a broad-billed prion zipping past, quite a good view of a Hutton’s shearwater, and a good number of common diving petrels and sooty shearwaters. A few white-capped albatross came past, and several Northern giant petrels, but nothing new as we pulled in to the Bluff wharf.

We packed the vehicle and headed off towards the Catlins Coast. Passing through some stunning scenery we grabbed some lunch and then headed to one of the coastal beaches where we had lunch in the sunshine and then wandered along the beach seeing a small NZ (Hooker’s) sea lion and then a much larger sub-adult male. We had really nice views of these animals which are slowly making a comeback along this part of the coast. There were also a few pairs of variable oystercatchers and lots of sooty shearwaters visible offshore.

We then carried on up the coast and then to a beach near Oamaru, our stop for the night. At the beach we wrapped up warm as there was a strong wind blowing, but as we walked along the track we could hear several yellow-eyed penguins calling in the bushes very close. We got to a point where we could see a good part of the beach and there was a penguin just coming ashore, so we set the scope up and had nice views of this coming in towards the bushes and presumably up to its mate who was probably waiting at the nest. We could see the bird calling and hear its mate responding nearby, very cool. Over the next hour or so we watched birds coming out of the bushes along the coast to stand in the open for a little while, calling frequently, and every now and then another bird come in through the waves and come ashore. Some of us even watched and filmed some very stationary penguins that just didn’t move a lot…until it was realised these were wooden decoys used to attract the birds ashore! Dear oh dear!

With our scopes set up, there were quite a few other people that were interested in having a look, and at one stage one of the scopes was lowered close to the ground so three kids could have a look at one of the penguins through it. But, with more excellent views of yellow-eyed penguins under our belts it was time to head to the accomodation and then to dinner. Another excellent day.

Day total – Seen = 51; new for the trip = 0; total for the trip to date = 159

A sub-adult NZ (Hooker's) sea lion lazes about on the beach.

Pelagicing good fun

What! No venison pies in the pie warmer at the Stewart Island 4 Square!? I was even told that lamb and venison is all the same when in a pie! Ha ha ha, oh well, nothing too major, and the weather was looking pretty good as we picked up lunch and headed to the wharf to get onboard our all day pelagic with Aurora Charters.

Our skipper Ty gave us a quick briefing and we then headed out of Half Moon Bay and around towards the south. Matt Jones had had a call that morning from a local who said there was a possible leopard seal on one of the local beaches, so we headed around to see if we could spot that. Sure enough as we came in closer, a large shape on the beach looked exactly like a leopard seal. But it wasn’t hanging around, and as we approached it took to the water and swam towards us, but then veered off and along the edge of the kelp. But we all got a pretty good view, and for most onboard this was a lifer mammal! Definitely a good start.

We headed out between Bench Island and the Peninsula and then off down the coast, looking for penguins and other seabirds as we cruised. Our main goal was to get down to the south coast and into the Port Pegasus area to try and find Antarctic terns, before then heading out to the ‘Traps’. As we headed south the weather was sunny and there was good breeze, but conditions were very good, and we soon spied a large penguin in the water a wee way off. Heading towards it we waited until it showed again and discovered our first yellow-eyed penguin of the day – an immature bird swimming in the water. We had reasonable views and then left it in peace continuing on our way. Checking out a couple of bays for Fiordland crested penguins, we spotted a pair up on some rocks, and Ty expertly manouvered the boat right back in so we could have almost stepped off the stern onto the same rocks! Full frame shots of the birds as they stood unconcerned looking on at these strangers.

Carrying on we saw an albatross off in the distance that looked different to the other white-capped albs following us. We stopped the boat and started to chum and watched as the bird in question turned and started to head towards us. Getting closer the call went up for Campbell albatross, and the bird circled several times before charging in to compete with the other birds for the blue cod frames. Several brown skuas headed out towards us from the mainand and gave stunning views right over our heads, and before long there were three of them chasing each other and the other birds for some of the spoils. We also realised there was a second Campbell alb with us, and so we had great views of these and the other birds right at the back of the boat.

We decided to carry on south, and as we did so the seas started to become a little rougher as we lost the shelter of the island from the SW swells that were wrapping around the land. Things definitely got a little lively and a few people discovered what it feels like to walk on the moon in a zero gravity environment…problem is there is always a bump when you come back down! We then got a little bit of cover in between Pearl Island and snuck into Port Pegasus, looking for the tern flocks we often find in this area. But not today! We struggled to find any terns, let alone Antarctic, which was rather disappointing, but that’s birding. We thought we might head down to another point that can be good for terns, but with the weather and swell the way it was we would have gotten a real pasting and not really been able to get close to any tern flocks perched on rocks anyway. So we decided to cut straight out towards the ‘Traps’. With seas running up to probably 4m swells we zipped along rolling a little as the swells were on our beam, but it was much more comfortable, and as we got closer we started to throw out chum. Matt was chum-master and soon we had 50+ white-capped albatross following us, with the odd Salvin’s amongst them. One white-chinned petrel zipped past, but no other smaller birds, which was a little strange.

We arrived at the ‘Traps’ and started to chum in earnest. With large swells still running and a good stiff breeze things were whipping past, but almost no small birds were evident – no petrels or shearwaters. Then suddenly the cry went up for storm-petrel and we got views of a tiny grey-backed storm-petrel heading across the waves towards the chum slick. It was not easy to pick in amongst the big rollers, but luckily we had another come past, but again it was pretty fast. A single broad-billed prion caming zooming right past the side of the boat and round the back with excellent views, but with no other smaller birds we decided to head north back towards Wreck Reef. The going was much easier as we headed with the swells, and we were doing a fair bit of surfing on the way. As we got closer we started to see smaller birds and the call for mottled and Cook’s petrels was finally out! We had quite a few of each go past, mostly distant to start with, but then a few closer, along with more and more sooty shearwaters. So the birds had been up here all along! At the reef we started to chum and brought in another good crowd of albatross, still mainly white-capped, but also Salvin’s and this time a few Southern Royals. A couple more broad-billed prions whipped past, and a single fairy prion as well. We even got a NZ wandering albatross and a couple of Northern giant petrels, but no Buller’s albatross. The call went up for storm-petrel again, and this time a Wilson’s storm-petrel zipped past the bow and onto the slick, pattering away as it fed. Another nice addition for the day. We had a few more mottled and Cook’s petrels zip past, and just as we were about to leave, Phil’s dream bird – a Southern giant petrel came right in to the back of the boat. This was a lifer for Phil and something he had been covetting . Excellent.

So we decided to head for home as the chum ran out and although we kept a good watch on the way back, nothing new was seen. We pulled in to the wharf just after 1830 hrs all very happy with what had been an excellent day with a lot of good birds, lifers, and the best thing was that all species had shown pretty well. Another great dinner at the South Seas Hotel before a well earned sleep!

Day total – Seen = 40; new for the trip = 9; total for the trip to date = 159

A leopard seal takes to the water, a mammal tick for most on the trip!

Silhouetted white-capped albatross against a leaden sea.

Against the sky this time.

And against the sea again.

Two Fiordland crested penguins check each other out as Ty brings us right in for a good look!

Everyone on the deck of Aurora.

Campbell albatross coming in to land with a splash at the back of the boat.

Running in to the chum.

Campbell albatross being chased by a white-capped at the back of the boat.

Campbell albatross swoops by at close range.

Brown skua coming past the back of the boat.

Brown skua just above our heads.

Nice shot showing the upper wing as a brown skua flies past the back of the boat.

Brown skua sitting on the water near the boat.

Campbell albatross gliding by showing the under wing.

Spotted shags nesting on a rocky cliff.

Yellow-eyed penguin climbing up towards its nest after coming ashore.

Yellow-eyed penguin calls as another comes past it head towards its nest.

Campbell albatross glides by.

Broad-billed prion coming past the boat giving a great view.

White-capped albatross coming in to the boat with feet down and large waves behind it.

Southern Royal albatross gliding past the boat showing its 11ft+ wingspan.

Closer shot of the Southern Royal albatross.

Cook's petrel zipping past the boat.

White-capped and a single Salvin's albatross squabble over a blue cod frame.

Salvin's albatross coming in to land nearby.

Phil's lifer - a Southern giant petrel!

Mottled petrel zipping past showing the diagnostic underwing and belly pattern.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Off to Stewart Island

On the road early this morning, but not before a quick pie run. We grabbed some more pies and sandwiches from Mile’s Better Pies and headed through toward Bluff. We basically headed straight for the Ferry terminal in Bluff, not seeing much of interest on the way.

At the Ferry terminal we checked in, loaded our bags into the bins, and then boarded the ferry. There was a bit of wind and it looked like it would be a good crossing, albeit a little bumpy. There were a few Stewart Island shags in the harbour, and more as we headed out, along with spotted shags. As we headed out into the open water the bumps increased, but quite surprisngly there weren’t a lot of birds. We did pick up the odd sooty shearwater, a few white-capped albatross and some common diving petrels, but that was about it. As we came into Half Moon Bay there were a few more Stewart Island shags and a little penguin or two.

After docking we grabbed our gear and headed up to the South Seas Hotel to checkin, before then getting ready to head to Ulva Island for the afternoon. We walked up and over to Golden Bay where we met our water taxi and headed across. With a pretty stiff breeze blowing, but a fairly clear sky we had a good ride across and were soon heading off down the tracks on the island. Of course having seen almost all the birds present on the island already, our target bird was rather embarassingly yellow-crowned parakeet! We were also after good views of yellowhead and whatever else we could find. A family party of weka were nice, and as we scoured the undergrowth we found some nice spider and greenhood orchids in flower. There was a fair bit of birdsong around, with brown creeper, kaka, and saddleback calling frequently, and we had great views of several rifleman as well. We gradually tracked down good views of kaka, brown creeper, yellow-crowned and red-crowned parakeet (yay!), but were still missing yellowhead, although we had heard a few parties of them off in the distance.

However, we continued on around the tracks and eventually had a pair of yellowhead calling just off the track and they showed themselves pretty well, with an immature saddleback also coming in for a look. A bit further down the track with had another group of yellowhead, this time three birds which fed and sang right in front of us, literally at arms length! Brilliant, they are such stunning birds, and seeing them this close was just fantastic! Even managed some nice photos!

Pretty happy with our views of everything we finished off the loop track and then headed back to the shelter to wait a few minutes for our water taxi, which soon had us back in Half Moon Bay. With no time to lose we hurried over the hill, and then had dinner, before getting ready for our evening excursion…the show wasn’t over yet! We headed down to the wharf and met with our guides Phillip and Greg, and then chugged around to Glory Cove where we learnt a bit about the kiwi as the last rays of sunshine disappeared. We then headed off over the peninsula with Greg to find our Southern brown kiwi…and it was hardly even dark before we encountered our first one on the beach! In the end we had three birds in view for prolonged views, and a fourth that was a little shy. But the views were absolutely awesome – stonking even! Down to just a few metres as the birds ignored as and fed closer to us as we stood quietly. An incredible experience and one that will be hard to forget.

We walked back to the boat, almost floating along the track, and the boat trip back seemed faster with a hot chocolate in hand. It wasn’t long and we were tucked up in bed, another great day over!

Bird of the day – Southern brown kiwi x7, yellowhead x2
Day total – Seen = 54; new for the trip = 2; total for the trip to date = 150

A pair of South Island kaka perch together in a tree.

South Island kaka pausing between tearing branches apart to look for grubs.

South Island kaka preening on a sunny perch.

Beautiful spider orchids flowering amongst the mosses on the forest floor.

Yellowhead up close and personal.

Yellowhead perched right beside the track - what a stunning little bird!

Poised and feeding.

Variable oystercatcher feeding on one of the beaches.

The happy team heading back up the hill from Golden Bay.

Southern brown kiwi feeding on sandhoppers on the beach.

Southern brown kiwi having a bit of a stretch.

Shadow of a kiwi.