Monday, 29 February 2016

Black stilts...blown away

Well we were up early again…we seem to be making a habit of this!  We loaded the van and headed off inland, towards the scenic Mackenzie Country.  We drove straight through to Twizel, admiring the beautiful scenery, which was bathed in sunshine.  Unfortunately there was a fair old wind as well though, with is gusting probably over 35 knots!  Windy!

We grabbed some lunch from a bakery in Twizel and then headed on out to our first spot to look for black stilt – our key target for the day.  Our first location looked good, not too windy, and we searched, and searched, and searched, but nothing to show.  So we decided to head off to another spot.  On the way the wind was incredibly strong and the van was being buffeted about the place.  But, the consolation was that Mt Cook was clearly visible between thin clouds and looked absolutely stunning!  We made it safely and checked out the likely looking spot.  But again – nothing!  We headed to another location nearby, and although it was beautifully protected and calm, there was not a single black stilt!  Where are they hiding?

So we headed on to another location…and with bellied rumbling we decided to have lunch as we arrived.  We scanned as we munched and off in the distance we spotted an adult black stilt, then another, and another…all up it looked like perhaps at least nine birds off in the distance.  The only problem was the wind was still howling and it was a fair old walk which involved some rather wet feet!  Ah well, nothing else for it!  We sorted out footwear, shorts, etc and then mounted the expedition.  It was perhaps a kilometre across to the closest bird, a nice adult that was feeding in a stream.  We sat on the edge of the stream as it fed slowly working its way up towards us…one step forward, two steps backwards as the wind buffeted the bird.  Clearly we weren’t the only ones struggling in the wind!  Off in the distance we could see at least another 17-18 birds!  We watched as the bird got closer and closer, then a big gust blew it back a fair bit and it seemed to give up, flying off shortly after that. But we had had great views and it was nice to know there were a bunch of others nearby.  There were also a lot of banded dotterels around, and other bits and pieces, but we decided to head back to the van and out of the wind.

Back at the van we loaded up, and then headed on to another spot where we hoped to find a Baillon’s crake.  We spanned out and searched and searched, but it would seem things were playing tough to get today!  After almost an hour we decided they were playing with us, and headed on to our accommodation.  We checked in and then went out for our last dinner together – a very nice dinner at Ladybird Hill Winery!  We did our bird of the trip together, with New Zealand wandering albatross coming in as the top bird.  A great trip, and some excellent birds along the way.

Day total – Seen = 39 + 1 heard (grey warbler); new for the trip = 1; total for the trip to date = 160.

Bird of the day – Black-stilt x5

Adult Australasian crested grebe and young one cruising in the sunshine

It doesn't look windy...but it is! Preparing for the mission!

Stunning views of Mt Cook

Even the black stilts have to brace themselves agains the wind!

What a cracker - black stilt up close!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Doing the penguin shuffle

We docked at the ferry terminal in Bluff and quickly loaded the van with all our gear and headed off northwards.  A fair way to drive today to get up to Oamaru, but some pretty nice scenery along the way.  We basically headed through to Owaka where we grabbed some lunch and then headed to a beach to eat it.  It had started to drizzle a little, but as we finished so did the rain and we headed along a beach and found a good number of Hooker’s sea lions resting on the sand.  They were spread out along the beach, with several of them lying in small groups.  We had great views of them, and even watched one large bull come up out of the sea.

We then wandered back to the van and carried on northwards, heading through Dunedin.  We called in at a small coastal spot where we had awesome views of yellow-eyed penguins.  There were at least six birds out sitting about, and several juveniles with just small traces of down left to moult sitting under bushes.  They were clearly very close to fledging from the nest, so were probably waiting on their parents to come back and feed them.  Some of the adults sitting around were clearly in the middle of their moult, and there is nothing that looks more miserable than a moulting penguin.  We enjoyed the beautiful coastal views, and watched a few albatross cruise past, as well as a Hutton’s shearwater, and several of the newly ‘split’ Otago shags – split from Stewart Island shag.

We then headed on to Oamaru and to our accommodation, where we checked in and had a break before another excellent dinner.

Day total – Seen = 48 + 3 heard (bellbird, tomtit, redpoll); new for the trip = 0; total for the trip to date = 159

Bird of the day – Yellow-eyed penguin x5

Beautiful skies as we crossed back to Bluff

Yellow-eyed penguin having a stretch on the cliff top

Sleepy penguins

Dodging the raindrops on Stewart Island

Well it sure did rain during the night!  We were up bright and early, and it was still drizzling  We breakfasted and then headed down to the main wharf and met our skipper Ian and deck-hand/chum-master Matt Jones, and jumped aboard Aurora and headed off out towards the entrance of the bay.  We had hardly even settled in when several Fiordland crested penguins were spotted.  We angled the boat in towards them and discovered there were at least seven penguins in very nice new plumage!  They came and went in and out of a cave, and several of them jumped into the water and splashed around.  Clearly these birds had finished moulting, but were still coming in to shore – excellent to get these tricky birds at this time of the year.

We carried on out towards the Muttonbird Islands and had a look along the coastline of several of them.  There were a lot of NZ fur seals about, and we found a few weka running around on the beaches turning over kelp, but no yellow-eyed penguins.  We carried on a little and had an adult and freshly fledged juvenile brown skua come out to visit, and Matt threw them a few scraps.  They gave a great show and came around quite a few times with the youngster calling loudly to be fed.  We called in to look at the back of an island and spotted two almost fledged juvenile yellow-eyed penguins up on the hillside out in the open, so had a good look at them, before heading on.  Ian all of a sudden stopped the boat and came running back, pointing out the tip of a great white shark dorsal fin as it slipped beneath the waves.  It looked like a pretty big animal, but hadn’t showed itself off too well.

We then decided it was time to head on out to deeper water, and so made a bee-line for Wreck Reef.  The weather was pretty good, with the odd spit of rain, but the sea conditions were gentle, with less than a metre swell most of the time, and a 10-15 knot wind.  So pretty good for seabird watching.  As we steamed out clouds of white-capped albatross started to follow us, with the odd Buller’s and Salvin’s albatross mixed in amongst them.  Sooty shearwaters were flashing past and as we got closer to Wreck Reef the numbers increased.

We pulled up near the reef and started chumming with cod frames and skins and some salmon to get a good slick going.  Before long we had a lot of albatross around us, fighting and squabbling for scraps.  A few sooty shears swept past, and we had a white-chinned petrel as well.  But after over an hour we still hadn’t managed to pull in anything different.  So we decided to head on out into deeper water.  We carried on for another 40 minutes or so, and then started chumming again.  Many of the albatross had followed us, but within a few minutes several Southern Royal albatross arrived, despite the fact we had had none in by the reef.  This was a good sign.  There seemed to be more sooty shears about, and it didn’t take long for the first mottled petrel to come past.  Over the next few hours we had incredible views of mottled petrel, with many of them coming very close to the boat, giving extended views as some went up and cruised over the slick.  Not something they do very often.  We also had several Northern giant petrels turn up, and a single white-faced storm-petrel, followed shortly after by at least 2-3 grey-backed storm-petrels.  The grey-backed gave excellent views also, coming in very close and feeding near the back of the boat.  A single fairy prion caused a heart palpitation, as it cruised slowly past, but other than it we saw no other prions during the course of the day.

After a good few hours we decided to head back to off of Wreck Reef, but out a little deeper, where we chummed for a third time.  Again we had much the same assemblage of albatross, but nothing new.  And before too long it was time to head back in towards the bay.  We slowly chugged back in, keeping an eye out for anything different.  But after a pretty excellent day there were a few weary heads.  Several Stewart Island shags (or now the newly split Foveaux shag) were roosting on the rock in the bay, showing both pied and bronze forms.

We docked at the wharf, thanked Ian and Matt, and headed back up to the accommodation for a bit before another excellent dinner and then a well deserved early night.  It was still raining in Oban and apparently had been all day, so we had done well on the water with limited spots of rain!

Day total – Seen = 38; new for the trip = 5; total for the trip to date = 159

Bird of the day – Fiordland crested penguin x4, wandering albatross x1

Several of the Fiordland crested penguins standing for us outside their little cave

Matt feeding his pets

Up close mottled petrel - one of many for the day

Cracking little grey-backed storm-petrel putting on a show

Pied and bronze form of the newly described Foveaux shag - formerly Stewart Island shag

Friday, 26 February 2016

Crossing Foveaux

We were up early this morning, and thankfully the bad weather that had been forecast hadn’t yet eventuated.  We packed the van and left the accommodation as it was starting to get light, and as we headed out towards Invercargill, the sun was rising and looking pretty spectacular over the hills and mountains as we drove.

We basically made a bee-line straight for Bluff, stopping in at the musical toilets in Winton, and then bypassing the metropolis of Invercargill.  We headed to an estuary area and scanned the shoreline, spotting a good number of oystercatchers, as well as a few bar-tailed godwit, red knot and a lot of banded dotterel.  There were a lot of black swan and a few Royal spoonbill as well, so a good birdy spot.  We then headed in to Bluff and had a quick look from Stirling Point to look out over Foveaux Strait – which was lovely and flat!  Excellent!

We checked in for the ferry and then boarded on time and headed out of the port.  As we did so an Arctic tern was spotted by some, but was so brief we did have enough time to get everyone on to it.  We carried on out into the Strait and a few sooty shearwaters started to come past.  As we got out a bit further we spotted our first albatross – a Buller’s at that – a new one for the list.  With almost no wind there wasn’t a lot of birds flying, but we added a couple of white-capped albatross, a single Southern Royal sitting on the water, several Stewart Island shag, and then several brown skua on the rocks as we passed the Muttonbird Islands.  We scanned the rocks for Fiordland crested penguins as we came into Halfmoon Bay, but nothing, except a little penguin in the water.

We docked at the main wharf, grabbed our bags and headed up to the South Sea Hotel to check in.  We stowed our gear in the rooms, grabbed our lunches and ate them in the sunshine out the front of the hotel.  We then walked up and over the hill to Golden Bay, where we met with our water taxi who took us across to Ulva Island.  With the weather still warm and high cloud we were anxious to see as much as possible before the forecasted deterioration commenced.  We headed up the trail and within a minute or so had a juvenile saddleback – in the classic jackbird plumage with rusty red-brown feathers.  It crept around on the forest floor feeding amongst the leaflitter and we got great views, before it skulked off into the undergrowth.  We carried on along the trail and before long were hearing a lot of yellowhead just off the trail.  We carried on hearing more, but still of the track, and then we found a group that seemed closer and waited and listened.  We were eventually able to get good views of birds not too far off the track, and then a little later another group a bit further along.  Of course the robins were trying their best to distract us, and it worked quite a bit of the time!  We gradually wandered out to a beach, seeing more yellowhead, saddleback, a few red-crowned parakeet and kaka along the way.  We found a couple of the resident variable oystercatchers on the beach, and it wasn’t long before a weka found us!  It crept around trying to work out what it could steal…but then decided there were better morsels to be had along the strand line on the beach.

We then wandered back towards the other side of the island.  We saw more of the same, but also some nice views of yellow-crowned parakeet and a morepork roosting as well.  We gradually headed back around to the wharf, just as it started to rain a little – prefect timing.  We had seen everything and decided to catch the taxi a little early.  We had a little time before dinner, then a great dinner, and then readied ourselves for our kiwi hunting mission.  We headed down to the main wharf, boarded the boat with Phillip Smith, and then headed around Acker’s Point and across Paterson Inlet.  The weather was still holding thankfully, and as we headed up and over to Ocean Beach the light was definitely fading.  Greg led us off down the beach, and almost at the end of the beach was our target!  A fantastic female Southern brown kiwi, feeding right out in the open on the beach!  She was eating sandhoppers and busy at it!  She hardly paused whilst we stood there, just metres away, with a torch dimly lighting her for about 15 minutes.  Fantastic views and a beautiful experience.

We moved off and left her in peace, and then headed back up and across to the boat, looking for other birds on the way.  It started to rain a little and we had a bit of rolling and spray on the way back, but we had had a fantastic day and our beds were waiting…

Day total – Seen = 65 + 2 heard (grey warbler, tomtit); new for the trip = 7; total for the trip to date = 154

Bird of the day – Southern brown kiwi x5

The waterfront at Oban on a sunny day is hard to beat

Post Office Cove on Ulva Island

A yellowhead feeding deep in the shrubbery

An adult South Island saddleback

A weka tries to sneak in for a look

A yellow-fronted parakeet peers down

A sleepy morepork at its daytime roost

A red-crowned parakeet - possibly a hybrid with yellow-crowned - note the orangey look to the rear part of the red forehead