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The years seem to pass by faster the older you get. As I sorted through my paper work in the office (well, let's clarify that, I watched Jules sort through my paper work) the stats say that it's been my busiest year in terms of number of clients, hours and number of trips. Plus of course some great birding and birds.
I was in Auckland early in November ready to start leading a 21-day bird watching trip for Wrybill Birding Tours, but I'd arrived a day early to try and get a new bird for my New Zealand list - the Shore Plover. As I navigated New Zealand's largest city I must have stood out like a sore thumb dressed in various shades of green wearing a pair of binoculars around my neck, among the men in suits,. The suits and myself shared one common goal though, which was to get a good cup of coffee. Caffeine running through my veins helped negotiate the urban jungle of Queen Street and finally I made it to the wharf for a half hour boat ride to a predator-free island where I could relax in my preferred surroundings of trees and birdsong.
A walk in the sunshine brought me to a causeway between two islands and I scanned the beach. Through my scope the beautiful and rare Shore Plover came into focus. This tiny wader with beautiful red, black and tan markings was happily feeding on the mud flats. One bird became two for a while, and then one flew closer to me. I got my camera out and was happy with a few distant shots as I sat on the beach. The bird got even closer and the photos were now frame-fillers with beautiful light and this trusting little bird fed at my feet.
I got the feeling I was being watched and I wasn't wrong. Behind me were another three Shore Plovers! Just like buses, I wait for one and four turn up. All with brightly coloured leg bands, these heavily studied and monitored birds showed no fear of me. At one stage these birds were found all over New Zealand but their stronghold is now the Chatham Islands with roughly 150 birds left in the wild. It's right up there with Black Stilt in terms of rarity.
The next day our Wrybill Birding Tours 21-day trip began with mother nature dealing a cruel hand. A massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the coastal town of Kaikoura on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island. Our very good friends at Albatross Encounter were affected as were most businesses in Kaikoura. Sadly we had to pull Kaikoura from our itinerary and miss a few birds, but to keep things in context, everyone's favourite pelagic skipper, Gazza, had lost his house in the destruction.
As if the logistical changes were not challenging enough for this tour, the weather did its best to discourage us too. Extremely high winds meant the Whitianga pelagic was cancelled and biblical rain meant we didn't get to see Okarito Kiwi on the South Island's West Coast. We got sunburnt on Tiritiri Matangi Island and watched Kea in the snow. Maybe not quite four seasons in one day, but close enough.
We only got 146 species on the list for this tour (my lowest ever) but you have to look at the positives, which was that we got some of the best sightings of certain species I've ever seen.
North Island Brown Kiwi hadn't been seen for six weeks at the site we use, and all three previous Wrybill trips had dipped on it. So in very heavy rain we tentatively went searching and like a good Hollywood movie, as we turned the final corner there was a male feeding in front of us right alongside the path.
The following day we found New Zealand's rarest bird, the Fairy Tern - there are less than 30 of these birds in the whole country.
The Hauraki Gulf pelagic produced 15+ New Zealand Storm Petrels - the most I've seen on one pelagic.
Tiritiri Matangi Island is always a highlight and it didn't disappoint - awesome views of Kokako along with North Island Saddleback, Takahe, Stitchbird, Fernbird - and Little Spotted Kiwi in the evening.
At Miranda the iconic Wrybill made its way onto our list and further south we added New Zealand Pipit, New Zealand Falcon, Kaka and Long-tailed and Shining Cuckoo.
An early morning start proved fruitful for fantastic views of Blue Duck.
Near Napier we were lucky to connect with the recently found Wilson's Phalarope, only the fourth record for New Zealand and my best views ever of Australasian Bittern.
Leaving the North Island behind us on the Cook Strait Ferry (one of the great ferry journeys in the world) we headed for Picton, but the trip itself held much more significance because there was a chance of finding seabirds that we might struggle to find elsewhere due to Kaikoura being taken off the itinerary. Eyes peeled and bins at the ready we found White-capped and Salvin's Albatross, Northern Giant Petrel, Westland and White-chinned Petrel, Fairy Prion and Sooty and Fluttering Shearwaters, along with a couple of Arctic Skuas as we entered Queen Charlotte Sound.
Next morning we were back out on Queen Charlotte Sound and found King Shag, plus awesome views of Orange-fronted Parakeet, the first time I've had one in the viewfinder of the camera.
Next was the detour to Westport which was our substitute for Kaikoura. Before the rain started we had just enough time to add Black-fronted Tern and Glossy Ibis to the tour list. Westport gave us time to catch up with some laundry and emails but to be honest it's not one of New Zealand's birding hotspots.
The group encountered their first Kea playing happily in the snow at Arthur's Pass as we spent the night in the mountains. Around the scrub land of the mountains we found South Island Robin, Rifleman and Brown Creeper (or Pipipi).
Next morning with wiper blades at full speed again we headed south towards another disappointment as torrential rain meant the Okarito Kiwi trip was cancelled.
The sun finally shone on us the next morning with Fiordland Crested Penguin, Australasian Crested-Grebe, and a stunning Yellowhead being added to the tour list.
Entering the town of Wanaka we had a magnificent encounter with a New Zealand Falcon surveying her territory from a tree - and watched her chase a dog that got too close - and later an epic mountain encounter with a pair of Rock Wrens building a nest.
I'm biased about the next part of our itinerary as Stewart Island is home for me and Ulva Island was its magical self. We found four Stewart Island Brown Kiwi that night and the following day's pelagic was a real goodie with five albatross species, two storm petrel species, and three penguin species and a supporting cast of Sooty Shearwaters and White-Chinned Petrels and a lone Broad-billed Prion.
Tremendous views of Yellow-eyed Penguins, Otago Shags and New Zealand Fur Seals brightened the way back to the mainland.
We finished the tour with the sun shining on a snow-capped Mount Cook watching our last endemic of the tour, the Black Stilt. This elegant wader has always been a firm favourite of mine and to have a pre-tour Shore Plover and finish with Black Stilt, to me was a perfect end to a great but challenging tour.
When I got home to Stewart Island I arrived at 10.30am and by midday was jumping on a boat to guide on a pelagic. No rest for the wicked.
Since then I've been busy guiding on Ulva Island which offers me a fantastic opportunity to show visiting birders some of New Zealand's rarest birds such as Yellowhead, South Island Saddleback and Yellow-crowned Parakeet to name but a few. We've also had incredible day time sightings of Stewart Island Brown Kiwi.
New Year's Eve was literally a washout weather-wise here but that is probably the cost of having a beautiful sunny Christmas Day!
Roll on 2017!
Birders around the world dream of seeing iconic birds such as Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Cock of the Rock, Kagu, Steller's Sea Eagle, Andean Condor - and Kiwi is probably in there as well.
New Zealand has five kiwi species and here on Stewart Island we have a sub species of the Southern Brown, Apteryx australis lawryi. The Stewart Island Brown Kiwi is the largest of all kiwi species and is diurnal. Females are larger than males, weighing in at around 4.5kg. The total population of all kiwi species is thought to be around 70,000 with almost a quarter of that number being on Stewart Island.
A lot of bird watchers come to Stewart Island to try and get this iconic bird on their list and most go out kiwi spotting with Phillip Smith's Bravo Adventure Cruises. For almost thirty years, Phil has been taking people out kiwi spotting, forging the way of seeing these wild birds in a way that disturbs them as little as possible. Thousands of people have been on Phil's trip, including professional photographers and film crews. In the 1990s, the BBC filmed the equally iconic Sir David Attenborough with kiwi for "The Life of Birds".
I've had the great fortune to guide for Phil's kiwi spotting trip for the last few years as relief guide to Greg, the main guide. A while ago Greg moved onto new pastures and I've been guiding with Phil full time for the past couple of months. This came to an end on 31st October as Phil decided to hang up his kiwi spotting torch. Maori TV joined us for the last few nights and I had the pleasure of showing them one of the young male kiwis on Ocean Beach, that we call "Speedy". The programme includes a great interview with Phil and is well worth a watch.
Huge thanks to Phil for sharing his knowledge and experience with me over the years and having me guide for him, it really has been a pleasure and never a chore. Phil mate, I hope you enjoy your evenings at home!
From 1st November the kiwi spotting on Stewart Island will be run by the ferry company and I'll be handing over the guiding baton so-to-speak, to help train their guides. I hope that they take note of Phil's recommendations, which is that the kiwi always come first. It's something he instilled into Greg and myself and something we always respected.
During the past weeks we've had some amazing day time sightings of kiwi on Ulva Island, including a female and male fighting - and this photo of a male taken on my phone. There have also been great views of South Island Saddleback, Yellowhead, Yellow-crowned Parakeet and lots of fluffy Weka chicks.
Pelagics have started for the season, notable birds include Broad-billed Prion and Grey-backed Storm-Petrel and in a few days time I head north to start leading a 21-day Wrybill Birding Tour of New Zealand.
In mid July we left Stewart Island to spend a few days in the small town of Wanaka to celebrate Jules' 50th birthday - OMG! Wanaka is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and sits beside Lake Wanaka but we didn't do any ski-ing, snowboarding, jet ski-ing or parachuting, instead we sat beside the fire and read books like the couple of quinquagenarians that we are.
There's always time for birding and photography and while I wouldn't say Wanaka is a birding hotspot, I regularly see New Zealand Falcon while leading Wrybill Tours here. Wanaka offers the chance to get close to one of my favourite ducks, the New Zealand Scaup. The chocolatey brown females have a smudged white face pattern around the grey bill and the male has a beautiful dark green and purple sheen with a stunning bright yellow eye. The Scaup allowed close approach for a photo or two and the close proximity meant I got to hear their feint whistling call, very similar to Eurasian Wigeon but a lot quieter.
Other notable birds on the lake were Black-billed Gulls, surely the prettiest of New Zealand's three gull species. This inland species, much like most gulls, has the propensity to be attracted to humans with food. Also on the lake was the Australasian Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus australis) seemingly identical to the European Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus) except it never goes into winter plumage and is therefore dressed in its finery all year round (a possible split down the line?).
Keeping with the water theme, I recently wrote an article called 'Stewart Island Waders' for UK charity, Wader Quest which was published in their July e-newsletter. If you'd like to support Shorebird conservation and receive the Wader Quest quarterly e-newsletter visit their website
Back on Stewart Island, the mild winter has evolved into a cold winter with bitterly cold southerlies, sleet and snow, and the odd frosty morning requiring a 'defrost' setting on the car.
Work is slowing down but I still lead the occasional guided walk on Ulva Island and the odd day crewing on the Foveaux Express ferry.
August will see me migrate north for a short visit to the UK for the British Birdwatching Fair. If you're going don't forget to visit Stand 45, Marquee 2, See you there..
Normally come the first of May on Stewart Island the number of visitors dwindles to zero, but this year they have kept on coming and I've still been guiding trips on Ulva Island, albeit just one or two a week.
April and early May was quite rainy which meant the 5 Minute Bird Call Counts that I do annually for SIRCET took a bit longer than usual.
At the end of May I met one of my childhood idols, Bill Oddie. Like most people, I first enjoyed watching Bill on the 1970s TV show "The Goodies". Since then he has presented wildlife programmes and written books, particularly about birds, and is a keen conservationist. Bill visited Stewart Island for a couple of days and as Chairman of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust I had the privilege of accompanying him to Ulva Island for a few hours.
This was Bill's third visit to New Zealand. The first time was in 1963 as part of the Cambridge Footlights with John Cleese and Graham Chapman. His next visit was in the 1980s and only during this most recent visit did he manage to get to Stewart Island and Ulva Island for birdwatching.
We had a fun few hours on Ulva Island and while Bill was photographing a nice feeding party of Yellowhead and South island Saddlebacks, I mentioned that I could hear Brown Creeper (Pipipi) calling further down the track. Bill replied that it would be a lifer for him if he saw it. This small New Zealand warbler is not a creeper at all and looks more like a Chickadee from North America - but a lifer is a lifer and we left the much sought after Yellowhead and Saddleback behind us to get Pipipi onto Bill's life list! What an honour to find one of my idols a lifer! Later that evening Bill entertained locals at the pub with tales from around the world.
Early in June I was showing another VIP around Ulva Island. Minister for Conservation, Maggie Barry and her husband visited Stewart Island for the first time and I had the opportunity to speak with them about the work the Ulva Island Charitable Trust does to support the Department of Conservation.
The unseasonably mild winter has confused some of the birds; Stewart Island Robins have been displaying to each other and South Island Saddlebacks have been gathering nesting material in the middle of June. I've even seen the Kamahi flowering, which normally occurs in early Spring.
Dog walking and birdwatching don't often go hand in hand - in the UK for example you could be searching a flock of gulls for an over-wintering Iceland Gull when Fido comes screaming up the beach scattering every bird for miles around. But here on Stewart Island where I'm pretty much the only bird watcher, Nonu and myself don't piss too many other people off when we're walking on Horseshoe Beach. I've found at least six over-wintering Cattle Egrets and one Eastern Reef Egret, and last week a New Zealand Falcon - only the second one I've found on Stewart Island. It was a dark looking juvenile and I saw it a few more times during the week harassing local domestic doves. I'm pretty sure there were a few less doves at the end of the week! While walking to the post office we regularly come across a showy New Zealand Pipit that chooses to spend winter on the streets of Oban.
Birdwatching can be slow during winter here but I quite like it. Last week I left Nonu at home to spend the day on Ulva Island by myself, well, I saw two other people. I took my camera and saw every bird possible, including 22 Weka 9 of which were chicks. This is not too unusual that Weka breed in the middle of winter but I was most pleased to get photos of Brown Creeper (Pipipi). They can be hard to photograph but with bit of 'pishing' I persuaded one bird to stick around so I could grab a shot or two. They are quite nice looking birds, related to Whitehead and Yellowhead, and the Pipipi is only found on the South Island and Stewart Island. I guess it's New Zealand's only LBJ!
At the end of June I finished writing an article about Stewart Island waders for British charity, Wader Quest, which is due to be published in their e-newsletter at the end of July with some of my photos. Wader Quest is a charity that aims to get more people directly involved in wader conservation www.waderquest.org
It's been a long time since my last instalment - in short it's been one hell of a season!
At the end of January I led another 21-day tour of New Zealand for Wrybill Birding Tours. A mega three weeks of birding with seven clients, five from the US and two from the UK and we found some awesome birds along the way.
Prior to the tour I added a lifer to my New Zealand and world list on the coast of the Bay of Plenty - the long staying Oriental Plover. A true global mega, this showy lanky wader shared a north island beach with some New Zealand Dotterels and surprised me how approachable it was.
The Wrybill tour was one of my most successful with great clients that got on really well together, great weather and great birds along the way.
Highlights of the tour included Black-winged Petrel on the Hauraki Gulf pelagic and excellent looks at New Zealand Storm Petrel. During our stay on Tiritiri Matangi we connected with all possible birds including a close encounter with a Little Spotted Kiwi - and I didn't give anyone food poisoning with my BBQ dinner. On the Whitianga pelagic we encountered at least four Pycroft's Petrels and Miranda Shorebird Centre proved sensational as we hit the tide just right and every bird showed itself really well - with thousands of Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot were at least 300 Wrybill, two Far Eastern Curlews, one Asiatic Whimbrel, two Marsh Sandpipers, two Pectoral Sandpipers, one Curlew Sandpiper, three Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and a few Ruddy Turnstones amongst the flock of 30+ Pacific Golden Plover. Star of the show was a Little Whimbrel that that hadn't been seen for a couple of weeks - my second lifer in a week and another new wader. Leaving the Miranda car park we spotted a Buff-banded Rail with chick hiding in the mangroves. It must be my Kentish upbringing but I'd be content to spend a whole day looking at waders.
The North Island delivered tremendous views of Blue Duck, NZ Falcon and Australasian Bittern and at Foxton we reconnected with a Terek Sandpiper that we found on December's tour. The South Island produced awesome views of King Shag on Bluemine Island and Orange-fronted Parakeet made us sweat, revealing itself at the very last minute in a tree above the path. Kaikoura never disappoints and the sunrise pelagic was made more special with five albatross species plus Sperm Whale, Short-finned Pilot Whale, Bottlenose and Dusky Dolphins. Into the mountains at Arthur's Pass we saw South Island Robin, Rifleman and Kea and surprisingly a couple more Blue Duck, a species that can be troublesome to find.
On the gorgeous rugged West Coast we had outstanding views of Rowi (Okarito Kiwi), the rarest kiwi, thanks to the expert help of Ian Cooper. Onwards to Wanaka and Te Anau and just 15 minutes of searching rewarded us with both Rock Wren parents feeding their young at the nest. Then home for me and two nights on Stewart Island where we went straight across to Ulva Island for South Island Saddleback, the only bird we needed for the trip list. A bonus was an awesome interaction with a massive flock of Yellowhead that fed just a couple of feet above our heads and stayed with us for several minutes. After dinner (we don't go hungry on these trips) to find our last kiwi of the tour, the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi. After a bit of searching on the beach we were graced with great views of a large female feeding amongst the kelp, completely oblivious to us. A full day pelagic the next day delivered fantastic views of Brown Skua and Yellow-eyed Penguin, Mottled Petrel (always a favourite) and the tiny Grey-backed Storm Petrel. The real plus was finding a couple of Fiordland Crested Penguins just finishing moult, never a sure thing this late in the season.
Back to the mainland where it's north all the way, we lunched with views of half a dozen Sea Lions. Small sandy coloured females to massive bulls with huge manes, none of them smell that great! Fantastic views of Yellow-eyed Penguins with chicks at a few metres range. Another great day's birding. On our last day we headed west for Black Stilt. After lunch at the base of Mount Cook we sat near a braided river and looked as if we were in a New Zealand tourism commercial, as if on cue an adult Black Stilt decided to come and feed right beside us. The last endemic was on the list!
On the way to the airport (there's always time for birding) at 7.30am our feet were getting slightly damp in a small swampy bog looking for Ballion's Crake, a bird that has always given me the run around. We had an outstanding encounter as this skulky bird climbed a small bush for us to have a look at. Wow! 8am we back on the road and reached the airport in good time with a total of 162 species seen and some new friends made.
Two days later I was back on Stewart Island guiding on the Birding Bonanza and within ten minutes of being on Ulva Island we saw a male kiwi walking on the path in front of us. I never tire of seeing these iconic birds. Pelagics have now finished for the season but we've had some goods birds, notably Sub-antarctic Little Shearwater and Soft-plumage Petrel.
The first half of April I've been leading kiwi spotting tours most evenings for Phil Smith/Bravo Adventures and with winter on its way the trip departs early evening so I've been home by around 9pm. We've usually been lucky enough to see at least two kiwis each night, sometimes four and it's always a special thing to find a really sought after bird for visitors to Stewart Island.
As April comes to a close I'm half way through the SIRCET Five Minute Bird Call Counts, an annual project that I've been doing for them for the past few years. Always a pleasure to do this - who wouldn't enjoy standing in the bush listening to birds?!
It's not often these days I get to go on a twitch but last week I went overseas. Well, across Foveaux Strait to Awarua Bay near Bluff on the southern tip of mainland New Zealand! I hooked up with Neil Robertson who is Southland's regional representative for the Ornithological Society of New Zealand and his mate Shawn Herron to try and connect with the Siberian (Grey tailed) Tattler that they had found a week earlier. I picked up the bird some distance away and it took well over an hour for it to get closer as the tide moved in. We also found two Sanderlings, never common in NZ and a lone Wrybill. Most of the world's population of Wrybill tend to over winter at Miranda so it's unusual for one to be this far south. Great to get the twitch juices flowing and more importantly it was a successful one. Thanks guys!
Other bird-related news is that Nonu, our 7-month old border collie puppy has successfully completed his kiwi-aversion training. At the moment this training isn't compulsory for dogs living on Stewart Island but because we live surrounded by National Park dogs are encouraged to attend. In my view it's a no-brainer; I don't want my dog to kill a kiwi, it only takes ten minutes, and it's free to attend. Simple.
The device used is called an "e-kiwi" and looks like an upturned pudding bowl covered in kiwi feathers and liquidised kiwi poo. Ummm, lovely! Two e-kiwi are hidden and the dog is left off the lead to explore the area. What the dog can't see so well (and isn't expecting) are the fine fibre optic wires that stick out of the e-kiwi so when the dog sticks his nose in for a good sniff, he gets a mild tingly shock like you would if you touched an electric fence. Nonu found the first one straight away and went into reverse pretty quickly. It was amazing to see instantly how wary he was of the second e-kiwi and gave it a wide berth. Because he is so young he will do another training session in six months time, and once he's a year old it will be annually.
November had a grey feel about it, and not just the weather. A Grey Warbler chose our garden as its venue to sing for a few days and even allowed me to snap a few photos. An interesting fact about New Zealand's second smallest bird, is that it's actually not a warbler, but a gerygone.
More shades of grey appeared on the pelagics. A Grey-faced Petrel put in a brief appearance, our third record of this northern pelagic seabird. Grey-backed Storm-Petrel were a bit more showy and it's always a pleasure to encounter a bird the size of a sparrow alongside the mighty three-metre wingspan of an albatross.
On a rough November day guiding for Aurora Charters we already had five albatross species in the bag - White-capped, Salvin's, Southern Royal, the very attractive Black-browed and Campbell Island Albatrosses - when I noticed a small albatross with very dark underwings flying through the wake. I thought it could be a Grey-headed Albatross but it was hard to tell as it kept its distance from the boat - and I'd never seen one before. Some of the clients thought it could possibly be a juvenile Black-browed Albatross. I got some record shots before it disappeared from view and later that evening with the luxury of zooming up the images on the computer I was convinced it was a juvenile Grey-headed Albatross. I sent a couple of shots to Sav Saville and Gary Melville - while skippering on an Albatross Encounter trip the week before Gary had seen an adult Grey-headed Albatross off Kaikoura. Both Sav and Gary confirmed my thoughts and I got my 12th albatross species. This is a rare bird for New Zealand's three main islands and the Grey-headed Albatross became Aurora Charters' 10th albatross species on its pelagics.
Another day, another pelagic, another lifer! This time with good mate and Wrybill co-owner Brent Stephenson. Already an awesome pelagic with five albatross species plus Cook's and Mottled Petrel, Grey-backed and Black-bellied Storm Petrel, as well as Broad-billed Prion. Could things get any better. Yes they could. A prion came towards the boat and was initially called as a Broad-billed but it had a heavy dark collar, obvious face pattern and supercilium, not the thick chunky head and bill of a Broad-billed Prion. On closer inspection of the photos (what did we do before digital?) it clearly was not a Broad-billed Prion but the very rare Antarctic Prion. After a big storm this species is often found dead on New Zealand beaches.
At the end of my busiest ever November I left Stewart Island and headed north to lead a tour for Wrybill Birding Tours, en route picking up a New Zealand tick (a male Australian Wood Duck) near Nelson that had been in the area for around a year.
This Wrybill tour was a slightly different format to usual both logistically and group size. Sixteen days with 11 clients as opposed to the usual twenty-one day tour with a maximum 8 clients. The group was a Swedish-based bird watching company that had been to New Zealand twice before, each time getting 127 species on their list. For this shortened itinerary (missing out the West Coast of the South Island and the very top of the North Island) we smashed the record with 150 species! We completely cleaned up on Tiritiri Matangi with good views of Kokako, Saddleback, Stitchbird, Little Spotted Kiwi, Morepork and Spotless Crake. Bonuses were daytime sightings of Tuatara and while looking for kiwi in the evening we also got Duvaucel's Gecko, New Zealand's largest gecko. Bonus birds for the tour: Terrick Sandpiper amongst a flock of Wrybill and Bar-tailed Godwit; awesome views of Black Kite; a showy Orange-fronted Parakeet; and a lone Laughing Kookaburra.
The trip to Stewart Island is always a highlight of the Wrybill Tours and it didn't disappoint this time. Great views of Stewart Island Brown Kiwi; we needed Yellowhead and South Island Saddleback for the list and they came to the party on Ulva Island; and yet another awesome pelagic. Amazing to think that the Arctic Tern we saw on the pelagic may have come all the way from Sweden, just like this group of clients.
No rest for the wicked. When I'd finished the Wrybill Tour just two days later I was back to my 9-5 job, guiding on Ulva Island! Don't feel sorry for me, it's not a bad "office"!
November and December have traditionally been busy months for me and 2015 was no exception. Christmas came and went in a blur and so far 2016 has been about as busy as I can remember.
There have been a few changes here on Stewart Island. Work-wise one of the most significant is Aurora Charters has changed hands from one local family to another. It's fantastic that such an awesome boat is staying on Stewart Island and as Colin, Margaret and Ty hand the reigns to Ian and Philippa I look forward to the continued success of pelagics on Stewart Island. I truly believe it's one of the premier pelagic destinations in the world.
It's been great fun working with Ty on the Aurora. He is an excellent skipper and I've enjoyed watching him blossom (or should I say fledge) from a complete non-birder to really knowing his stuff. We've seen some great birds together. I'm looking forward to working with Ian and encouraging another non-birder to come to the dark side!
Things have changed at home too - Jules and I became parents. I hasten to add that at our age, not to a human baby, but to a border collie puppy called Nonu. Nonu is almost a born and bred Stewart Islander, his Dad is from Invercargill and Mum, Uncle and brother are here on Stewart Island. He seems to have settled into our lives well and is giving away our coffee drinking habit by automatically walking to the pub instead of walking past it! As our long-held desire to have a dog became a reality during the 2015 Rugby World Cup it seemed fitting to name our pooch after Jules' favourite All Blacks Player, Ma'a Nonu, who ended his All Blacks career by scoring in the Rugby World Cup Final.
As January marches on a new list has already begun and shortly I'll be heading away for another Wrybill Birding Tour which I'm looking forward to. Stewart Island weather has been incredibly good so far with not too much rain. This could be the reason for so many daytime sightings of Kiwi on Ulva Island. Six out of seven guided walks on Ulva Island this week we have had prolonged views of Kiwi. What a privilege, I never tire of watching these guys. Watch the movie clip on YouTube
At the end of my last news I was accelerating down the runway on an A380 airbus from London to Sydney. Traversing a few timezones and many hours later I arrived at Sydney Airport expecting to meet Jules who was flying in from Western Australia. I checked into the hotel and was told that Jules had called to say her flight was delayed by 12 hours and she'd be spending the night on a chair at Perth Airport. I went up to my swanky room, had a shower and was in bed by 8.30pm. The next thing I knew was Jules coming into the room at 7am the next morning looking shattered. She had a shower and nap and then it was back to the airport for our flight to Cairns in northern Queensland.
We picked up the rental car and headed to our Cairns Esplanade hotel for the night. The next morning I reacquainted myself with Queensland birding which I hadn't done since my last visit 10 years before. There were a few big holes in my list and I eased myself back in by birding the park between the sea and the tropical city of Cairns. One of the most conspicuous birds was the Australian White Ibis that patrols the grass like a feral pigeon. Masked Lapwing and Figbirds were seen well and the trip list was on its way. The plan for the next 10 days was for me to find as many endemics as possible in and around the Daintree rainforest area.
After breakfast just a short drive north of the city we stopped at Cattana Wetlands, a fairly new reserve transformed from old gravel pits. The reserve is set in palm forest with easy walking tracks, bird hides, fresh and salt water lakes, crocodile-proof toilets, and information boards which mentioned that the area was home to several species of highly venomous snake - that's birding in Aussie for you!
Fortunately we didn't see any crocs or snakes, but I got plenty of birds on the list. The first encounter was with the iconic Laughing Kookaburra, two sat on a low branch on the entrance track. Spectacled Monarch, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Leaden Flycatcher, Comb-crested Jacana, Black-faced Cuckoo Shrike and the prehistoric looking Magpie Goose boosted the list.
From Cattana we drove to Cassowary House for a two night stay on the edge of Kuranda Rainforest. Southern Cassowary is one of my bogey birds, so the hope was to put this on the life list. Late afternoon we went out for a bite to eat at a pizza place in Kuranda Village. As night fell and we ate outside, we felt we were being watched. A Bush Stone-Curlew was hanging around the tables waiting for scraps. Horses for courses I guess, back home it would be Kaka; in the UK it would be Herring Gulls and Pigeons; it seems in Kuranda it's Bush Stone-Curlews.
Waking up early the next morning at Cassowary House, bins and coffee in hand I birded from the balcony of our room. The rainforest was at my fingertips and scuttling in the undergrowth was a Red-necked Crake - a lifer within four minutes! Yellow-spotted Honeyeater were common and preening on top of a tree stump in the canopy was a most wished-for bird for me, a Victoria's Riflebird. Horribly backlit, but still a great spectacle seeing the male throw its head back and call. This bird has such a tiny range in north-east Queensland I had a celebratory coffee refill and ate breakfast among the Australian Brush Turkeys.
The day warmed up and I birded in the grounds. Rufus Fantail was a complete stunner, Large-billed Scrub Wren a classic LBJ, Macleay's Honeyeater, Pale Yellow Robin, Spotted Catbird and plenty of Australian Brush Turkeys but still no sign of the star attraction, Southern Cassowary! Sue who runs Cassowary House said that the resident pair of Cassowary had young that Dad was caring for. The female, Missy, was doing her own thing, just like other Rata family (such as Kiwi) the female lays the egg which the male then incubates and rears the chick.
With a chick in his care, Sue said that Dad could be very aggressive. Female Southern Cassowary can weigh almost 60kg and some can stand over 6 feet tall! What is it with Australia? Snakes, scorpions, spiders, sharks, jellyfish, crocs want to bite, sting or kill you. And it has one of the most dangerous birds in the world!
Later in the afternoon I contemplated another dip as I folded my scope up. Disheartened I took one last glance down the track to see a Cassowary walking towards me. I took a couple of record shots and then it dawned on me - was it the male or female? I backed off and looked for a chick in tow and was relieved to see it was a female. I called to Jules and we watched Missy from the safety of the garage. She was fairly approachable and we spent the next 20 mins or so in her company as she fed on scraps left out for the Kangaroo Musk Rats and Turkeys. It might have been our first Cassowary but we weren't her first humans! She was an incredible bird - a bony horn-like shield on top of her head, unbelievably coloured fleshy skin on the neck - shades of red, purple and electric blue - and she had feet that Edward Scissorhands or Freddy Kruger would be proud of! Safe to say, we kept out of kicking range. After this awesome encounter, she just melted from the track into the bush.
Up early the next morning I walked the nearby trails and got Pied Monarch and Yellow-breasted Boatbill on my list. On the way back to Cassowary House for breakfast I flushed something electric blue which I can only surmise was a Noisy Pitta. Back at the house, Sue called us to say that the male Cassowary and chick was beneath the balcony. My bogey bird was well and truly buried as I saw my second and third Cassowary. The male Cassowary is a bit smaller than the female and the lone chick was about the size of a large chicken with beige and black stripy plumage, like a giant humbug. Dad and chick soon disappeared into the bush and it was time for us to leave Kuranda and on the way lay another bogey species to rest.
Jules had always wanted to see a Duck-billed Platypus and with the help of a local guide we found five or six of these curious little beasties. What a weird, incredible little animal. A beaver's tail, a duck bill, fur and flippers. The male has a poisonous spike hidden in its flippers. Like I said, it seems like everything in Aussie wants to kill you. Our next mammal was a family of Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroos which came to the ground with a joey and proceeded to have a domestic in front of us. They weren't too curious about the onlookers lined up like paparazzi taking photos of their fighting.
Our next destination was Julatten for four nights at the Kingfisher Park Lodge, known as the birders' accommodation and now owned by local guides, Andrew and Carol. An incredible dawn chorus woke us the next morning; kookaburras, honeyeaters and doves.
It was still dark when I walked the five minutes from the room to an area called The Orchard which was a clearing surrounded by native forest. Kingfisher Park is a small area of ten acres of bush, river and small pond but has recorded over 300 species. I spent the whole day wandering this special park, lifers and species I hadn't seen for many years. To be honest, there were so many I can't recall in which order they arrived. They were plentiful, colourful, easy and challenging. A few highlights were Papuan Frogmouth, Double-eyed Fig-parrot, Barred Cuckoo Shrike, Fairy Gerygone, and Grey-headed Robin.
Mount Lewis was not far from Kingfisher Park and we headed there the next day with the hope of finding some high altitude specials. A cool low cloud hung around at the top as we started to walk the dense bush tracks. Birds came thick and fast. Mountain Thornbill was first on the list as we left the car park. Next came a real skulky speciality Atherton Scrubwren followed by two more colourful wrens, Yellow-throated Scrubwren and Fern Wren. I was aware of a noisy scratching call coming from the forest floor and I soon found my first Tooth-billed Bowerbird. Its bower was a clearing around a small tree with leaves turned upside down, meticulously placed. Further down the trail I found Chowchilla, a bird I thought I might struggle to see but eventually walking slowly I found a few family groups of them as they scraped around the forest floor disturbing the leaf litter like demented chooks. The colourful Golden Whistler and the strange-looking Topknot Pigeon were other birds of note. That evening I went out in the feint hope of finding a Lesser Sooty Owl that had been reported a couple of days prior. After half of hour walking around not hearing a thing I suddenly heard a call I was not familiar with. I found two Lesser Sooty Owls sitting on an exposed branch above a field in the torchlight. Mega!
The next day we headed to Mount Hypipamee National Park in the Atherton Tablelands with the chance of an encounter with a Golden Bowerbird. En route we stopped at Mount Molloy School which welcomed birders to view their resident Great Bowerbirds and Squatter Pigeons. What a great rural school, really in touch with their rural environment. Once we arrived at Hypipamee I found the trail to the bower which was like a giant horseshoe shape with a living tree in the centre full of twigs and white petals on one side and a white moss on the other. While I waited some metres away I noticed a Crimson Rosella looking down at me, what a beautiful looking parrot. And then with a whistling entrance there was a stunning male Golden Bowerbird! He sat in the middle of the bower making fine adjustments to his architectural masterpiece. It has to be one of the most stunning birds I've ever seen. An incredible golden glow seemed to light up the gloom of the forest. With Golden Bowerbird safely cemented in my memory and on the list we went to nearby Hasties Swamp; good views of Magpie Geese, Banded Rail, Freckled Duck and Latham's Snipe. Intermediate Egret was in amongst the Royal and lone Yellow-billed Spoonbill. Let's face it, no birding trip is complete without a trip to a swamp!
Every morning at Kingfisher Park I'd been up at first light in in the hope of finding an early migrant Noisy Pitta. I was not happy with my flushed views I'd got earlier on in the trip. My last morning at Kingfisher Lodge I walked around the orchard getting good looks at Dusky Honeyeater and Metallic Starlings and just like the Cassowary I was suddenly aware of a bird very close to me on the edge of the forest. As my eyes and brain focussed I realised I was looking at a beautiful Noisy Pitta. I stepped back to give the bird some space and soaked up the views and took a few shots, what a fantastic few days birding.
From Julatten to the small village of Daintree, our next two nights were at Red Mill House with wonderful and generous hosts, Andrew and Trish. A month earlier I'd met Andrew and Trish at the British Birdwatching Fair - they were on the Australian stand next to us on the New Zealand stand.
Red Mill House was full but Andrew and Trish kindly put Jules and myself up in the guide's accommodation. I say if the cap fits … we had a lovely unit overlooking the garden with a pair of Orange-footed Scrubfowl for neighbours that spent most of their time in the compost bin.
Andrew and Trish were very generous with their local knowledge and we explored the surrounding Daintree area up to Cape Tribulation. A lunch stop at Thornton Beach proved a good choice as one of my most sought after birds put on a great show - a pair of Beach Stone Curlew - needless to stay I took plenty of photographs.
One of the main reasons for staying at Daintree was to go on a dawn river cruise for Great-billed Heron. The first bird seen was its smaller cousin, Striated Heron. Sacred Kingfisher followed soon after, then a very showy Azure Kingfisher, and a pair of Satin Flycatchers put on a good show. High in a tree above the water was our quarry, the huge Great-billed Heron. Great stuff! We jetted up and down the river, sometimes slowing into smaller areas with overhanging trees, one of which was camouflaging three roosting Papuan Frogmouths. On the way back to the wharf we saw a pair of Pacific Baza displaying and on the bank a pair of Radjah Shelduck.
After a couple of hours on the river we headed back to Red Mill House for breakfast and then the drive to Cairns for our last night in tropical north Queensland. My timing was a bit better and I caught the tide coming in at The Esplanade which is world famous in birding terms for getting good looks at a great selection of waders. I set the scope up as dog walkers, children, parents, joggers went past and I had great views of Far Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, and Great Knot. A huge Australian Pelican was surrounded by dainty Red-necked Stints, elegant Curlew Sands, Red-capped Plovers, a single Terek Sandpiper, a couple of Wandering Tatler, a few Gull-billed Terns, and a scattering of the busy Black-fronted Dotterels.
To break the journey back to Stewart Island we spent a few nights in Sydney. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind cities, I'm just not good with a lot of people and tend to migrate to the green spaces on the map. We found ourselves in the Botanical Gardens which has great views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. I took my camera to get some shots of the more common species that are used to human presence - Chestnut Teal, Pacific Black Duck were showy plus Australian Raven, Noisy Minor and the comical looking Crested Pigeon. What was a real surprise was finding a Powerful Owl roosting above the path in the gardens, thanks to a tip from one of the ladies at the Information Desk!
With the obligatory photos of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House in the bag, we had a cold beer at Darling Harbour, watched the human race do its thing and headed home to the quiet of Stewart Island.
In the middle of August, it took three flights to get from Stewart Island to Auckland, and two long flights to Singapore and then London, the planes getting progressively larger with each leg of the trip. After thirty-odd hours travel I arrived at London Heathrow Airport at 5pm on a Friday night. Rush hour was not the best time to arrive and I spent the next two and a half hours on the M25, laughingly referred to as the biggest car park in the world. When I finally arrived at my family home in Kent I was pretty shattered. I was wide awake at 4am the next morning but spent the day chillaxing and adjusting to British summertime.
A Sunday afternoon family BBQ was planned which gave me the opportunity for some morning birding. By 7am I was at Sevenoaks Wildlife Trust Reserve reconnecting with common British species and enjoying the lakes and deciduous woodlands in the company of Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers, Wrens and Robins. Deeper into the woodland I encountered Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit and Blue Tit. In the reed beds I found my first Reed Warbler in two years and on the open water, Great Crested Grebe, Tufted Duck and Pochard swam around. A flash of electric blue caught my eye and a Kingfisher whizzed by and settled on a low branch, perfect to get him in the scope and surely one of the UK's most stunning birds.
Mid-morning I moved on to Bough Beech Causeway, a good inland site to connect with waders but as I got out of the car the first bird I raised my bins to was a Red Kite, drifting high above the adjacent woodland. Kingfisher and Red Kite within 30 minutes of each other, not too shabby! In my old Kent birding days a Red Kite would have been a noteworthy bird but with a lot of reintroduction programmes throughout the UK they are a more common sight. Common Buzzard has also become very common in the south-east of England. I remember many years ago twitching a Common Buzzard to get it on my Kent list! Common Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper were plentiful along with Lapwing, Redshank and Ruff. Little Egrets were everywhere and I got nice views of Grey Wagtail and a bit of searching rewarded me with views of skulky Mandarin Ducks. Swallows and Sand Martins hawked insects above the small lake joined by the less common House Martins, so not a bad morning's birding.
Next day in the field was to one of my favourite reserves in the UK- Oare Marshes. A small reserve with a big reputation that sits on the southern side of the Swale Estuary looking across to the Isle of Sheppey. I connected with the long-staying Bonaparte's Gull when I was last here in 2013, and amazingly the bird had been reported again this year.
As I walked around the reserve on a beautiful sunny day there was no sign of this diminutive American gull. To be honest I wasn't too phased as there was plenty to keep me happy. A huge flock of 3000-plus Black-tailed Godwits were the main species on the the scrape but the most enjoyable part of the day was spent scanning through the flock to find other species. Common Snipe, Golden Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Red Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit. In the reed beds Bearded Tits pinged their presence and a skulky Water Rail eventually gave itself up.
As I walked back along the road my first Sedge Warbler of the trip called from a bramble bush and a Yellow Wagtail flew overhead. I bumped into my old mate Howard Vaughn who is a Kent-based birder and RSPB Warden at Rainham in Essex.
"Hey Matt, I've got the bird in the scope", he called.
Expecting to see the Bonaparte's Gull, I was surprised to find a flock of Dunlin in view, with a smaller bird amongst them. "I haven't seen one of those for a few years, it looks like a White-rumped Sandpiper".
"That's right," replied Howard, "that's why everyone's here. What were you expecting? The Bonaparte's Gull?"
"Yes," I replied, "I haven't got access to Rare Bird Alert, I've only been in the country three days!" which amused Howard greatly!
As we continued to watch the rare American wader, six high flying Whimbrels called and a flock of 100 Grey Plover in their summer plumage came to land in at the far bank not to mention a couple of European Oystercatchers, and the end of another good day's birding.
One of the reasons for this UK visit was the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water, a three-day ornithological event. On the New Zealand stand I was representing Ulva's Guided Walks on Stewart Island. Lynette and Gary from Albatross Encounter, Dave and Chris from Heritage Expeditions, Sav from Wrybill Birding Tours and Wendy from Oamaru Blue Penguins.
Friday was the busiest I've ever known, Saturday just as good, and Sunday stuck to its tradition of being the slower day. It was good to meet new people, chat with previous clients and catch up with old birding friends that dropped by; John Gates from Norfolk, Alan and Ruth from The Biggest Twitch, and Kent birders Barry Wright, Gary Howard and John Tilbrook. After a busy three days it was time to pack up - amazing that it takes 4 hours to set up and an hour to take down.
Monday morning we said our goodbyes as the rest of the team headed their separate ways home to New Zealand. I had another few days in the UK and on my way back to Kent popped in to see highly acclaimed wader expert, Richard Chandler for a cuppa - how very English! Richard has very fond memories of Stewart Island and the time we spent together photographing Southern New Zealand Dotterels back in 2011.
My county-hopping next took me to see my good mate Pete Moore in Dorset. He'd been home alone for a week as the family were away camping and Pete informed me that the local pub was cooking tea for us that night. We chatted and drank the night away over fish and chips and I woke the next morning feeling a bit fuzzy. Thankfully Pete was onto it with bacon sarnies for breakfast. Black clouds loomed outside and although the forecast wasn't great Pete suggested Middlebere where there was a chance of migrants - and it had a bird hide in case it rained. It was a good call - as we arrived the rain started. The hide overlooked a tidal estuary and we got Osprey, Spoonbill and Yellow-legged Gull. The rain got heavier and the birds kept showing; Greenshank, Spotted Redshank and a couple of Curlews showed up as the tide started to drop. A break in the weather allowed a walk along the track and the bushes alongside produced Common Redstart, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Bullfinches, Robins, Mistle Thrushes and a lone Dartford Warbler. A pair of Raven flew above us with their familiar clonking call. We dodged the rain showers at a couple more sites and were rewarded with a family of Woodlarks, Hobby, Northern Wheatear. An awesome day birding proving whatever the weather good birds can be found, thanks Pete!
Next morning was a different venue and a different Pete, this time Essex birder Pete Merchant. I met Pete at "the Patch", the famous sea watching site at Dungeness, on Kent's south coast.
Heaps of Northern Gannets were flying past when two small shearwaters were spotted. As they came closer we made out the smudgy brown underwing of Balearic Shearwaters. As we tracked them in the scope John Tilbrook arrived and we got him onto the birds. In the foreground a close Kittiwake flew past and my first and only Turnstone of the trip flew along the beach. I picked up a lone Arctic Skua distantly harassing a Black-headed Gull, the Skua was quickly followed by a second bird then Pete called another shearwater. As soon as I had it in the scope the shape and flight was very familiar to me … a Sooty Shearwater! Always good to see a bird from another hemisphere.
After about an hour the sea passage started to slow but there were reports of a good selection of birds on the ARC Pit so we headed there. First species of note was a couple of Spotted Flycatchers just outside the hide. The small islands outside the hide had an awesome selection of waders and wildfowl, Black-tailed Godwits, Golden Plover and Red Knot. New birds for the trip list included Temminck's Stint and Little Stint, Wood Sandpiper, Red-crested Pochards and a flock of Black Terns.
On the way to get a coffee at the visitor centre we found Tree Sparrows at the feeders, Marsh Harrier and two Great White Egrets flew around. As I said my farewells to Pete there was time for one more species - four Winchat sitting in the bushes on the entrance track. Dunge really came up with the goods and fine company, cheers Pete!
On my last full day, local patch Tudley Woods got me a few more birds for the trip list; Coal Tit, Goldcrest and Tree Creeper and at 7am the next morning I was drinking coffee at Heathrow Airport with 131 species on my Trip list. As the huge A380 airbus accelerated down the runway towards Abu Dhabi and Sydney I noticed a lone starling flying alongside trying to keep up. No chance! We disappeared into the grey clouds ...
I finished June's post with a lifer and am beginning this instalment with another one!
During the shoulder season, the Aurora (the boat that I guide on pelagics in summer) is often chartered to take hunting parties to remote parts of Stewart Island. Hunting parties range in size with anything up to a dozen guys "going bush" for a week or more in search of Virginia White-tailed Deer and the less common Red Deer.
Ty, skipper of the Aurora asked if I wanted to join him on a trip down to Port Pegasus with one such hunting party so we loaded up with about 8 large tubs of gear and their dinghies, for the four hour journey south.
As they say down in this part of the world, the sea was a bit sloppy. The group started to turn a shade of pea green and a few lost their breakfast. Some lost their dinner from the night before too.
It was perfect conditions for birds so I was out on the back deck scanning for anything unusual that we might encounter. The unwell came outside, although for different reasons, so I left them feeding the fish and went into the wheelhouse. Among the hundreds of Buller's Albatross was a lone Sooty Shearwater heading south. Not sure where he was going or what he was up to but all his relatives are in the Northern Hemisphere feeding in the Bering Sea off Alaska and off the coast of California. I also picked up a lone White-headed Petrel flying south.
About half way into our journey I saw a small bird heading straight towards us, my first thought was that it was a Broad-billed Prion. The waves were about 3-4 metres high and it kept disappearing behind a wall of water but it had a very noticeable dark collar and the stand out feature was an obvious white tip to the tail. Alarm bells started ringing - I knew this bird but had never seen one before. The bird did a full circle of the boat to give us a better look and after checking the field guide we keep on the boat, it was a confirmed lifer … a Blue Petrel! What a smart bird - and the bonus of a Stewart Island tick.
Not common around New Zealand's main three islands so I'm pleased to get this on my New Zealand list.
We've had some real cold snaps this winter but one particularly bright crisp chilly day I was offered an opportunity I could not refuse. My mate Phil and his wife Annett own guest accommodation and a sea kayak business here on Stewart Island and they asked if I'd like to join them for a paddle around Ulva Island. I spend a lot of time here; I've walked around Ulva Island, seen it from the air; and been around it on various boats but this would be a very different and special way to see 'my office'.
The sea was clear and calm, hardly any wind, and we took around four hours to circumnavigate Ulva Island. It was an awesome trip plus the bonus of close encounters with a few White-capped Albatross loafing around the eastern tip of the island.
Talking of close encounters, I was very fortunate to 'meet' the resident pod of Bottlenose Dolphins. I haven't had my camera out very much recently, but very glad I did on this occasion.
While pottering around the garden, a visitor had me rushing for my bins, in the shape of a lone Brown Creeper. This is only the second time I've seen one in my garden; the first time was three years ago and there were three birds - on both occasions they chose the same tree.
On the work front, the 2015/16 season looks to be heading for another busy one with bookings already coming in.
As I write, snow flakes flutter past the office window and the fire roars in the living room. Winter has arrived, this year seems to have rushed by seemingly missing out autumn altogether. The guiding season has certainly slowed down but continued well into April and May with occasional bookings for Ulva Island and evening kiwi spotting. Also keeping me busy was five minute bird call counts for SIRCET, doing a piece to camera for the BBC and meeting a Prince! More about that later.
In November's news I mentioned that I'd supplied some photos for Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne's latest book on Sri Lankan birds. My copy of "A Naturalist's Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka" has just arrived in the mail - well done Gehan!
On Ulva Island some of the bird habits have changed. Species such as Brown Creeper and Yellowhead usually spend the summer feeding separately but in winter they tend to flock together, often joined by Yellow-crowned Parakeets. Red-crowned Parakeets, Kaka and Pigeon are feeding on the huge amount of Miro berries that have fallen to the ground and the male Robins are still holding territory. Weka chicks that have been so regular at Boulder Beach have moved on.
Kiwi Spotting we've regularly found between four and six birds each trip and one night in particular showed a great interaction between a male and larger female, bill tapping and strange cooing and growling. To a lot of visiting birders the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi is the holy grail of the endemics and I never get tired of watching them even though I've seen a lot. The Stewart Island Brown Kiwi is not endangered and the population is thought to be around 18-20,000. It's the largest of the five kiwi species, the female bigger than the male weighing in at about 5kg.
April saw me spending my days out in the bush monitoring and recording native and endemic bird calls for SIRCET's Five Minute Bird Call Count. This annual count gathers data from two areas of Stewart Island to compare a project area that is actively pest trapped and a second other area that isn't. It's the fifth year I've done this project for SIRCET and disappointingly bird call numbers were down this year, possibly due to a higher number of rats.
Stewart Island is not like New Zealand's two main islands in that we don't have major pests such as stoats, weasels, pigs, goats, ferrets, mice and rabbits. We do however have two species of deer, three species of rat, brush-tailed possums and feral cats. Birdlife down here is prolific with common endemic species like Tui, Bellbird, Tomtit fairly common and it's probably one of the best places in New Zealand to see Kaka.
New Zealand is a small archipelago of islands that broke away from South America at the time of Gondwanaland and had only three mammal species which were bats. Only two of them exist in New Zealand today, so birds became king and many became flightless because of no mammalian predators. Maori and Pakeha (European) brought pigs, goats, rabbits, hare and deer etc to New Zealand for food and rats and mice stowed away on ships coming to the country. These introduced species thrived and so stoats, weasels and polecats were introduced to New Zealand to kerb the growing mammalian problem. The introduced pests chose to eat the easy targets instead - New Zealand's flightless birds. A classic case of man messing with the system. Here endeth the natural history lesson!
In May I was contacted by the BBC Natural History Unit who wanted to film Sooty Shearwaters here on Stewart Island. Two full days of filming was booked for around 4 minutes of footage. Award-winning cameraman, Mark MacEwen and field assistant Claire Thompson were filming for a piece to be aired in the UK in October for a series called Big Blue Live. It sounds a bit like the Springwatch format but is about the wildlife that visits, lives and passes through Monterey in California.
Aurora Charters was hired to get us on out the water but our first day filming was a bit of a right-off. Strong winds and roaring seas meant filming was virtually impossible. Weather the next day was perfect so my good mate, skipper Ty on the good ship Aurora soon had us within filming distance of a flock of 60 rafting Sootys. Mark got the shots he wanted and I was interviewed about the incredible migration the Sooty Shearwater makes. The Sootys that breed here in southern New Zealand do a mega migration of around 47,000 miles to the Bering Sea and back across the Pacific. Many of these birds fly through Monterey on their way north as well as a few that spend the summer off California. I was a bit nervous and don't know how much of me will end up on the cutting room floor and suffice to say that Sir David Attenborough has no competition from me.
I meet hundreds of birders every year through my work, whether it be for Wrybill Birding Tours, Ulva's Guided Walks, Aurora Charters pelagics or Bravo Kiwi Spotting. With the greatest respect to all the awesome people I meet, when May comes around we all feel a bit jaded by the season and faces and names can become a bit of a blur. However one of my last trips to Ulva Island was a little different.
Stewart Island hosted His Royal Highness, Prince Harry on his first official visit to New Zealand. For a small community of around 400 people it was special for everyone to have such a high profile visitor, and he even stayed the night! Prince Harry walked everywhere; he met the local school kids, had fish and chips at the pub quiz, went to church, and visited Ulva Island.
As Chairman of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Prince Harry about Ulva Island and the birdlife for around 15 minutes. He seemed like a very normal, grounded, nice guy - albeit one that doesn't have a normal life. I've never seen so many media photographing and reporting everything he does and says. He was quoted as saying that he loved Stewart Island and Ulva Island, its lack of tall buildings and abundance of green.
I refrained from calling this latest news "When Harry Met Matty"!! I imagine that's what my mate Peter Moore would've called it!
By now you'll know that I spend most of my working days on boats leading pelagics, showing birders from all over the world the rare endemics on Ulva Island and Stewart Island. I guess most people try to avoid their place of work on their days off but I enjoy spending time on Ulva Island by myself walking around with my camera. Just recently I spent a cold crisp winter morning there and saw most species. Ulva Island is an important place to me so it's not a total surprise that five years ago I became a trustee of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust who's main focus is to raise money and awareness about how special Ulva Island is, and to help keep it predator-free and open to the public. Perhaps a little more surprising is that I became Chairman of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust three years ago!
Prince Harry received many gifts from islanders and community volunteer groups during his visit. The Ulva Island Charitable trust gave him a copy of Primeval Paradise, a fantastic DVD containing stunning footage of Ulva Island's birdlife and a booklet that visitors can buy if they are going across without a guide. The booklet contains information about birds, orchids and trees that can be encountered as well as the history of this jewel in the crown of Rakiura National Park. He also received a copy of Ulva Goodwillie's book "A Visitor's Guide to Ulva Island" and "Seaberry Stomp", a book written by Jess Kany to raise funds for Rugrats, and illustratrated by yours truly.
I saw my first couple of Cattle Egrets of the year - a bit earlier than usual. While photographing one of the birds I spotted my first ever Monarch Butterfly on Stewart Island. Reasonably common further north where it's a bit warmer. Maybe it had been blown across the Tasman with the Cattle Egrets.
Other bird news; I've also seen my first New Zealand Pipit in the township this winter and a couple of Welcome Swallows hanging around, but probably the most exciting came in the beautiful form of an adult Light-mantled Sooty Albatross (boom, lifer!). It tracked the wake of the ferry for a brief moment as we headed back to Stewart Island from Bluff. The Foveaux Strait living up to its reputation as being one of the most unpredictable stretches of sea. This stunning looking albatross breeds on the sub-Antarctic islands south of Stewart Island and tends to migrate up on the west side of the island. They are often seen on pelagics out of Tasmania and New South Wales in winter months.
A very busy season seems to be slowing up and I've had my first full weekend off in a while. The weather has been really good and the Yellowheads and Saddlebacks seem to enjoy the sunshine on Ulva Island - don't we all!
Mid January saw me back on the road leading a 21-day tour of New Zealand for Wrybill.
The first day started with a fizz at Muriwai with the long-staying Brown Booby in the middle of the Australasian Gannet colony! The Brown Booby was found by Ruth Miller and Alan Davies of The Biggest Twitch on 9th December 2014. This rare northern pacific visitor seems to go missing for long periods of time but thankfully it was there - a new bird for the Wrybill list and a New Zealand tick for me! Later that night we added North Island Brown Kiwi to our list.
At Waipu we saw a large percentage of New Zealand's rarest bird, the Fairy Tern sub species Sternula Nereis Davisae. Great views of 11 birds ranging from adults to first year birds. In 1983 the number of this species plummeted to 3 pairs but after intensive conservation efforts there are around 10 breeding pairs and less than 50 birds.
New Zealand Storm Petrel was the target bird on the Hauraki Gulf pelagic. It was a great full day pelagic and we saw 8 of our target bird plus awesome views of Flesh-footed and Fluttering Shearwaters, the very attractive Buller's Shearwater, Black and Cook's Petrels, and plenty of White-faced Storm Petrels and Fairy Prions.
On TiriTiri Matangi the next morning we literally saw everything that was possible to see on this predator free island. Along with the common species we also had Stitchbird, Whitehead and North Island Saddleback plus North Island Robin - and some of the best views I've ever had of North Island Kokako.
The afternoon was just as productive with Fernbird, Brown Teal, Takahe with a very young fluffy chick and a Spotless Crake with young. After a barbeque supper cooked by yours truly in the evening we saw Little Spotted Kiwi and Tuatara. We'd pretty much got a full house on Tiri and as we walked to the wharf the next morning we found a sleeping Morepork to round things off before we boarded our water taxi to get back to the mainland.
Next stop was New Zealand's wader hotspot, Miranda. Pectoral, Sharp-tailed, and Marsh Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Far Eastern Curlew and Pacific Golden Plovers and a couple of extra tern species were added in the shape of Little Tern and White-winged Black Tern. Not forgetting firm favourite, the Wrybill plus great views of Banded Rail in the car park.
Heading to the centre of the North Island our list grew with Australasian Bittern, Blue Duck, Rifleman, Long-tailed Cuckoos as well as New Zealand Falcon.
Crossing to the South Island we had awesome views of a Pomeranian Skua flying alongside the ferry as we entered Queen Charlotte Sound. The following morning we were back out onto the Sound photographing Hector's Dolphin, one of the world's rare and smallest dolphins and the much sought after King Shag were sunning themselves on the rocks. After 2½ hours searching for Orange-fronted Parakeet on Bluemine Island this skulky little fellow eventually gave himself - stunning views for the whole group!
En route to Kaikoura we found two Hoary-headed Grebes. Pretty common in Australia but a rare vagrant in New Zealand. Four birds turned up here last year and obviously bred as one adult had a stripy chick in tow.
The next two days were spent at Kaikoura. The first pelagic was skippered by Tracy - great views of Gibson's Wandering Albatross, Northern Royal, White-capped and Salvin's Albatross, Northern Giant Petrel and Cape Petrels squabbled at the back of the boat and Westland Petrels and Hutton's Shearwater flew by. Pelagic number two was skippered by my good mate Gary. A few extra birds this time including White-chinned and Westland Petrel - always good to see these two species together to sharpen the skills! Buller's and Flesh-footed Shearwaters kept us ticking over and as we headed back into South Bay a big pod of Dusky Dolphins frolicked in our wake.
Arthur's Pass was our next stop, in the spine of the Southern Alps. Birding produced South Island Robin, Yellow-crowned Parakeet and the entertaining intelligent Kea.
A weather bomb hit the west coast and produced the only major dip of the trip - sadly the Okarito Kiwi trip was cancelled. Bummer! In a Franz Josef restaurant that evening we consoled ourselves with apple pie and pavlova because we hadn't seen the rarest kiwi. To ease our pain a pair of New Zealand Falcons landed in the car park opposite the restaurant window! Dessert was forgotten as table and chairs were screeched out of the way for everyone to get a view of this endemic raptor.
At Haast Past the weather did its worst we still managed to get brief views of Yellowhead. Moving on towards Milford, our next big target was Rock Wren which is never a sure thing but we got terrific views of this alpine species.
The next couple of nights were at home for me as the tour took us to Stewart Island. Just like the November Wrybill tour the weather turned to custard. Gale force winds cancelled our lunchtime ferry so we made do with a bit of urban birding around Bluff harbour and got two ticks in the shape of Buller's Albatross and Stewart Island Shag before boarding the late afternoon ferry.
We'd usually spread birding over two days on Stewart Island but this wasn't going to be possible so it meant getting up early the next morning and by 8am our only land bird target was cemented to our growing tour total, South Island Saddleback! Ulva Island also produced great views of Brown Creeper, Yellowhead, Weka and the ever charming Stewart Island Robin.
Ty the skipper of the Aurora picked us up from Ulva Island at 10.30am and this pelagic really produced the goods. A big bonus was a Fiordland Crested Penguin seen moulting in a cave on the coast, never guaranteed this time of year. Brown Skua, Mottled Petrel and a couple of Grey-backed Stormies were added to the list but what really made this trip was the huge numbers of White-capped, Buller's and Salvin's Albatross.
As we left Stewart Island happy with our haul the ferry ride was less exhilarating (some would say calmer!) than the trip over. The final two days of our tour would see us heading north to Christchurch. At Oamaru we got stunning views of Yellow-eyed Penguins; including one very showy individual who didn't mind the paparazzi attention and also an adult feeding two chicks.
Into Mackenzie country for our last endemic of the trip, we had great scope views of an adult Black Stilt feeding. After a coffee break we shifted location which really paid off as we found 23 birds ranging from first birds, juvenile and very classy looking adults. Cameras really got a work out here as we soaked up views of one of the world's rare birds and as we walked back to the van for lunch a New Zealand Falcon perched right next to us on a post. Our 6th NZ Falcon of the trip - not too shabby!
Our last day and always a chance for a bit of birding on the way to Christchurch Airport. At the top of Mount John we enjoyed a fabulous vista and our last bird species of the trip - the Chukar! This introduced partridge has a very restricted range in New Zealand and it's always a bonus to get it on the trip list.
As I plugged Christchurch Airport into the SatNav our 21 day tour had reached a grand total of 156 bird species. Pretty good going considering the Whitianga pelagic was cancelled before we'd even started the trip and we dipped on Okarito Kiwi.
This group had gelled very well together, we'd had fun and seen some great birds. As some flew to London, others to Los Angeles … I flew to Invercargill and home to Stewart Island the next day.
The following day I was guiding on the Birding Bonanza, which this season particularly seems to have grown into a good combo. The pelagics especially have grown, numbers are up on the last two years. As I write this we've had our final pelagic of the season where we saw five albatross species including a juvenile Black-browed Albatross - and our first Wilson's Storm Petrel of the season - better late than never!
As I said at the beginning, the weather has been good, and I'm still guiding on Ulva Island. It's been a busy season on Ulva Island, pelagics, kiwi spotting and Wrybill Tours and there are already dates in the diary for next season and into 2016.
With April just around the corner, once again I'll be doing the SIRCET five minute bird call counts and it'll be nice to spend time in the bush, just me and the birds.
Last but not least, I'd like to thank Jules for rejigging my website to include a new Petrels section in New Zealand birds.
November is always a busy month for me and this one was no exception. I spent most of the month on the road leading a 21-day bird watching tour for Wrybill Birding Tours.
Leaving Auckland we bird-watched all three of New Zealand's islands. The weather seemed to be against us but all in all it was a successful trip. Highlights were North Island Brown Kiwi on the first night, getting Greater Crested Tern on my New Zealand list (embarrassing myself with a victory dance!), five NZ Stormies on the Hauraki Gulf pelagic (despite a storm), plus Bryde's and Humpback Whale.
At one stage it looked like we might not get onto Tiritiri Matangi Island due to rough weather, but we made it and cleaned up on all the endemics; North Island Saddleback, Whitehead, North Island Kokako, Stitchbird, Brown Teal, Takahe - and in the evening, Little Spotted Kiwi. Awesome!
At Miranda Reserve we feasted on (not literally!) a great selection of waders; thousands of Bar-tailed Godwits, a lone Far Eastern Curlew, Pacific Golden Plovers, Red-necked Stints, NZ Dotterels, Curlew, Sharp-tailed and Pectoral Sandpipers along with the iconic Wrybill.
Unfortunately the Whitianga pelagic was cancelled due to another storm (bit of a theme developing here) but heading through the centre of the North Island we picked up Yellow-crowned Parakeet, North Island Robin and Blue Duck. South of Taupo we had at least 9 Australasian Bitterns and Fernbird.
Onto the South Island, we had a great trip in Marlborough Sound. Plenty of New Zealand King Shag and a pair of Orange-fronted Parakeet. The wind died down in Kaikoura - just when we needed it for the pelagic! It was pretty quiet compared to its usual very high standards but we got plenty of Hutton's Shearwater, Westland Petrels and four albatross species: Wandering, Southern Royal, NZ White-capped and Salvin's.
Heading through Arthur's Pass to the west coast we picked up views of Kea and NZ Falcon plus a very brief encounter with Okarito Kiwi. The rarest of the kiwi species was very bashful as it sped across the path. Rock Wren was the star at the Homer Tunnel near Milford Sound.
Another storm threatened our trip to Stewart Island. The ferry was delayed for hours and kiwi spotting didn't happen at all. We did manage to get to Ulva Island for awesome views of Yellowhead, Yellow-crowned Parakeet and South Island Saddleback. In the afternoon we did a half day pelagic with Ty on Aurora Charters and had great views of White-chinned Petrel, more Southern Royal, Fairy Prions, and ever present Sooty Shearwaters.
Leaving Stewart Island we spend the last couple of days of the trip back on the South Island where we encountered fantastic views of Yellow-eyed Penguin and Black Stilt. After dropping the clients off at Christchurch it was home to Stewart Island for me and straight back into the Birding Bonanza; guiding on Ulva Island and with Ty on Aurora Charters!
A full trip report and check list will be available on the Wrybill Birding Tours website.
Mid-December I was honoured to be invited to a book launch at the Stewart Island Gift Shop by Jess Kany. About 18 months ago Jess had asked me to illustrate a children's book that she had written as a fundraising project for the Stewart Island Early Childhood Education Centre. The idea came to her because I'd done the odd sketch for the Stewart Island News, of which she is editor. I agreed to take on the project, but it wasn't as easy as I'd first thought! Jess is a straight talker so I knew if it wasn't good enough she'd have told me. Even so, I think I make a better bird-watcher than illustrator of children's books, but it's a privilege to be involved - and slightly terrifying signing books for people!
Jess, like myself, is an 'import' to Stewart Island - originally from New York she married a local fisherman and is mum to two sons. No stranger to writing she's had articles published in many magazines, but "Seaberry Stomp" is her first children's book which is about a young sea lion's adventures around Stewart Island.
Later in December Alan Davies and Ruth Miller from North Wales visited Stewart Island. In 2008 Alan and Ruth broke the world record for seeing the most species of bird in one calendar year - 4341! The previous record of 3662 had stood for 19 years held by Jim Clements. The Biggest Twitch blog and book recorded their amazing birding adventures and I defy any bird-watcher not to admire their courage at giving up everything (house, car, jobs, savings) to fund this astonishing achievement.
I'd met Alan and Ruth at the British Birdwatching Fair in 2010 and became friends with them. The Biggest Twitch in 2008 didn't bring them to New Zealand but they were keen to get here. We met again at the BBF in 2011 and 2013 and finally at the end of 2014 they made it to New Zealand - and Stewart Island!
The weather during their stay was fantastic! The birds on Ulva Island performed very well for our Birding Bonanza that day and Alan and Ruth got more lifers for their bulging life list. It wasn't too windy for the afternoon pelagic with Ty on Aurora Charters - which suited Alan who isn't a great sailor - but we still four species of albatross and a few more lifers for them. Kiwi was one of Ruth's most sought-after birds which she got later that night.
I accompanied them for a couple of days on the South Island. First stop was Bushey Point B&B - Jenny and Ian showed us around their great private reserve on the outskirts of Invercargill where we got awesome views of Fernbird. From there we based ourselves in Te Anau and drove out the next day to Homer Tunnel near Milford Sound. A pair of Rock Wren were very interested in Alan's "pishing" - maybe something in the accent?! Whatever it was, these little guys were very curious.
Milford Sound itself was very touristy but has stunning scenery. Tourists provided much amusement with the latest craze of "selfie sticks" - posing with iPhones on a stick to get a wider angle photo of themselves!
Alan and Ruth encountered their first Kea; we piled sticks and stones like a game of Jenga and these very intelligent parrots could not control their curiosity as they pulled at sticks and made the tower fall over.
At lunch near the river we got Blue Duck and into the lowland forest and flat lands we encountered South Island Robin, Yellow-crowned Parakeet, Brown Creeper, Rifleman and beautiful Black-fronted Terns hunting on the braided river.
After breakfast and a farewell to Alan and Ruth I left Te Anau and returned to Stewart Island. They continued up the west coast of New Zealand's South Island and are now leading a bird tour in Thailand.
Christmas came and went and what a scorcher it was this year. Shorts and t-shirt weather, sunny blue skies and not a breath of wind. But I don't think I'll ever get used to a summer Christmas!
2015 is here and a new bird list for the year has begun. In mid-January I'm back on tour with Wrybill for another 21-day bird-watching tour of New Zealand.
No rest for the wicked - but I know I'm a lucky b*stard! I'm very fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world and get to show lifers to bird-watchers of all standards.
Happy fun-filled birding everyone!
Let's start with the lows. I was offered a couple of weeks work on Codfish Island with the Kakapo Recovery Programme but had to turn it down due to other commitments - which eventually fell through, so a double whammy. It's the second time I've had to turn down a trip to Codfish Island, so all in all not good.
The next low was a bit of a body blow. While I was away from Stewart Island two visiting Japanese birders/photographers saw a bird at Traill Park that they couldn't identify. They saw the bird briefly in the morning - and got a couple of photos - but couldn't locate it later that day. To cut a long story short the bird was a Dusky Woodswallow which is a first for New Zealand. One photo shows the bird feeding on a worm; the second photo shows the bird looking very bedraggled with droopy wings. It didn't look particularly healthy and I think when they spotted it, it had just turned up. All species of woodswallow I've seen seem to hunt and feed on the wing so for this Dusky Woodswallow to be feeding on the ground is quite unusual behaviour.
When I got back to the island a couple of days after the initial sighting, I spent the whole day trying to locate the bird but without any joy. It could have moved on but personally I think it may have sadly perished. Bugger! I hate missing out on a bird - especially a first for New Zealand on my local patch. Ouch that hurts!
On to the highs. I made a reconnection with an old acquaintance, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne. Gehan contacted me out of the blue to ask if he could use a couple of my photos for his latest book on Sri Lankan birds. Jules and myself first met Gehan in 2004 when he was Managing Director of Jetwing Eco Tours in Sri Lanka and we had an amazing month of wildlife watching with them. Gehan is an exceptional photographer and now based in London, having really put Sri Lanka on the map as a wildlife hot spot with leopards, sloth bears, elephants, blue whales and of course the outstanding bird life and friendly people.
Other highs include work moving from neutral to first gear with regular trips to Ulva Island where the Yellowheads and South Island Saddlebacks have shown really well along with the supporting cast of Yellow-crowned Parakeets, Brown Creepers and Robins.
Spring must be in the air as Shining Cuckoo has been singing and seen in the garden and on Ulva Island and a few pairs of Weka already have fluffy chicks demanding food. Yesterday I watched a pair of Paradise Shellducks with ducklings battling the waves at Horseshoe Bay (although normally half the brood succumb to being tasty snacks for the local Kelp Gulls!).
Not to be left out, Halfmoon Bay had a very large bull Hooker's Sealion using the middle of the road as a place to relax. It's the nearest thing we have to a traffic jam on Stewart Island! A couple of days ago near the boat slip a Leopard Seal spent the whole day on the beach. It was quite a small skinny individual but on the whole looked a lot healthier than the leopard seals that usually visit us.
My first kiwi spotting trip of the season was a little slow in the beginning but I found a very confiding female, later joined by her mate who gave us a fine demonstration of his call as we left them to feed.
Our pelagic season has begun with two very successful trips: five albatross species seen including a superb Campbell Island Albatross - definitely one of my favourites! On both trips we've seen White-faced Storm Petrels, a Short-tailed Shearwater amongst the Sooties, White-chinned Petrels plus a very showy Broad-billed Prion. We can also boast a new bird for the Aurora Charters boat list and for Ty the skipper; a fine looking Westland Petrel. This individual was a bit camera-shy but I'm surprised we've not seen one until now.
This brings our boat list to 63 bird species of which 35 are tube-noses.
The birding season ahead looks very busy - bring it on!
As I write, the wind outside has abated so I'm just going to check how my freshly planted veggies are faring ...
As the Southern hemisphere winter rolls on, my work schedule slows quite dramatically. I do get the odd day as relief crew on the ferry which on a rough day is good for the birds! You never know what you'll see from the ferry; one particular morning I got quite a fright when I was taking the ferry off the mooring (in the dark) and and a Bottlenose Dolphin leapt out of the water! A few weeks ago just outside Bluff Harbour we had pretty special views of three humpback whales heading north west through Foveaux Strait.
Overall the winter has been very mild on Stewart Island, although a few cold snaps and harsh frosts have brought Silvereye into the garden searching for food, so I've been able to get a good photo or two.
We've also had kiwi visiting the garden - I've seen probe holes on the back lawn and some kiwi poo on the front lawn!
Not really too much else going on; a lone New Zealand Pipit has been hanging around by the post office and a group of four Cattle Egrets on the golf course (the largest number of these birds I've seen together here!).
Updated: Friday 9th May 2014
April is normally a quiet month on Stewart Island. The end of the season moves out and the winter season moves in with colder nights and shorter days. However, this April has been fairly busy. I covered for the regular guide on the evening kiwi spotting trips for a few weeks and on my final trip finding seven birds! I've also been gathering data for SIRCET doing the annual forest bird call counts. The weather was much better than last April so hopefully that's reflected in the results.
Guiding generally slows up in April but I've lead a few trips to Ulva Island and a Morepork showed well throughout the month, always in one of its three favourite locations.
The beginning of May found me scratching the twitching itch with a trip to the mainland in search of a White-necked Heron that's been hanging around Southland for the last six months. Southland is a large area with not many bird watchers so it hadn't been reported regularly but a week before I was due to head over to Invercargill it was spotted near Mossburn. I spent hours searching the area but no joy.
As North Island birders feasted on a Buff-breasted Sandpiper and a Crested Tern I had to be content with finding my first Cattle Egret of the winter here on Stewart Island. It was making its way to the golf course (one of their favourite haunts here). A few Welcome Swallows have been flitting around the township and I even saw one hawking on Sydney Cove on Ulva Island the other day.
We are just about to complete our annual stint for SIRCET once again doing the Kiwi, Morepork & Weka evening bird call counts which records the number of these nocturnal species in the township.
At the end of May I have a weeks birding in the South Island checking out some locations for the Wrybill tours - something to look forward to!
January is generally a busy month on Stewart Island; primarily for me as a guide with Ulva's Guided Walks and Aurora Charters pelagics. This January however was different because I left the island to learn the ropes for a new guiding opportunity with Wrybill Birding Tours.
I've known Sav and Brent, owner/operators of Wrybill Birding Tours for a number of years and have huge respect for these guys. Both played a key part in the rediscovery of the thought-to-be-extinct New Zealand Storm Petrel in 2003 and Wrybill is at the forefront of putting New Zealand on the international bird watching map. So from a personal point of view it was a no-brainer to accept Brent & Sav's offer. My departure from Stewart Island during our busy season was made easier thanks to the support of Ulva Goodwillie, Colin & Margaret Hopkins and Ty Jenkinson.
The 21-day Wrybill Birding Tour of New Zealand begins in Auckland and the plan was for me to travel from Auckland to Kaikoura with Brent's tour and Kaikoura to Stewart Island on Sav's tour.
Day 1 on the road with our clients we got a few common endemics (Tui, Tomtit, New Zealand Fantail) in the bag just north of Auckland. The popular Australasian Gannet colony at Muriwai is a great place to see these birds at close quarters and everyone's camera got a good warm up as White-fronted Terns, Kelp Gulls joined the gathering. By lunchtime we had New Zealand Dabchick, Grey Teal and New Zealand Scaup and before we went to bed North Island Brown Kiwi were on the list. A cracking first day.
The Fairy Tern, New Zealand's rarest breeding bird (population 40-50) as well as New Zealand and Banded Dotterel, Red Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit and Reef Heron made Day 2 a good one too.
We were all at sea on Day 3 and New Zealand Storm-petrel was the target bird on a full day Hauraki Gulf pelagic. Plenty of other birds joined in the fray as camera shutters clicked away framing this diminutive bird among White-faced Storm Petrels. Flesh-footed Shearwaters, White-fronted Terns, Fluttering Shearwaters, Buller's Shearwater, Arctic Skua, Black Petrels, Grey-faced Petrel and even Grey Ternlets roosting on some rocks - plus a couple of Manta Rays for the list.
Other highlights of the trip included a perfect day on Tiritiri Matangi with a glimpse of the grey ghost, the North Island Kokako, the prehistoric looking Takahe, and an overnight stay to see Little Spotted Kiwi.
Miranda Shorebird Centre is the best place in New Zealand for waders and our arrival was timed perfectly with the tide pushing Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knots and South Island Pied Oystercatchers into view. Finding the less common birds in these big flocks got us all working but it paid off with Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Curlew Sands and a lone Marsh Sandpiper on the list - and Wrybill, the iconic New Zealand wader is always a favourite with the clients.
Our good fortune ran out at Whitianga - the pelagic was cancelled due to strong winds but our consolation prize was a New Zealand Dotterel showing well on the beach. Heading south we got Australasian Bittern and a lunch stop at Pureora Forest produce some good common forest birds; North Island Kaka, Rifleman and Yellow-crowned Parakeet.
A long-staying pair of Plumed Whistling Ducks at Anderson Park in Napier was a New Zealand tick for me and after a night at Turangi our target bird was Blue Duck - we got that on the list before breakfast the next morning - and just outside of town was a pair of New Zealand Dabchicks beside the road!
Brent was unfortunately taken ill as we headed towards Wellington so I got a taste of leading the tour for real. Two species of Albatross (White-capped and Salvin's) during the three-hour ferry crossing to Picton and for some of our clients it was their first ever Albatross encounter. Northern Giant Petrel, Westland Petrel and Sooty Shearwaters were spotted plus Dusky and Common Dolphins.
With Brent recovered, the next day we were out on the water. A showy pod of Hector's Dolphin had us sidetracked but we soon found a dozen of our target bird, which only breeds in the entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound - the King Shag. Later in the day on Blumine Island was a lifer for me in the shape of an Orange-fronted Parakeet. Our clients were pretty happy too especially as we only had 10 minutes left until the boat was due to collect us! While we waited we got Silvereye, Tomtit, Western Weka, South Island Saddleback and NZ Pigeon on the list.
Probably one of the best pelagic destinations in the world, a couple of days in Kaikoura with Albatross Encounter was next for us. Pelagics on both days and five Albatross species for the trip list (Wandering, Northern & Southern Royal, Salvin's and White-capped) not to mention White-chinned and Westland Petrels to test ID skills, Buller's, Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters, along with Kaikoura's very own Hutton's Shearwater. The big surprise was two species of storm petrel; White-faced and one lone Grey-backed and not forgetting the New Zealand mega, a Black Noddy, albeit distant.
After a couple of days in Kaikoura Brent's group continued on their way while I waited for Sav's group to arrive. What better way to spend this time than by going on a few more pelagics with my mate Gazza Melville of Albatross Encounter - another view of Grey-backed Stormie and Black-browed Albatross as well as all the usual suspects.
With Sav's group we left Kaikoura for Arthur's Pass and found the Kea being their mischievous selves. Onto Punakaiki for Great Spotted Kiwi - probably the most difficult kiwi species to find and unfortunately we missed out here. Lunching on the west coast a New Zealand Falcon called above us and coffees and sammies were ditched as clients and guides scrambled for bins to get a view New Zealand's only endemic raptor.
The search for Okarito Kiwi was led by Ian Cooper and after feeding the local mozzie population for an hour and a half we were resigning ourselves to failure, boosted only by a male and female calling close by. And then I heard rustling in front of me and signalled to Ian - a male kiwi walked straight out in front of us, alongside the group and for the next 10 minutes or so we all got very good views of this elusive bird. Everyone slept well that night!
On our way to Wanaka we got our first views of Yellowhead driving through the spectacular Haast Pass as well as Rifleman and Tomtit. On the shoreline at Wanaka we got some good photos of Black Billed Gulls before enjoying a fantastic curry that evening!
A big driving day out of Wanaka saw Black-fronted Terns on the Milford Road and more Blue Duck (two adults and a duckling). At the Homer Tunnel our target bird was Rock Wren but unfortunately that didn't work out for us. Five hours searching resulted in our first major dip of the trip although a success for the Kea that had destroyed our wiper blades while we had left the van in the car park.
We didn't see much during the foggy drive from Te Anau to Bluff but the New Zealand White-capped Albatross followed us on the ferry to Stewart Island, and home for me - and the Stewart Island Shags on the list. Straight over to Ulva Island for our group to see South Island Saddleback adult and chick. The rest of the walk around Ulva Island was relaxed and we got Stewart Island Robin, Stewart Island Weka, and Brown Creeper. We hoped for better views of Yellowhead but our focus changed pretty quickly when a Stewart Island Brown Kiwi walked up to our group at 5pm - and Sav's first day time sighting.
Even though we'd seen kiwi well on Ulva Island, Phillip Smith's Bravo Adventures is still the best way to see Stewart Island Brown Kiwi in the wild and we had prolonged views of three kiwi at Ocean Beach that evening.
Next day back to my "day job" we took our group out for a full day pelagic with good mate Ty on Aurora Charters. It began with a hiss and a roar with a pair of Fiordland Crested Penguins sitting on a rock in Halfmoon Bay. They are usually quite tough to see after Christmas so it was a good start to the day and we also got some good views of Yellow-eyed Penguins.
Out at Wreck Reef looking at a group of Cook's Petrels I noticed one of them looked different - a Stewart Island tick for me in the shape of a Gould's Petrel. Related to Cook's Petrel, breeding in New Caledonia this guy was a long way from home. I'd seen a couple on a Three Kings Pelagic a few years ago but even in the far north they're not that common so to get one on a Stewart Island list was quite incredible.
It was a great experience working with Sav and Brent and I'm looking forward to joining Wrybill as a guide as well as continuing to guide for highly respected companies on Stewart Island.
As I saw Sav and his group leave Stewart Island it was back to work for me, leading a group to Ulva Island. It was nice not having to drive anywhere!
While I was away learning the ropes for Wrybill, my Swarovski binoculars were being repaired in Austria because there isn't a repair centre here in New Zealand. I'm pleased to say they arrived back in New Zealand the other day, looking shiny and new and better than ever!
As I've probably said before, I think of myself as a bird watcher who takes photos, so it was an honour to have my images published in three books recently.
The first is "Birds of New Zealand A Photographic Guide" by Paul Scofield and Brent Stephenson. When I buy a field guide I generally prefer plates and drawings, but this book is the exception. It's a privilege to have seven of my bird images appear in this stunning publication. Renowned wildlife photographer Brent provided 900 of the 1000 images that appear in the book and Paul's writing is equally as engaging.
The second book is "Ulva Island Visitor's Guide" by Ulva Goodwillie. I supplied more than 30 images for this great little book, packed to the gills (or primaries!) with easy to read information about Stewart Island's jewel in the crown; juicy photos of the birds, trees, mammals and orchids found on Ulva Island.
Lastly, my photo of a stunning Stewart Island sunrise taken on Anzac Day 2012 was selected for the "Pride of Southland".
So far this season I've guided on plenty of pelagics but the weather has not been the best. Skipper Ty often says that great boating weather is not good birding weather. The first few trips down to the reef were slow by our very high standards but recent trips have put Stewart Island back on the map as one of the country's (if not the world!) premier pelagic destinations.
Petrel sightings include Mottled, White-headed, White-chinned and Cook's, not to mention Grey-backed Storm Petrel; Northern and Southern Giant Petrels side by side; seven Albatross species; Hutton's and Buller's Shearwaters; and groups of Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters to sharpen our ID skills. And we've added two new tube noses to our boat list which currently stands at more than 30. A Grey-faced Petrel was seen on a couple of trips; seven or eight Fluttering Shearwaters on another. This small scruffy shearwater is very common around the north of New Zealand as far down as the Cook Strait, I'm surprised we haven't seen it before.
Another newcomer to our boat list was a pair of Australian/Chestnut-breasted Shellduck hanging around with some Paradise Shellduck at The Neck. It was a pleasant surprise for me and a new bird for my Stewart Island list which now stands at 115.
Our clients on guided walks of Ulva Island have been privy to good views of Kiwi, Morepork and Saddleback, and Yellowhead in particular this year have been extremely showy and vocal. The weather has been very unpredictable; one day sunshine, the next day hail and rain; calm days followed by gales; typical Stewart Island.
The year's birding has been good; pelagics in the UK, USA and New Zealand, the Bird Fair etc., but there are exciting projects on the horizon for 2014. Watch this space - and Merry Christmas everyone!
Arriving at Los Angeles airport at 8pm after a long flight from Heathrow we were met with American red tape, bureaucracy and traffic jams before we finally made it to our hotel for the night. A huge breakfast the next morning set us up for the drive north on a five-lane highway to Pacific Grove Monterey. Our suburban apartment had magnificent views over the Pacific and Monterey Bay and my first bird was a Western Scrub-Jay shortly followed by Anna's Hummingbird right from the bedroom balcony.
A walk along the foreshore next morning I found Black Turnstones, Surfbird and Black Oystercatchers amongst the rocks with Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorant flying just offshore. In the coastal scrub I was serenaded by song and White-Crowned Sparrows along with the ever present Black Phoebe.
I departed for the first of my three pelagics with Debi Shearwater from Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf. Black Turnstones, Surfbirds and a female Sea Otter escorted us out of the harbour along with a flock of Western and California Gulls. Brown Pelicans followed and our first Pink-footed Shearwater flew into view as well as the occasional Sooty Shearwater. The sea was peppered with Red-necked Phalaropes and Rhinoceros Auklets when we got our first cetacean of the day, way off in the distance a Humpback Whale. Pink-footed Shearwater numbers increased and several Pom Skuas flew around the boat. In the distance a large dark shape revealed itself as a Black-footed Albatross eventually circling the boat and landing on the water. It's white cap was similar to a Kaka making this an adult bird. I grabbed a few photos before my attention was diverted to a small pod of Orca cruising by. Out in the deeper water a Buller's Shearwater joined the day list and a distant Sabine's Gull. Ever present were Pink-footeds criss-crossing the wake at the back of the boat.
Keeping it local the next day I visited Moonglow Dairy, Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing. Just half an hour north this working dairy farm is one of the best places in the world to see the Californian endemic Tricolored Blackbird. I parked the car next to one of the biggest piles of cowshit I have ever seen and in the fields opposite were flocks of Tricoloreds, or as the American birders call them, "Trics". Keeping company with their more common cousin the Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbirds and a couple of Killdeer running around. I discovered a small flock of turkeys in a plantation of Eucalyptus trees and a quick movement at the base of a tree put Bewick's Wren - a smart looking bird with striking white supercilium - onto my list, along with Pacific Slope Flycatcher.
Down at the lagoon Turkey Vultures soared overhead as I scoped Crimson Teal, Pec Sands, and a huge flock of Red-necked Phalaropes whizzed around the surface of the water like clockwork toys. Next to the scrape I found Song Sparrows and a beautiful Clark's Grebe. Waders and ducks panicked as a juvenile Peregrine flew over. It took one of the Red-necked Phalaropes and headed off to a nearby tree to devour its prey, but an American Kestrel took exception to the larger raptor being in the neighbourhood.
I moved onto Elkhorn Slough only 15 mins drive away from Moonglow Dairy. In 1982 this site held the record for the most bird species seen (116) in a single day in all of North America. Eating my lunch I had great views of California Towhee, Western Bluebird and Acorn Woodpecker in the trees around the picnic area. Walking around the very large cool reserve I found a skulking Spotted Towhee and another Californian elusive bird, the California Thrasher and a pair of Oak Titmouse were among a flock of Chestnut-backed Chickadee.
Back towards the coast at Moss Landing completed this full day of birding. Known for Sea Otters in the harbour, a huge raft of males dozed in the afternoon sun. Sealions and Pacific Harbor Seals made up the mammals, waders were represented by flocks of Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, Willets, Least Sandpipers, Long- and Short-billed Dowitchers along with Snowy Egrets and Great Blue Herons not forgetting hundreds of Elegant Turns, Brown Pelicans and the odd Northern Harrier. Moss Landing is certainly a wildlife magnet and provides easy views from the roadside. It reminded me of Oare Marshes back in Kent.
Early starts are an accepted part of bird watching and my trip inland the next day towards the east of Holister was no exception. 6am and the fog still hadn't lifted. At the gas station I filled up the car and got a caffeine kick for me before driving up into the hills. First bird of the day a Loggerhead Shrike. Near a small plantation of oak trees the fog began to lift and I caught a quick movement at the very top of the tree - a White-breasted Nuthatch foraging for breakfast. I spotted a pair of Black-tailed Deer watching me but the slight movement of raising my camera made them bolt for cover. Further up the road was a Yellow Warbler feeding in a roadside bush and a pair of noisy Acorn Woodpeckers above. A family of twenty-plus turkeys crossed the road, in turn flushing a pair of Californian Quail.
By now the sun was up, the fog well and truly gone and a beautiful blue sky revealed. A Northern Flicker drank from a water trough, a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree, and in the roadside verge was a flock of beautiful Lark Sparrows plus a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos. In the distance a Golden Eagle appeared in my bins - no shortage of food here with the vast number of Ground Squirrels running about. As I walked back to the car the bird I most wanted to see today joined my life list - a Yellow-billed Magpie. This very striking corvid, with its long tail and yellow facial bare skin, has a tiny range within California so I was thrilled to see it, along with another lifer, Say's Phoebe.
This arid landscape up in the hills has a popular watering hole for local birds. The area is also a popular place for cannibis growers and I had been warned to stay by my car and not wander too far from the road. Heeding this warning I found the pond and set up my scope. First to arrive was the beautiful Townsend's Warbler and a small party of Sage Sparrows flicked through the bushes towards the waters edge. They looked nervously around as I watched them. As a jeep drove slowly past it was my turn to look nervous as the driver studied me. I kept my eyes on the striking black face mask of a Lawrence's Goldfinch that had suddenly appeared, and thankfully the jeep drove on. It was a bit of a looney tunes day in more ways than one. Great roadside birding and I saw a Greater Roadrunner and a Coyote.
Back at Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf for pelagic number two and the bird of the day was the tiny Cassin's Auklet. For the American birdwatchers it was the rare Flesh-footed and Buller's Shearwater, birds that I see regularly back in New Zealand. Cetaceans stole the show though with large numbers of Humpback Whale, a pod of Orca, Pacific White-sided Dolphins frolicked in the wake of the boat, Northern Right Whale Dolphins and Dall's Porpoise, bow riding for a while. A small pod of Risso's Dolphin made a brief appearance as we cruised back into the harbour.
From our apartment in Pacific Grove we drove further north to Half Moon Bay which is about 30 miles south of San Francisco. As we live in Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island where else were we going to spend our last few nights?
We had a smart but tiny room overlooking the harbour and the next morning I was at the Pillar Point wharf at 7am for my third and final pelagic. The harbour wall plays host to huge flocks of Brown Pelicans, Whimbrel and Sanderlings and a lone Glaucous-winged Gull was spotted along with its smaller cousin, the Heermann's Gull (surely one of the best looking gulls in the world!).
Once out in deeper water Sooty Shearwaters gathered in large numbers but our attention was seized by three female Orca and a calf. The calf was very playful and breached often. As we watched the calf displayed quite extraordinary behaviour as he hunted Common Murre (Guillemot), coming up beneath them. Not much of a meal but good practice all the same. Moving on we saw four Black-footed Albatross, three Buller's Shearwater, two South Polar Skua and a single Long-tailed Skua (Jaeger) which followed the boat for a while. A few Ashy Storm-Petrels skipped around the boat but unfortunately always at some distance.
My final day birding in California was at a reserve close to Half Moon Bay which was good for woodland birds. Pygmy Nuthatch and Wilson's Warbler showed well along with Swainson's Thrush, Western Wood-Pewee, Stellar's Jay and Downy Woodpecker joined the trip list.
Nine days bird watching had produced 128 species and some great birding.
As we left San Francisco airport at 10pm for the long journey home the planes got smaller as we travelled to Auckland, Christchurch, Invercargill, and finally Stewart Island. We sifted through snail mail, turned the washing machine on for the next three days and watched the sun tan fall off!
At the beginning of August we left Stewart Island and headed north to the UK for the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland (more of that later) and to see family and friends.
After a day or two acclimatising to the northern hemisphere summer I headed out to Oare Marshes to grab a Kent tick, in the shape of the long-staying Bonaparte's Gull. This diminutive American gull had spent the last couple of months at Oare never giving himself up but I got some close views through the scope. I reacquainted myself with Curlew and Green Sands, Whimbrel and Water Rail, and snatched a view of Bearded Tits playing hide and seek.
A couple of days later we drove from Kent down to the south west to spend a week on the Isles of Scilly with my good mate Pete Moore and his family, Claire, George and Rowan. The archipelago of the Isles of Scilly is a 30 minute flight from Lands End or two and a half hours on a boat from Penzance.
I've spent many a happy October on these islands during peak migration chasing and finding lifers but the month of August is prime pelagic time. Pete and I booked three pelagics out of St Mary's with Bob Flood on the 'Sapphire'. The first trip produced large rafts of Manx Shearwaters plus the odd (globally rare) Balearic Shearwater and a few European Storm Petrels. Along with a cast of Northern Fulmars and Northern Gannets was a good selection of gulls. The last raft of Manx revealed a couple of Sooty Shearwaters - quite astounding to think these birds could well have come from Stewart Island.
Pelagic number two produced superb views of Great Shearwater sitting on the water and in flight behind a fishing boat plus two Great Skuas and a few flybys from Manx and Balearic Shearwaters to keep the pace going. Our final pelagic produced the much sought-after Wilson's Storm Petrel. Known as one of the most abundant sea birds in the world, the quick flyby of this bird really got the boat fizzing and Pete got a great photo.
I was hoping for Cory's Shearwater on at least one of these trips but alas it was not to be. I do have some good sea birds on my UK list including Wilson's Storm Petrel, Great Shearwater, Fea's Petrel and Black-browed Albatross and I guess you always need a reason to go back.
After a fun week on the Scillies eating pasties and ice cream, making sandcastles on Porthmellon Beach, drinking beer at the Turk's Head pub on St Agnes and walking around Lower Moors it was time to leave. Our flight from the Isles of Scilly was diverted to Newquay making for a long day plus a stuffy bus trip back to Lands End to collect our car. Next morning we were on the road early leaving Cornwall and Devon in the rear view mirror in the pouring rain as we headed north towards Rutland and the site of the British Birdwatching Fair.
From small local beginnings "Birdfair" has been described as the birdwatcher's Glastonbury and this year celebrated its silver jubilee event. Our stand had a fantastic bunch of people under the banner of the New Zealand Birding Network; I was there to represent Ulva Island and Stewart Island for Ulva's Guided Walks; Brent and Sav, Wrybill Birding Tours; Lynette and Gary, Albatross Encounter; and Dave and Chris, Heritage Expeditions. It seemed a very busy fair this year which was good and bad. Good for business, but there were some interesting lectures we'd have liked to get to.
It's not all work though - it was an opportunity to catch up with mates in the birding world including Richard Chandler, Emma Perry, John Gates, and Rob Lambert and our toy kiwi that we used to promote New Zealand found a new home in Norfolk with Penny Clarke. At the end of the three days we were all pretty tired and after a few beers on the last night we all departed and went our separate ways.
I put a few more miles on the clock with a trip down to Dorset the next day to hook up again with Pete Moore for a pelagic trip in his local patch. This beautiful hot day produced some good birds, more Manx and Balearic Shearwaters and one lone Sooty Shearwater. An Arctic Skua put in a brief appearance, and a Grey Phalarope was the last good bird of the day. All too quickly though it was time to bid a sad farewell to the Moore family and head back to Kent.
The next week saw me birding around Kent - views of Wryneck and Spotted Crake at Grove Ferry, I dipped on a Western Bonelli's Warbler at St Margaret's, a Red-backed Shrike showed nicely at the Isle of Sheppey, and enjoyed Hobbies hawking dragonflies over Elmley. It was also great to witness visible migration at Dungeness - the bushes were alive with Lesser Whitethroats, Sedge, Willow and Reed Warblers, Chiff Chaffs and Swallows chattering and gathering on power lines getting 'match fit' for their big journey south to Africa.
I'm sure my sister regretted lending me her car, a fact I pushed to the back of my mind as I went on a day trip to Norfolk and then a day trip to mid-Wales! Gigrin Farm was well worth the big drive (from Kent) to visit the famous Red Kite Feeding and Rehabilitation Centre to witness these awesome raptors at close quarters. The light was terrible for photography but to watch 200 kites was a fantastic experience.
With a few more mates to see and birds to get I saddled up my sister's trusty Rav4 to cross the border into Essex and see Howard Vaughan at Rainham Marshes. There was one lone Greenfinch on the feeders at Rainham, a bird that is very common in my Stewart Island garden and used to be common in my Mum's garden in Kent. The Greenfinch is having a very rough ride in the UK and its decline is apparently due to an infectious disease called Trichomonosis.
Back to Kent for my last day of birding (for a while!) I met my mate, Essex birder Pete Marchant at Oare Marshes. Once the fog had cleared we had great views of Black Tern, Little Stint, and Spotted Redshank and tucked among the huge flock of Black-tailed Godwit were good numbers of Golden Plover.
As the plane taxied towards the departure runway at Heathrow I tallied up my trip list which stands at 148 species. I looked across the aisle and thought about starting a new list ... famous kiwis seen on a plane? There was John Afoa of All Blacks fame, now playing for Munster. We had a chat, what a nice guy but I didn't envy his size as we folded ourselves into economy seats!
As winter rolls on, birding has been quiet on Stewart Island. Probably the most interesting thing has been a Weka family hanging around our back garden. The male has been a regular visitor to our garden for a few years and he is now with his third female (that we know about). Early in July the pair showed up in the garden with a newly hatched chick. What a tough species this is, proving that they can breed at any time of year. One of last year's chicks came into the garden while Dad was feeding the youngster and all hell broke loose as Mum and Dad chased the "intruder" off their territory.
We reckon the adult male has been responsible for at least a dozen chicks as we usually see three chicks in each brood, and sometimes more than two broods a year.
Winter doesn't offer much in the way of guiding on Ulva Island, pelagics or kiwi spotting so I've been spending time at a desk - not my natural habitat - working on a couple of projects. Hopefully they come to fruition later this year or early next. Can't say too much, except watch this space!
While my feet were firmly planted under the desk I took the opportunity to work on some photos and have entered a couple of photographic competitions but I'm not counting my chickens ...
I haven't had my camera out very much this winter but a few weeks ago I took a wander down to Little River which is near the entrance to Rakiura National Park. Sadly a two and a half metre Pilot Whale stranded there and unfortunately the Department of Conservation had to euthanise it.
As spring starts to peep its head around the corner our tree fuschia in the garden is showing signs of buds. Tui, Bellbird and Grey Warbler seem to be singing more and most evenings we've been hearing kiwi call not too far from our house.
It's not every day that someone phones to offer you a helicopter trip but in mid-April my good mate Paul Jacques did just that, with the bonus of helping him count New Zealand Southern Dotterels out at Mason Bay. Paul works for DoC here on Stewart Island and like me, is a keen bird watcher originally from the UK. We have a good rapport and connection stemming from the British bird watching scene even though we never met in the UK.
Paul is currently working on major pest control at the NZ Southern Dotterel breeding sites and hopefully heading towards them being recognised as a separate species from their northern cousins using DNA.
Teams were sent to the four known over-wintering sites; three here on Stewart Island and one on the mainland at Awarua Bay near Bluff. Paul and myself were helicoptered out to Mason Bay on the western side of Stewart Island for two nights. All four teams were at their locations at the same time as us so that simultaneous counts could be done to lessen the chance of counting a bird twice.
The first day was nice and clear and we found a large flock of birds out in the stone fields - we counted 138 birds (about half the world's population). The birds were very curious about our presence and they got close enough for me to get some photos of them in winter plumage (all my other photos are of them in breeding plumage). The second day was washout with heavy rain and strong winds making counting virtually impossible. On the final day we got a count of 98 birds - it's a big area at Mason Bay for a small bird to hide.
They are a great little bird, one of my favourites. Let's hope the recent DoC restructuring and job losses don't affect this species. It's bad enough that a small community like Stewart Island have taken a blow, but this bird could quite easily become extinct and slip under the radar. New Zealand has another rare wader, the Black Stilt, and like the NZ Southern Dotterel they don't travel very far. Could New Zealand end up letting many species down due to funding cutbacks? We see huge support for the high profile Spoon-billed Sandpiper with its international flyways under threat and many countries and NGOs working together to save this species from extinction which is great, but come on New Zealand, call yourself clean and green?
Earlier in April I started the five minute bird call counts for SIRCET. This involves going to certain GPS locations to count the bird calls heard during a five minute period. The first few days at Ryan's Creek the weather was good but by the time I reached the Acker's Point sites the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Cold temperatures and strong wind and rain made the counts very challenging. We seem to have gone straight from summer into winter without much of an autumn. To prove that, I have seen four Cattle Egrets hanging around the golf course area and I've also seen more Welcome Swallows around the township than ever before, with one flock of more than 8 birds noted. I still need a photograph of these!
One morning on my way to Acker's Point I stopped at the boat slip to chat to a friend and noticed a penguin at the base of the steps. Closer inspection revealed it to be a Snares Crested Penguin with the obvious pink fleshy bit of skin to the base of the bill. I rushed home to get my camera as this bird was a bit more viewable than the last one I saw here on Stewart Island a couple of years ago.
It looked in good condition apart from a few cuts on its feet. It was relocated to a quieter area and was last seen swimming out to sea. I wonder why rare penguins turn up in the main bay?!
The third set of counts in as many weeks is just coming to an end - we are taking part in the annual Weka, Kiwi, Morepork call counts for SIRCET which involves spending two hours in the evening at a certain location, listening to these three species call. The first night we counted two morepork. The second night I heard nothing but a kiwi walked past me (still put him on the list). When I got home I found a Weka wondering around the back garden and a pair seem to be calling all times of the day and night. Maybe next year we should suggest our back garden is one of the locations - but I won't count on it!
Stewart Island is great place for a birdwatcher to visit and I count myself very lucky to live here. Not only do we have Ulva Island virtually on our doorstep, with its rare Saddleback, Yellowhead and Robin populations, Stewart Island is also one of the best places to see kiwi in the wild. They can be seen in the outskirts of the township, on some of the overnight tramps, occasionally on Ulva Island in the daytime, or with Phillip Smith on the Bravo Adventures kiwi spotting trip. Phillip was the first person to run kiwi spotting trips on Stewart Island and he hasn't lost any enthusiasm for it in the 20-plus years he has been operating. I am very fortunate to be a relief guide on these trips - it's such a pleasure to show people this iconic bird.
The other big draw to Stewart Island is pelagics. It's the place to get close to albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, penguins and stormies. The summer has been good but it doesn't make good weather for pelagics with no wind to speak of. Great for the folks that aren't good sailors but not so good for the sea birds who can't show off their immense flying skills.
We've seen lots of White-faced Storm Petrels, a bird in the last three years we had only seen three times. This season we regularly had two or three birds feeding with Fairy Prions on most trips in January and February. Other birds of note are Hutton's Shearwater from Kaikoura and Buller's Shearwater from Hauraki in the north.
What many people don't associate Stewart Island with is waders and water birds. We have the whole population of Southern New Zealand Dotterel (around 300 birds) as this is the only place they breed and they don't tend to venture very far. It's surely only a matter of time before they are split from their northern cousins. The Southern New Zealand Dotterel - or should they be called Stewart Island Dotterel? - breed up in the high country and tend to feed on the more remote beaches making the logistics of seeing them a challenge.
Being brought up in Kent in the UK with its corridor of marshes, waders have always been a firm favourite of mine. I would regularly visit Elmley or Oare Marshes and during the autumn migration it would not be uncommon to log over 20 species of wader in just a few hours. The beautiful Northern Lapwing, the secretive Common Snipe, Common Redshank, Dunlin and Ringed Plover, to the not so common Whimbrel, Wood Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper - and a sprinkle of real rarities, such as Long-billed Dowitcher and White-rumped Sandpiper from the USA to eastern birds like Broad-billed Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed and Marsh Sandpipers.
As Easter approaches, the birding season starts to grind to a halt. In April I am back into the bush conducting the 5 minute bird call counts for the Stewart Island Rakiura Community & Environment Trust which I'm looking forward to. Hopefully this good weather will last just a bit longer.
Early in November in my role as Chairman of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust, I joined other nature guides and Department of Conservation on Ulva Island to show Gareth Morgan around. Gareth visited Stewart Island to meet with the community and put an idea forward for making the whole of Stewart Island free of rats, cats and possums. It's a very interesting concept and his meeting was well attended.
November started the crawl into the busy part of the season and the first few pelagics saw us finding the usual suspects on the albatross front; Southern Royal, Salvin's, White-capped and the dapper Buller's. Wilson's and Grey-backed Stormies always add extra spice to a pelagic as they skip around the boat and Mottled Petrel and Broad-billed Prion still seem to be the birds at the top of the wish list of visiting birders.
Sooty Shearwaters and Fiordland Crested Penguins returned to the area - a sure sign of summer - plus the call of the Shining Cuckoo around the township. Maybe these birds are the same ones I saw in New Caledonia a few months ago!
December proved to be a warm month. Even me cutting the grass and attending to the veg garden in my shorts didn't put the local Weka family off showing us their new fuzzy chicks.
Early in the month I got a text from a friend to say he'd heard there was an Australian Coot at Ringa Ringa Golf Course here on Stewart Island. I rushed over there (hoping it would be a Black Woodhen, a true mega vagrant!) but alas it was just a coot, and still a Stewart Island tick for me. It was hanging around a water hazard but I don't think the bird will fare very well with very little fresh water on the island. After posting the sighting on the NZ Bird Forum it turned out to be a first for Stewart Island!
Not that I'm in any doubt, but Ulva Island is still proving to be one of the best places to work. Almost every trip we encounter Rifleman, Yellowhead, Brown Creeper and Yellow-crowned Kakariki - even the occasional Kiwi - not to mention the very obliging Robins.
A stonking hot Christmas Day came and went with Tui and Kaka giving their own rendition of "Jingle Bells" in the 31 degree heat.
So out with the old and in with the New Year. 2012 was a good birding year for me, adding eight new birds to my New Zealand list. Highlights have to be the Australian Pelican on the North Island, the self-found Nankeen Kestrel at Awarua Bay and the Intermediate Egret at Milford Sound.
The Stewart Island list rose as well with New Zealand Falcon, Snares Crested Penguin and Australian Coot. The New Caledonia trip was a fun birding trip with the bonus of adding a good selection of lifers and endemics to the world list. Highlights there were obviously Kagu and Crow Honeyeater.
Let's see what birds turn up for 2013. A new year. A new list.
From Stewart Island, one ferry crossing and three flights later we arrived at Noumea International Airport in New Caledonia. My first lifer and endemic was found in the airport car park - the common Grey-eared Honeyeater - with a call resembling a cross between a Nightingale and Cetti's Warbler.
Remembering to drive on the right hand side of the road we made the 90 minute journey south to our accommodation. New Caledonia is a French dependent territory in the Pacific, about two hours east of Brisbane, and comes under the birding region of Melanesia. By Pacific standards New Caledonia is a wealthy country with a high standard of living. On the roads it wasn't uncommon to have a Porsche, Audi or Range Rover overtake our Citroen rental car.
There's something very exciting about birding in a new country. For weeks prior to the trip I had ploughed through the "Birds of Melanesia" field guide by Guy Dutson, absorbing details of calls, colours, plumage and sizes of life birds I hoped to see.
My first day bird watching was at Mount Koghis where I spent about five hours. The drive up twisting, winding roads was impressive and the view from the summit down to the lush forest below didn't disappoint. As I got out of the car, the first new sound to hit me was a "boom boom boom" like a tennis ball being dropped on a kettle drum. The Goliath Imperial Pigeon was as impressive as its name suggests.
I wandered the forest trails, noting a yapping call almost like an annoying little dog and soon saw my first New Caledonian Crow. This endemic corvid, known for using tools, uses sticks to prise bugs and grubs out of the cracks in trees. I found a clearing in the forest and the birds seemed to arrive on cue. First was the beautiful New Caledonia Whistler with its white bib followed by a Long-tailed Triller, Streaked Fantail, and an eye-catching Red-throated Parrotfinch. While watching my first Metallic Pigeon high up in the canopy I heard a ripping sound. If I was on Ulva Island I would think of Kaka or Saddleback picking bugs out of a Punga. I followed the sound to reveal one of my favourite birds of the trip - the secretive Southern Shrikebill - chocolatey brown plumage and an ivory-coloured bill.
Our next wildlife experience involved a sailing catamaran from the southern port of Prony in the hope of viewing humpback whales. As we left the wharf the root of New Caledonia's wealth became apparent as we saw a nickel mine. The scarred red landscape was soon replaced by beautiful azure blue sea and it wasn't long before we saw our first female humpback of the day, with a calf. We shared their company for around 45 minutes and without much warning the female breached. I was very fortunate to fire a couple of camera shots off and was quite happy with the resulting images. The lack of seabirds was quite disappointing - Black-naped Tern, Great-crested Tern and Black Noddy were the only seabirds during the whole two week trip.
We explored further north and spent the day at the new Parc des Grande Fougeres, near Farino, a beautiful reserve with easy trails. Great views of South Melanesian Cuckooshrike, White-breasted Woodswallow and Cloven-feathered Dove which has to be one of the smartest New Caledonia endemics - and a stunning White-bellied Goshawk.
Ask any birder and the main reason for going to New Caledonia is to see Kagu. The best place to see this enigmatic bird is Parc Provincial de la Riviere Bleue. I was at the gates at 7.15am and drove along the dusty red road to a bridge and car park. From here you can walk or take a minibus to various points in the park itself. I don't speak much French and the bus driver didn't speak much English, but he was a good guy and dropped me off at a walking trail where Kagu had recently been seen.
I waited for the minibus to disappear and stood for a few minutes just listening to the sounds of the forest. I walked slowly down the track and reached a bend in the path where I heard rustling. I raised my bins and could see something black and worked out the shape was a back side of a feral pig! A bit ironic because feral pigs and dogs are one of the main threats to Kagu.
Back in the late 1970s early 1980s these birds were down to 100 individuals. Now there is thought to be around 1000 thanks to pest control. It was a bit disturbing to see one of the main threats of the bird I had come so far to see.
I lowered my bins, slightly disappointed but became aware of a hissing sound behind me, like a deflating tyre. The field guide homework had come into play and I knew I was listening to a Kagu. I turned round slowly and heard the sound again but still couldn't see the bird. It appeared three or four metres in front of me - a Kagu - I almost had to pinch myself, one of my most sought after birds! For a moment we just stopped and looked at each other. By this time it was about a metre away and I still had my bins on it, soaking in the views. It dawned on me that I should get pictures of this bird.
Ghostly grey in colour, a bill that resembled a carrot, long orange legs, flightless, and has a crest. It is in its own genus and only found in New Caledonia.
The bird was very relaxed, feeding in the undergrowth, very similar to Weka in New Zealand. It stayed within a few feet of me for the next hour or so and needless to say I soon filled up a 2GB camera card. Eventually the bird got bored of being in the limelight and slipped away into the forest.
The Parc Provincial de la Riviere Bleue was also a good spot for Goliath Imperial Pigeon and the beautiful Yellow-bellied Fly Robin. The trails in the park often had Glossy Swiftlets hawking above the path. Towards the end of the day when I had put my camera away I caught a flash of black and raised my bins onto a bird that is really on the edge of extinction - the Crow Honeyeater. There are only 200 of these birds left and only in this park. To see Kagu and Crow Honeyeater - it has to go down as a good day.
My next visit to the park a couple of days later was with Jules the non-birder, who found even better views of Crow Honeyeater. It sat for a while and allowed me to get a couple of dodgy record shots. Further into the forest we had nice views of Barred Honeyeater, New Caledonia Myzomela, Fan-tailed Gerygone, Green-backed White-eye, New Caledonia Friarbird.
By the toilet, where most rare birds are found a Kagu was interested in us enough to spend an hour in our company and Jules got some movie footage of it feeding. Needless to say I took another 300-400 photographs as you can never have enough pictures of Kagu!
For all the fantastic Kagu experiences, one bird was still bugging me. I'd heard it at Parc des Grande Fougeres and an earlier visit to Parc Provincial de la Riviere Bleue. While watching Kagu I heard the explosive sneeze-like call right above our heads, and there was a New Caledonia Cuckooshrike! Slaty grey with a rusty-coloured vent.
At the end of two weeks in New Caledonia I had seen 64 species. Not a massive total but 27 of them were lifers and 20 of the 22 endemics. You've always got to have a reason to go back. I'd recommend New Caledonia to anyone even if it's just to see Kagu but if you want to see Crow Honeyeater, hurry up!
Back in New Zealand we arrived to a rainy Auckland and picked up a rental car to head out to Miranda for a couple of nights. The temperature was a good 15 degrees lower than New Caledonia so the electric blankets were switched on and fish and chips topped off the end of a day's travels.
Skies were blue the next day and I spent the afternoon at Miranda Shorebird Centre and had a quick catch up with Keith Woodley. Big numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits along with Wrybills. I picked out a lone Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in amongst the Red Knots checking the pools behind the hides had view of Great White Egret and a couple of NZ ticks for me. One was Black-tailed Godwit and the other was a Buff-banded Rail - a bird that I had seen a couple of days earlier in New Caledonia.
The following day we headed north to try and see the newly arrived Australasian Pelicans. There was access to Kaipara north of Ruawai but locals said the birds hadn't been seen that morning. The telescope came into its own at Ruawai Boating Wharf as I picked up a distant pelican on the other side of the river. With the bird on the list we headed to the airport for the afternoon flight to Christchurch and then Invercargill via Dunedin to watch the All Blacks play South Africa.
After a couple of days back on Stewart Island I had the pleasure of meeting The Governor-General, Lt Gen Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae who is the personal representative of New Zealand's Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II of New Zealand. As Chairman of the Ulva Island Trust I was asked to show him around Ulva Island as part of his visit to Southland. See some images of his visit to Stewart Island
I'm looking forward to the upcoming season with dates for pelagics and Ulva Island already in the diary and hopefully I can shake off this crappy flu thing that I've had for the past week.
As the quieter winter months roll over Rakiura, news dominating Stewart Island is the oil company Greymouth Petroleum drilling an exploration well here and maybe the possibility of a rig out in Foveaux Strait in the future. It seems to have divided the community; we all drive cars, we like to fly to nice destinations for our holidays, but it's concerning when an oil company turns up on the doorstep of a National Park.
At the beginning of winter the Ulva Island Charitable Trust met with DOC to review how the re-eradication of rats had gone. Since the poison drops, no rats have been caught in traps on Ulva Island, nor any rat sign seen. Two rats were however caught in traps on The Neck (the nearest part of Stewart Island to Ulva Island) and on a small islet off of Ulva Island. DNA testing proved that these two rats were not related to the original invasion in December 2010. The conclusion is that Ulva Island is now predator free again and we can work towards keeping it that way for the foreseeable future.
With very little guiding at this time of year I don't go to Ulva Island as much as I do in the height of summer but I spent a whole day there by myself at the end of July. The birds were abundant with nice flocks of Yellowhead and lots of Kaka and Kakariki feeding on Miro fruit. Back on Stewart Island I spent some time down at Mill Creek with a couple of very obliging White-faced Herons.
Birding has been pretty quiet with a couple of exceptions, two of mainland New Zealand's more common birds have made an appearance on Stewart Island. The first was a Pukeko, my second ever on Stewart Island. A pretty common bird in New Zealand and the rest of the world, but notable by their absence down here on Stewart Island. This individual was hanging around the Community Centre and allowed reasonable approach for a couple of photographs. The second bird I was quite eager to get onto my Stewart Island list! A month or so prior someone told me they had seen a New Zealand Falcon here but a quick search proved fruitless.
Paul Jacques told me he'd seen it hanging around Traill Park (the rugby pitch!) even though the weather wasn't right for a raptor. Wet and windy with low cloud cover wasn't ideal but I went up there, spending about 40 minutes in the rain checking everything. The were plenty of Kaka as usual plus a few pigeons passing overhead and one lone South Island Pied Oystercatcher feeding on the rugby pitch. Wiping the rain off my optics sensing a dip, I heard the Oystercatcher alarm call and saw a New Zealand Falcon hard on its tail. The Falcon, a first year dark bird, just missed its quarry and landed in a nearby tree. The local Bellbirds were nervous! I got reasonable views given the atrocious weather but the light wasn't ideal for a decent photo - I was just happy to add another bird to my Stewart Island list.
Falcons are meant to breed on Stewart island but this is the first I've seen. Local DOC staff that have lived here for many years agree that the NZ Falcon is not as regular a visitor as field guides would have you believe. I'm sure if they did breed on Stewart Island the village would be home for them with the number of Kaka and pigeons flying around!
Time to confess! When I lived in the UK I was a twitcher and would think nothing of getting up when most people are going to bed to drive through the dead of night to get to a site before dawn. From Kent to Norfolk, Yorkshire, Wales - even Scotland a couple of times - to get a new bird on my list. Sometimes the quarry was an unremarkable LBJ (little brown job) or sometimes more exotic - but most of these adventures were shared with Pete Moore.
Pete moved from Kent to the nearby county of Dorset but my move to Stewart Island has meant no more crazy road trips - at least not together! My focus is now as a local patch watcher and I like to think that I get to see most things that turn up on Stewart Island.
I have seen over 100 species on Stewart Island - but there is still an aggravating itch to twitch! April provided the perfect opportunity to scratch, in the shape of a long-staying Intermediate Egret at Milford Sound. I've seen one in other parts of the world, but it would be new for my New Zealand list.
Twitching from Stewart Island is different from the UK as I can't just jump in the car at 3am to be there at first light. Living on the island always involves a ferry or plane to get to the mainland first. The ferry crossing was pretty rough - people inside were desperately trying to hold onto their lunch - I was out on deck enjoying the albatrosses show their immense flying ability, Buller's and White-capped being the most common.
Some great birds to start off the trip. As I scanned through the Sooty Shearwaters a stonking Soft-plumaged Petrel glided into view through the wake of the ferry. I looked around to share this great bird with someone but the green-faced individual bending over the side of the boat didn't really appreciate it. As I watched a Northern Giant Petrel punching into the wind on one side of the ferry, we were being tracked by a White-headed Petrel on the other side.
I drove to Te Anau that evening and left early next morning in the dark for the two hour drive to Milford. From the Milford Sound car park I could see the Intermediate Egret out on the mudflats.
I reacquainted myself with my scope - a piece of equipment that no twitcher in the UK is ever seen without. Working with forest birds and doing pelagics on Stewart Island has meant my scope has become a bit of a clothes horse and dust gatherer. But back to Milford - it was great to focus up on the Egret. Next dilemma … I've got the bird on my NZ list but a photo would be even better.
This particular bird had a reputation for being approachable but I was thinking I'd have to wait for tide to push it towards me. As I contemplated coffee and breakfast I noticed a guy doing survey work out on the mudflats. He walked straight up to the Egret as it fed and banged a large metal stake into the ground and the bird didn't even flinch! Decision made - I walked out to the mudflats and squatted by a shingle bank. The bird was completely oblivious of me and at one stage it walked within 2 metres of me! 300 photos and an hour or so later I headed for the long journey home.
Easter Monday presented another twitching opportunity thanks to Paul Jacques. An ex-British bird watcher now living in Bluff but working on Stewart Island, Paul took me out to Awarua Bay near Bluff where a Grey-tailed Tattler had been reported.
We saw a good collection of waders - Bar-tailed Godwits, Ruddy Turnstones, Banded Plover, and a few New Zealand Pipits - but no Tattler. We moved to a different spot and I was near the waters edge when to my right I saw a bird hovering. It took me right back to Elmley Marshes in Kent where kestrels were a common sight. But then the penny dropped - I'm not in Kent! The bird flew over us and we called "Nankeen Kestrel"! We watched the rare Australian vagrant for about 10 mins through the bins as it hovered and swooped down, feeding on a skink. By by the time I got my camera out the bird had drifted too far away for a decent shot. A quick "high five" and a pat on the back each and we got back to the waders.
NZ Dotterels were in small numbers, probably the same birds we had seen way back in November up in the hills on Stewart Island with Richard Chandler. Paul noticed a Lesser Sand Plover hanging around with the Banded Plovers but no Tattler.
Time was up for me as I had to head back to Stewart Island with two new birds for my New Zealand list.
Back on the island guiding is slowing up and winter creeping in. Just to prove that, I've seen two Cattle Egrets hanging around the township.
April saw the completion of the five minute bird call counts for SIRCET. This involves me walking to over 100 GPS locations, waiting for five minutes and counting every endemic and native bird I hear at each location. The locations are spread over two areas; one is actively pest controlled and the other isn't. Official numbers aren't out yet but the signs are good.
I now have a bit more time to do volunteer work and have been checking cat traps for SIRCET as well. Unfortunately no cats yet but two rats and a Weka (unharmed). The weka got a free feed in the cage and the rats were later … dispatched!
Unrelated bird news, Jules and myself headed down to the memorial service early on Anzac Day. A stunning sunrise provided a backdrop to the service and I took my camera to get a few shots. I sent one off to the Southland Times newspaper as Stewart Island often gets missed out. I was surprised to see the following morning the image had made the front page.
A long gap since my last instalment which is mainly due to being busy at work, leading tours on Ulva Island and deep water pelagics - which is no bad thing as it's traditionally our busiest time of the year.
We've been in our house just over a year now and like most birders I like to keep lists; world, county, year ... and of course a back garden list. Our tiny little handkerchief-sized garden has produced some really good birds. In total 30, which may not sound particularly high, but when you take into account 12 of those are endemics, another 14 are natives and the rest are made up of introduced species.
Kaka are probably the most common endemic in the garden followed by a family of Weka that visit fairly regularly.
As New Zealand goes, to include Tui, Bellbird, Wood Pigeon, Red Crowned Kakariki, Fantail, and Tomtit on your garden list is pretty phenomenal. One of my garden highlights was in January. I'd been working on Ulva Island in the morning, and my ears had become accustomed to the background noise of Brown Creeper (if that doesn't sound too blase!). I got home and opened the back door and started making dinner, and I could still hear the background noise of Brown Creeper ... but hold on, this is my back garden! So I rushed outside to see a pair of Brown Creeper flicking through the bushes at the back of the garden. I have seen them on other parts of Stewart Island but never in the township, and certainly not in my garden, so it was a good tick.
Other notable birds seen from, in, and flying over, the garden are Long-tailed and Shining Cuckoo, Cattle Egret, Brown Skua and I've heard Kiwi and Morepork.
February was a particularly good month for the birds as we had two stonking daytime viewings of Kiwi on Ulva Island, one was a male that we watched for 20+ minutes at 10.30 in the morning - at times he was only a couple of metres in front of us, foraging in the undergrowth.
Wildlife is never predictable. While I was guiding a pelagic for Aurora Charters, where we generally hope to find rare seabirds, to then get a text message from my girlfriend to tell me a rare Snares Crested Penguin had turned up at the main ferry terminal was a bit surreal! This would have been a lifer for me, so I tried to hurry Ty the skipper into getting back into Halfmoon Bay quicker - for two reasons. One, to get it on my list, and two, to make sure that I didn't have to put it on Jules' list instead of my own. (Jules has a very good list, but doesn't know about it and doesn't care!).
Shortly after I'd viewed the bird, the Department of Conservation moved it to a new location for its own safety and wellbeing. It had picked one of the busiest places on the island to moult, in full view of arriving ferry passengers and some were over eager with their camera lenses. We saw this bird from a boat about a week later, looking a bit sorry for itself, and there was a report of a second bird which I didn't see.
A weekend trip to Dunedin (via the Catlins) produced another New Zealand tick for me in the shape of an Eastern Curlew, a bird that I had seen in Australia, but it was good to get onto my New Zealand list. And back to that list thing!
Since the poison drop last year to eradicate the rats that invaded Ulva Island in December 2010, the birds seem to be doing OK. Robins have bounced back strongly with over 200 chicks fledging on the island this year and also a good number of jackbirds (juvenile Saddleback) still hanging around with their parents.
The high canopy species such as Brown Creeper, Yellowhead and Kakariki seem to have had no obvious impact but the biggest casualty was unfortunately Weka, down by about 90%. However, things are looking more positive and most trips recently we have been seeing Weka so they are returning.
We've had run of good fine weather and not much wind, so pelagics have been ticking over. Most trips we've been able to pick up Mottled Petrel, Cook's Petrel, as well as the regular four species of Albatross. Good birds of note have been a White-headed Petrel and Wilson's Storm Petrel, which I got some photos of. When inspecting the photos later I saw that the bird only had one leg.
As the guiding season slows down, a few holes begin to appear in the diary, and one such "hole" was nicely filled watching Paul Hopkins' DVD of his bird watching trip to New Zealand in October/November 2011, which he had kindly sent me.
As we head into April and Autumn comes to Stewart Island, I am due to begin the 5 minute bird call counts for SIRCET which tracks the number of bird species in two locations here on Stewart Island; one location is actively pest controlled and the other isn't. Looking forward to getting stuck into that!
It's been a busy November and December, guiding on pelagics and Ulva Island and the Birding Bonanza package has been a popular choice.
In November we had our first full day pelagic of the season down to Port Pegagus in a quest for Antarctic and Arctic Tern. As we headed south we saw huge rafts of Fiordland Crested Penguin, Arctic Terns were noticeable by their absence and the Antarctic Terns were quite elusive. Once we got out to The Traps, a Campbell Island Albatross came into view and one Grey-backed Storm Petrel. At Wreck Reef we must have encountered 50+ Mottled Petrels, 10+ Broad-billed Prions and Black-browed Albatross was the only other bird of note.
Another half day pelagic didn't look too promising - no wind to speak of for a few days and calm sea conditions. I was at the back of the boat scanning for anything coming past when Ty the skipper called me into the wheelhouse to get my binoculars on something he could see off in the distance. For half a second we thought it was an upturned dinghy, but as I got my binoculars on it I could see it was covered in giant petrels. As we got closer it became clear it was a carcass of a freshly dead Humpback Whale with Northern and Southern Giant Petrels trying to get into the blubber. We think it hadn't been dead that long because the birds had not made any progress and there was no sign of sharks around either. The most common whale around here is the Southern Right Whale and I've never seen a Humpback around the coast of Stewart Island - a live one that is!
Earlier in the year at the British Birdwatching Fair Richard Chandler, the published wader expert, had asked me about a trip to the southern New Zealand Dotterel breeding grounds. New Zealand Dotterel are split into two distinct sub-species: the northern birds breed only on the North Island and are much brighter in breeding plumage. They breed on the beaches and have a population of around 1500. The southern sub-species breed only here on Stewart Island, high up in the hills of the national park and have a population of around 240.
In mid-November Richard and his wife arrived on Stewart Island. I'd enlisted the help of a mate, Paul Jacques, who is monitoring the breeding grounds of the birds here on the island and the three of us embarked on a 45 minute water taxi ride up Paterson Inlet and then a three hour hike up into the hills.
I've seen quite a few New Zealand Dotterels out at Mason Bay and occasionally at The Neck in winter plumage so I was looking forward to seeing these birds in breeding plumage in a more rugged environment. We reached the top of the hill by mid-afternoon and while Paul checked the pest control around the breeding area, Richard and myself got to work photographing nesting pairs that already had chicks. The landscape at the top was similar to the Cairngorms in Scotland where the northern hemisphere European Dotterel breed. The birds here were reasonably approachable and on more than one occasion flew towards us to check us out. They obviously don't get too many visitors up here. We noticed the birds had quite an unusual habit of climbing up into small bushes, something Richard and I had never seen waders do before! We guessed it was to get a better vantage point on their chicks and potential predators.
Tide times meant we couldn't get to the top of the hill and back in a day so we spent the night at the top in a small bivvy (hut) which was warm and cosy. Just as well as it was bloody cold that evening! Paul nipped outside just before we turned in for the night and called us out to see a kiwi snuffling around outside the hut. We could hear other kiwis calling in the distance. Kiwis are amazingly adaptable in terms of different habitats; they can be seen deep in the forest, feeding on beaches, and here these birds were high up in the hills above the tree line in a barren cold landscape.
The next morning Richard and I spent another couple of hours filling up camera cards before we retraced our steps back down the hill to meet the water taxi at lunchtime. We got down just in time because the next three days the weather "turned to custard" as they say here!
Planes and ferries were cancelled and Stewart Island became isolated. No produce for the shop, no mail or newspapers. Fortunately the pub was well stocked. The weather came right on the Saturday morning which was just as well as I was guiding on a Pelagic for Aurora Charters which had been chartered by Wrybill Tours, with Sav leading the party.
Also on board was a film crew with Mark Carwardine. Mark is an excellent photographer and cetacean expert and extremely well-travelled … but unfortunately he will always be associated with being shagged by Sirocco the Kakapo in the "Last Chance to See" series with Stephen Fry!
As the boat headed out of Halfmoon Bay for the half day trip, Sav and myself predicted some good birds would turn up, given the previous days' weather. Boy, were we proved right. It has to go down as one of the best pelagics that we've had in this part of the world!
By the time we got to Wreck Reef, half way down the east coast of Stewart Island, we started chumming. The reliable guestimate was 700+ New Zealand White-capped Albatross around the boat, 40+ Salvin's, 25+ Royals, and a couple of wanderers, not forgetting the three or four Black-Browed Albatross and the same count of Campbell Island Albatross. Both giant petrel species were in the melee along with Broad-billed and Fairy Prions, Cape Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters and the odd Mottled Petrel going through to spice things up. As we watched a White-chinned Petrel fly by, I noticed a small storm petrel skip into view and got everyone onto the Grey-backed Storm Petrel that passed the stern of the boat. These are probably our most common storm petrels around here, I'm not sure where they breed but we see them regularly on pelagics.
The cameras were running hot and batteries and memory cards changing regularly - and then someone called "Wilson's Storm Petrel". Sav and myself got onto a large dark storm petrel with an obvious white rump but as it banked we noticed the pale under wing and white on the breast. I fired off several shots of the bird as it flew past the back of the boat and Sav clinched its I.D. as a Black-bellied Storm Petrel. A larger bird than the Grey-backed stormie that followed on behind it. It then got a bit surreal because at one stage we had 3 Black-bellied Storm Petrels in view and 4 or 5 Grey-backed stormies. We think there was possibly 8 different Black-bellied Storm Petrels around the boat. Seeing one of these birds around the three main islands of New Zealand is rare in itself because these birds breed a lot further south, but having this many was amazing.
Later in the day as we headed back into Halfmoon Bay via Bench Island we picked up Yellow-eyed Penguin and Brown Skua and the last good bird of that pelagic was a lone Cook's Petrel. Summing up: in 6 hours we had seen 18 species of tubenose which included 6 species of albatross.
Everyone departed the boat extremely happy and Mark Carwardine said it was one of the best wildlife experiences he'd had which is an excellent testimonial. He'd taken over 3500 photographs!
The following morning, Ulva Goodwillie and myself lead Mark and the film crew around Ulva Island to get images of the forest birds. They showed well for the camera - we had good views of Saddleback, Yellowhead, Rifleman, Robin and a very approachable female sea lion. I think the film is being made for the internet for Tourism New Zealand, The Sunday Telegraph and Wanderlust magazine.
Early December saw another birthday come and go, a wee bit older but no wiser. Off to the mainland for Christmas shopping and a first aid course and then back onto Stewart Island to guide on the first cruise ship of the season and the following day on another full day pelagic down to Port Pegasus. This time Chris Gaskin leading a Kiwi Wildlife tour. A surprisingly quiet day with no unusual birds of note as we travelled south. As we got to The Traps there was a couple of fishing boats and decent flocks of albatrosses began to appear with a few Mottled and Cook's Petrels flew into view.
We stopped near one of the fishing boats and began to chum. The usual New Zealand White-capped and Salvin's Albatross were present quickly with a couple of Royals and then … there it was … a bird I had wanted to see since I moved to New Zealand! Sitting quietly among the White-capped Albs was a stonking Chatham Islands Albatross. With its sooty grey head and banana coloured bill it was so eye-catching. Instantly I got the lens on him and got image after image. Ironically it was exactly the time I was meant to be on a trip to the Chatham Islands (that was cancelled) so to have one of these magnificent birds in our local patch and on my Stewart Island list was a real bonus.
A brief update about Ulva Island. As mentioned in previous news, certain species of bird are lower in number after the aerial drop of poison. Stewart Island Robin, South Island Saddleback and Stewart Island Weka took the brunt of the hit, but already weka chicks have been seen on Ulva Island, Robin chicks have already fledged and Saddlebacks have been seen feeding in the flowering Rata.
Tui singing in the garden, veggies growing, cutting the grass in my t-shirt, Shining Cuckoo added to my garden list and the Rugby World Cup safely in the arms of the All Blacks. It certainly felt like Spring had arrived. I even had time to rescue a Weka chick that had fallen, down the side of the decking, much to the distress of his parents. But that was two weeks ago. Since then the weather has been extremely changeable with gale force winds, sleet, hale and heavy rain. But I'm getting ahead of myself - let's head back to August where summer was in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere.
I was back in the UK for the British Birdwatching Fair in Rutland which went extremely well. It was so busy I didn't really have time to look around and only just managed to leave the stand to buy a couple of books. At the fair, a few old birding buddies came by: John Gates, Gary Howard, Rob Lambert and Emma Perry all popped in for a chat as well as Dave Walker from Dungeness Bird Observatory.
Prior to the Bird Fair I spent a few days in Dorset rekindling my birding friendship with Pete Moore. Pete is an exceptionally good bird watcher and photographer and always very entertaining in the field - how I've missed his bone dry wit! I stayed at his new house in the beautiful village of Wareham and as Claire and the boys away camping, Pete and myself were straight out birding! First stop was Middlebere. We hadn't got too far down the road when we did an emergency stop as an Osprey flew overhead with a huge fish in its talons.
The next morning was bright and sunny and we headed for Durlston Country Park where migration was very visible. Every bush seemed to be packed with Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and Garden Warblers and there was good comparisons with Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Redstarts and Northern Wheatears. I briefly spotted a couple of Grasshopper Warblers skulking in a small bush which Pete needed for his Dorset list, but unfortunately we failed to relocate them.
The afternoon was spent at Brownsea Island avoiding the tourists! We headed out for the hides overlooking the lagoon - lots of waders present: Common Redshanks, Avocets, Ruff, Dunlin, a single Spotted Redshank and a large flock of Black-tailed Godwits which were close enough for some half decent photographs. Before heading back for the ferry, a quick walk around the forest produced Coal Tit and Goldcrest and a very approachable Red Squirrel.
All too quickly my time in Dorset was up. It was great to catch up with Pete and enjoy his fine company.
My last full day in the UK was spent at Dungeness with talented father and son Essex birders Vern and Pete Merchant. An early start found us at the patch where Med Gulls and Little Gulls were present and Northern Gannets and Common Guillemots flew by. Other birds of note were three or four Black Terns. The bulky shape of a Bonxie came into view quickly followed by two Arctic Skuas harassing Common Terns and Pom Skua flew close to the beach. Pete picked out the long-staying Glaucous Gull near the fishing boats through his scope so we drove a bit closer. The beast of a gull spent most of its time asleep but the Yellow-legged Gulls around it were more active. We then headed round to Denge Marsh where we didn't have to wait too long for the Great White Egret to appear with a good supporting cast of Little Egrets. As we were watching Hobbies hunting dragonflies over the reeds another small egret appeared and Pete and myself shouted "this one's got a bright yellow bill, it's a Cattle Egret" which added to the set nicely. As we waited for it to reappear, a clonking sound above our heads revealed two Ravens, still a pretty rare bird in Kent. It was a great days bird watching with some great mates.
I still find it difficult to get away from the listing game. I kept a list for the two weeks I was in the UK and saw 142 species, the last of these was a Green Woodpecker just before I headed to the airport. I didn't see a single Songthrush, once a very common garden bird. They seem to be easier to find in New Zealand.
Back in the Southern Hemisphere, while I was away the first aerial drop of poison was made on Ulva Island in an attempt to eradicate the rats that had re-invaded last Christmas. The second drop was in September and at the time of writing the results look positive - no rats have been caught in the traps - although the full results will take about six months to come in. The down side of the poison drop is that some birds have been affected. Weka on Ulva Island have taken a substantial hit (on recent guided walks I have hardly seen this usually abundant bird) and I've seen less Stewart Island Robin and South Island Saddleback, but the official figures are yet to come in.
So the birding season has just started with a few guided walks on Ulva Island and we've had our first pelagic of the season with Aurora Charters , Fiordland Crested Penguins are back in Halfmoon Bay and the only other bird of note was an Antarctic Fulmar.
May and June were pretty mild here on Stewart Island - there wasn't much rainfall and we even had one or two sunny pleasant days.
Birding-wise, May ended in a fizz. Walking to work one afternoon I bumped into Brent Beaven, head of biodiversity at the Department of Conservation here on the island. He'd been doing a rat trap line that morning and had seen an unusual bird which he thought was a shrike of some sort. Unfortunately work commitments meant I couldn't go straight away, but the twitcher inside me was eager to get round to Horseshoe Bay and I headed out there the next morning. An hour passed, checking every flying and perching bird I saw but without any joy. Heaps of Tui and Bellbird but no shrike. I was just about to give up when down the valley below me I caught a flash of ghostly grey in the long grass. The bird - was it a bird? - I couldn't say for sure, but 10 minutes later the bird gave itself up and flew to the top of a small tree to give me an unobscured view. As soon as I'd focussed my bins on it I knew exactly what it was - a juvenile Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike. A true New Zealand mega! I turned round to give someone a high five, but I was on my own. That's twitching on Stewart Island for you.
I watched it for a bit longer, soaking up the I.D. details and then decided to get some shots of it. It kept its distance but at one stage flew straight towards me, landing on a telegraph wire above my head. It flew back to the tree which ironically was a Blue Gum (it obviously made this Australian bird feel at home!). These birds are quite common through southern and eastern Australia right up to PNG. A few days prior to the bird arriving, the island had had some strong westerly winds which had probably brought the bird across the Tasman Sea. As I continued to take photos and watch the bird I saw it feeding on a stick insect. After about 45 minutes and a couple of hundred photos later I headed back to the car and texted Sav Saville about the sighting. He was quite excited and texted back asking if I could tie it to a tree for a few days ... but unfortunately after I'd seen the bird the weather turned to custard and it was never seen again. I went back a week later for a look but found nothing, which wasn't surprising given that these species are notorious short-stayers.
Doing some homework, there have been 20 records of Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike in New Zealand and this is only the second record for Stewart Island. The first was back in 2000. I think only half a dozen people saw this bird, including Brent and myself. The remoteness of the location probably puts off other New Zealand bird watchers from coming down to grab it for their list. It's one of the differences between New Zealand bird watching and, for arguments sake, the UK scene. With such a rare bird, guys would have chartered planes and thrown sick days to see and tick it in the UK. Ironically some even call them "bird flu days"!! My opinion is that New Zealand bird watching and twitching scene is very much in its infancy.
In June I saw my first Cattle Egret of winter coming in off the sea at Lonnekers Beach. A couple of days later another two appeared with Salt (the only horse on Stewart Island). Unfortunately a couple of weeks later Salt passed away - hope this doesn't put off the Cattle Egrets!
I saw a third bird as it walked up passed the Department of Conservation office on the main road and managed to get a few photos of it. Thinking about it I've seen some good birds on the main road: Kiwi, Weka (with chicks), Kaka, New Zealand Wood Pigeon ...
Winter work has been a bit thin on the ground this year. After completing the bird call count for SIRCET I've done a few odd days on the ferry as relief crew.
In July, as a birthday treat to Jules we were going to fly over to Mason Bay to spend a few nights and hopefully photograph Kiwi, Dotterel and Fernbird for me and some beach-combing for Jules. But if May and June were mild and settled, July was the complete opposite. Winter turned up, hissing and snarling and throwing literally everything she'd got at Stewart Island. Gale force winds, hailstones the size of, well, very large hailstones, snow, frost, sleet, heavy rain and freezing temperatures.
We are less than 3000 miles from the South Pole here and it really felt like it. Subsequently the trip to Mason Bay was cancelled as the planes weren't even taking off, let alone landing, especially on a beach! So Jules' birthday was spent next to the fire at home and the next day when there was a short break in the weather we got the last two seats on the plane and left Stewart Island. I would have happily gone on the ferry (there would have been some good birds whizzing around) but Jules + ferry + birthday cake don't mix. Bit of a rollercoaster flight over the Foveaux Strait which looked like a giant washing machine.
We spent a few days in Queenstown surrounded by snow-capped mountains which looked quite beautiful. Couple of days in Hanmer Springs for the thermal pools and a wedding, and then onto Kaikoura where I met up with Gary Melville of Albatross Encounter. Gazza and myself did a half day pelagic and got a great selection of birds: 20+ Black-browed Albatross, 1 Campbell Island Albatross, a dozen of the ever-photogenic Buller's Albatross, plus a huge gathering of Wandering and Southern Royal Albatross.
After a few days in sunny Kaikoura we headed back to Stewart Island where the weather seemed to have calmed down a bit. At the end of July I was back in Kaikoura for a full day deep-water pelagic with Albatross Encounter again where I had hopes of adding Grey Petrel to my ever-growing seabird list ...
A 6am start saw ten of us leave Kaikoura's South Bay heading out to the shelf about 20 miles out. The weather was relatively calm but it didn't take too long to start attracting birds. The usual suspects; Wandering (Gibson's) Albatross, Northern and Southern Royal Albatross, Northern Giant Petrels, NZ White-capped and Salvin's Albatross all squabbled around the iced chum block with the constant soundtrack of Cape Petrels in the background. Other good birds seen were Westland Petrel, Grey-faced Petrel, a lone Sooty Shearwater who'd obviously decided to stay put in the southern hemisphere, and the regular comings and goings of Fairy Prion. After 8 hours at sea we still hadn't seen Grey Petrel or white morph Southern Giant Petrel (local fishermen reported seeing two).
On this trip I learned that Grey Petrel have been hit hard by long-line fishing as a by-catch. A few years ago on this kind of trip a dozen of them would have been seen.
Steve Woods and Igor Debski were on this pelagic and they had also been on the Three Kings Pelagic back in March. On that trip we wore shorts and t-shirt. This one was woolly hats, gloves and thick fleeces!
We're now into August and soon I'll be heading north for the gruelling 24 hour journey to the UK to represent the New Zealand Birding Network and Ulva Island at the British Birdwatching Fair in Rutland (19th-21st August).
The New Zealand companies are all together on the one stand:
Being back in the UK is a great chance to catch up with family and friends - and obviously some birdwatching to be done! Hope to get down to Dorset and spend some time out in the field with my old mate Pete Moore and also revisit some old favourite Kentish sites.
A house move in February (during the height of the guiding season) was a bit challenging but the new garden list started off very well with a Kaka following us from the old house to the new, plus the addition of a family of Weka with three chicks. The adult female had a broken lower mandible but she seemed to be doing a good job bringing up the chicks and they were very trusting, allowing us to get quite close for photographs instead of unpacking boxes that we were meant to be doing.
The beginning of March saw me leave Stewart Island for the far north to Three Kings for a four-day pelagic run by Brent and Sav of Wrybill Tours.
During my travels north I got an email from a mate back in the UK to tell me that Ray Turley had passed away in India. Ray was a cornerstone of the early twitching scene in the UK and in latter years had become a familiar face at Dungeness. His sea-watching skills were second to none and he was the sort of guy who was willing to share his knowledge and passion. I think anyone that crossed his path could only be impressed. I didn't know Ray particularly well but when I saw him last August we watched a flock of Glossy Ibises at Denge Marsh he said to me, "I haven't seen you down here for a while." I replied that I'd been living in New Zealand for a few years and we laughed as he'd thought he'd seen me only a couple of months ago. Such is the passing of time in birdwatching years compared to normal years! It was a great day that day at Dungeness - I jumped in Ray's car because a Hoopoe had been found on the beach and I left Ray stalking some Lapland Buntings that he was determined to get on film. The world's a sadder place without him in it.
The Three Kings Pelagic is THE best pelagic I've ever been on. Eight guys on a small boat in the middle of the ocean may not be everyone's idea of fun but if you're into your pelagic birds this was the muts nuts. Great birds just kept coming and to be honest I can't remember the order they arrived but every day brought a new bird. Kermadec Petrels, White Terns, Grey Ternlets, twenty-plus Long-tailed Skuas and New Zealand Storm Petrels.
The cameras were running hot and you found yourself running to the opposite side of the boat as something else great had been spotted such as White-naped Petrels, Black-winged Petrels, Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Grey-faced Petrels. As well as the birds we saw a huge pod of 100-plus Short-beaked Common Dolphins that played at the bow of the boat; three Bryde's Whales and while chumming a Shortfin Mako Shark made an appearance in the clear blue water.
The birds kept coming though and a single Sooty Tern was spotted along with a Gould's Petrel. Highlights have to be a Tahiti Petrel, probably the first living bird seen in New Zealand waters, along with a Collared Petrel, another first for New Zealand not forgetting the Flesh-footed Shearwaters and Black Petrels putting your head in a bit of a spin. Thanks to Tank, skipper of the vessel Demelza, Brent and Sav for organising the trip, and the great company of Steve, Igor, Ian and Detlef.
Back home on Stewart Island after a morning's guiding I'd just sat down with a cup of coffee when I got a text from a friend to say that she had a juvenile kiwi in her back garden and did I want to come round?! All the kiwis I've seen in the bush and Ulva Island when I've never had my camera, so I wasn't going to let this opportunity slip by. This was the nearest thing to a full scale twitch on Stewart Island so I threw my camera bag (and Jules!) in the back of the truck and we whizzed round to Sandy's house. Sure enough at 4 o'clock in the afternoon was a juvenile kiwi fast asleep on Sandy's lawn. We sat about twenty metres away and the bird was very relaxed and had a wander around, feeding inbetween kiwi naps. Sandy said she'd heard the parents calling in previous weeks and we were lucky to have spent a couple of hours in its company. Unbelieveable - only on Stewart Island!
Since that day, it hasn't been seen since.
April 7th saw probably the last pelagic of the season with Aurora Charters. I was just along for the ride as the boat had been chartered by Wrybill Tours doing a short southern New Zealand tour. As we jumped on the boat, the discussion between myself, Ty the skipper and Brent turned to what birds we were likely to see. It was blowing about 20 knots and there was a good 2-3 metre swell so I said we were likely to see White-headed Petrel as I'd seen them in previous Aprils from the ferry. Brent said we'd find a Great Shearwater, a bird that breeds in a completely different sea. The nearest population breeds on South Georgia near the Falkland Islands but one or two had been seen around New Zealand in the last week or so.
We arrived at Wreck Reef with the usual suspects immediately on view: Royal Albatross, White-capped and Buller's Albatrosses. The first good bird was a Broad-billed Prion and shortly afterwards a White-headed Petrel came into view and then another one appeared. Northern Giant Petrels and Southern Giant Petrels were in attendance and a brief view of a Sub-Antarctic Little Shearwater kept the momentum going until Brent shouted, "What's this? It's a f*cking Great Shearwater". I got onto the bird and couldn't believe it, it was a Great Shearwater. Probably less than ten records of these birds in New Zealand and probably half of those records this year. The bird circled around the boat, landed on the water and did a few close fly bys allowing us to get some photos. Quite unbelieveable. Brent at this stage lost all composure, shouting and screaming about his find! A great way to end the season. On the way back we picked up another two White-headed Petrels and even though it was 4 White-headed Petrels to 1 Great Shearwater, I think Brent still trumps me.
As we enter May, guiding has pretty much dried up and I've been fortunate to get a few days' work for SIRCET doing bird call counts at Ryan's Creek and Ackers Point here on Stewart Island. Effectively it involves walking to designated spots on a map, standing for five minutes and collecting data on all endemic and native birds you hear and see. Some of the points take you off the walking tracks and deep into the bush but the weather has been kind and I've got to see some parts of the island I haven't seen in a while.
First the bad news. After more than 13 years of being predator-free, Ulva Island had an invasion of rats over the Christmas period.
Rat trapping is a continual process on Ulva Island (as a precautionary measure) if you don't rat trap you don't know if you are rat-free. On average Ulva Island catches three rats per year in these traps. It's difficult to keep an open sanctuary completely predator free but when it was recorded over Christmas that six rats had been caught (including two juveniles) our worst fears were realised. A breeding population of rats had established itself on Ulva Island.
At last count 70+ plus rats have been caught which is worrying time for the Stewart Island community because Ulva Island is one of the main draws to this part of the world. But it really isn't the time to go on a witch hunt to apportion blame. Everyone is of the same opinion; Ulva Island must be re-eradicated of rats as soon as possible. Unfortunately there will be some casualties; Stewart Island Robin, South Island Saddleback and Stewart Island Weka.
As a trustee of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust, I've attended a number of meetings in the past weeks. Ulva Island is seen as a blueprint of how to run an open sanctuary ie. a predator-free island that is open to the public. This is a sad chapter in its history but we must look on the positive side and move forward. It doesn't have to spell disaster - we can learn from this and so can other islands and eco sanctuaries.
Hopefully sooner rather than later Ulva Island can return as the precious jewel in the crown of Rakiura National Park.
2011 on Ulva Island has turned up some gems in terms of guided trips that I've led there. We've seen Yellow-crowned Kakariki feeding young at the nest; Jackbirds (juvenile Saddleback) foraging with their parents through the bush; and high in the canopy the pleasing flutey calls of Yellowhead above us. In a ten-day period I've been fortunate enough to see six daytime sightings of Stewart Island Brown Kiwi on Ulva Island and the best experience of all has to be watching two male kiwi fight for 35 minutes. A lady in my group who was filming this actually had her feet in the same shot as the fighting kiwis, as they were so intent on their battle for territory that they didn't give us a second glance. After the loser slumped away looking a bit sorry for himself the victor called his iconic kiwi call that you really only associate with evenings on Stewart Island - and all this before 10am!
Other highlights include a number of pelagics with Aurora Charters as the Birding Bonanza combination trip with Ulva's Guided Walks continues to be a success with serious birdwatchers and photographers.
One hugely successful trip to Wreck Reef on the east coast of Stewart Island began quite uneventfully. Not even a Southern Royal Albatross showed up. A single Fairy Prion, Cook's Petrel and White-chinned Petrel were about all we'd seen and then on the horizon a bird came lazily flying towards us. At first I thought it could be a Buller's Shearwater but as it got closer I realised that it was something different. It had a large white collar and black cap to the head. I shouted "White-naped Petrel" but cut myself short because I've only seen them in books. I've been doing some homework in preparation for a Three Kings pelagic next month, and knew if this was a White-naped Petrel it was way out of its range. The nearest breeding population is the Kermedec Islands, an archipelago north of New Zealand's North Island. These birds normally migrate north - as far away as Hawaii.
There was about 22 people on board that day (Tuesday 15th February) and I got everyone onto the bird, quickly rattling off ten photos as it wasn't lingering about. Ty, the skipper, asked what I thought it was and I replied that it could be a White-naped Petrel. We checked my photos against the field guide on the boat and when I got back onto dry land I phoned Sav Saville of Wrybill Tours. Sav said the only other thing it could possibly be was a Great Shearwater, but I've seen these in the UK and was convinced it wasn't one. I sent my photos off to Sav and he confirmed that it was indeed a White-naped Petrel. It could be the southern-most record of this species and possibly never recorded around Stewart Island - I'm filing the rarities report with the OSNZ as we speak. I was just happy to get a lifer!
At this time of year the Pelagic season starts up and Aurora Charters have a new skipper called Ty. He has lots of local knowledge and a fun sense of humour. We've already done a full day trip down to Port Pegasus (the far south of Stewart Island) where Mottled Petrel was seen along with Arctic and Antarctic Tern - probably one of the few places in the world where you'll see these two birds side by side. Other great birds seen from the Aurora include Cook's Petrel, Buller's Shearwater, White-chinned Petrel, Campbell Island and Black-browed Albatross and last week's highlights were Soft-plumaged Petrel and at least four or five Grey-backed Storm Petrels and a Wilson's Storm Petrel flitting around the boat. Check out the Aurora Charters website for upcoming trips.
Earlier in the month I was invited to a book launch here on Stewart Island. Neville Peat has just released his book in time for Christmas called "Rakiura Heritage" about Stewart Island history and a guide to historic sites. I was going to buy a signed copy at the launch but my money was handed back with a personal note from Neville because I had supplied him with some photos of the local birds for the book!
During December SIRCET asks its volunteers to help with Blue Penguin surveys and Jules and myself were only too glad to assist. It involves walking the path from Ackers Point Lighthouse at 11pm with head torches on and counting the number of Blue Penguins you see for the 30 minute walk back to the car park. We had good views of adult birds coming ashore having spent the day out at sea feeding as well as two very cute fluffy chicks waiting patiently for a feed just off the path. Plenty of rustling in the bushes but we weren't allowed to count those!
That's all my news for 2010. I might grab the camera as there's a Kaka tapping at my window for attention - my most common garden bird, how cool is that?!!
November saw me getting into a bit of a scrap with Sooty Shearwaters! Nothing personal, I was just helping Claire from SIRCET to band them. They do put up a bit of a fight, much to the amusement of the Blue Penguins who sit in the middle of the path just watching the snarling and hissing pillowcase containing a Sooty inside. We spent around three hours catching the birds, weighing them and putting a leg band on their right leg. It's amazing to think these birds were flying off the coast of Alaska or even right around to the UK just a few short months ago.
I'm back on Stewart Island and straight back into guiding. Spring has firmly put her roots down; clear skies, warm sunshine and very little wind to mention. It's a great time to bird watch on Ulva Island as the birds are holding territory and a lot of singing and nest building is taking place - and the bird watchers know this. My first few tours this season were all real serious listers who know exactly what they want to see. Most of these folks were Brits, including one couple from Scotland that I met a couple months earlier at the Birdfair.
We don't often lead one-to-one tours but as the season is building we occasionally make exceptions. Ulva Goodwillie and myself took Sandy, an American birdwatcher, across to Ulva Island with us, and used the trip as a bit of recce to find out what birds were where. Sandy was very laid back and enjoyed viewing flocks of Yellowhead, Brown Creeper and the displaying Saddlebacks. As we found new birds, I picked up on a few things Sandy was saying and asked him his surname. He said, "Komito" and then the penny dropped. Sandy Komito, America's top lister/twitcher from the book "The Big Year" and soon to be made film of the same name. He was a very pleasant guy who said he does not twitch so much these days. A few weeks later Ulva and myself received a parcel from Florida and Sandy had kindly sent both of us a signed copy of his book about the big year, called "I came, I saw, I counted". A pacey good read and if you find it, buy it!
Another trip to Ulva Island produced a daytime sighting of a large female kiwi that stayed with us for around five minutes, which is always such a privilege. On the water taxi crossing to Ulva Island you are pretty much guaranteed to see Blue Penguins but one recent morning there was not a penguin in sight. The answer to this mystery was soon found asleep on Sydney Cove - a moulting Leopard Seal - a penguin's nemesis!
To break up the huge journey from London to Christchurch we decided to have a three night stopover in Singapore. A very modern expanding city, but if you look there are one or two rewarding nature reserves to visit not far from the busy centre. I spent a day at Sungei Buloh (north of the city) a magnet for waders even though it was not the best of time of year to visit, but I did connect with a few good birds; Marsh Sandpiper, Pacific Golden Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Curlew Sandpipers, Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Pink-necked Pigeon and Ashy Tailorbird.
A quick visit to Bukit Timah did not produce a large amount of birds, but the Long-tailed Macaques made up for it and were very photogenic. And I even found time to be tourist and enjoy a Singapore Sling at Raffles.
Returning to Stewart Island was a wee bit colder than Singapore, and it was straight back to work with a few tours on Ulva Island. After a couple weeks at home we were on the road again, with a two week road trip around the South Island. We drove the Catlins route from Invercargill to Dunedin, seeing Yellow-eyed Penguins along the way.
Across to Doubtful Sound to do an overnight trip where the scenery is always stunning and we also got to see Fiordland Crested Penguins and Bottlenose Dolphins. Next was a drive up the West Coast were the weather was playing its part. We spent the night at Arthur's Pass where the Keas were being their destructive selves and enjoyed trying to destroy the hire car. The next morning we awoke to a good fall of snow which was a bit of a surprise, but by the time we arrived at Kaikoura the sun was shining. I quickly got myself onto two pelagics run by Ocean Wings. Brent Stephenson of Wrybill Tours was also in town for a few days. Brent was also present at the British Birdfair. It's a small world these days - one minute you're in a marquee in the middle of England and a few weeks later you're with the same person on a boat on the other side of the world looking at Wandering Albatross.
The first Ocean Wings pelagic produced a Southern Fulmar, Buller's Shearwater, a few Westland Petrels plus a lot of the usual suspects (Wandering, Royal, Black-browed, Salvin's and White-capped Albatross. Also huge flocks of the endangered Hutton's Shearwater. Pelagic number two brought an unexpected visitor in the shape of a Grey-backed Storm Petrel which was probably blown north through the night with a number of Fairy Prions. We viewed a White-chinned Petrel and Short-tailed Shearwater which was a challenge finding it amongst the Sooty Shearwaters. Heaps of Cape Petrels and the always quarrelsome Northern Giant Petrels at the back of the boat. That afternoon with the sun still shining I was on another boat filling up a 4GB card with a massive pod of Dusky Dolphins that were trying to fight evolution as they seemed to spend more time out of the water than in it. Spring was in the air and I'm sure the females were just trying to get away from the advances of the males. Next stop was Twizel where I caught up with the ever delicate Black Stilt as well as Wrybill, Banded Plover and Australasian Pipit.
The middle of August saw us leaving Stewart Island and heading to the northern hemisphere to represent New Zealand islands and the New Zealand Birding Network at the annual British Birdwatching Fair held at Rutland, the UK's smallest county.
This huge three day event is now into its twenty-second year with exhibitors from Alaska to Zambia plus all the latest optics on view for you to salivate over. Heaps of new books are out busily being signed by the authors so you can test the strength of your bookshelves once you get home.
The New Zealand stand was shared by operators throughout the country: Albatross Encounter at Kaikoura, Heritage Expeditions, Wild Earth New Zealand Travel, Kapiti Island Alive!, Wrybill Birding Tours and us guys from Ulva's Guided Walks, down here on Stewart Island. We were very busy for the full three days and got a lot of very positive feed back and bookings. Lots of comments were made that it was good to have all of New Zealand on one stand. We must have done something right as our stand won third best in show.
The Birdfair is always a great place to renew old acquaintances and talk about past trips, twitches and birds and of course to make new friends.
While I was back in the UK for a few weeks obviously there was a bit birding to be done. It was fun to return to old haunts; Oare and Elmley Marshes, Dungeness, Cley, and Grove Ferry to name a few.
I got the grand tour of the county of Dorset with my old birding buddy Pete Moore who moved there from Kent a few years back. It was great to spend time with Pete and his family again but sadly over all too quickly. While I was back in the UK I caught up with a lot of great birds - Arctic and Barred Warblers, Hoopoe, Wryneck, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope, Purple Heron, Cattle Egret, Red-backed Shrike and a flock of 18 Glossy Ibis. And that's just a few of the highlights!
As alluded to in May's instalment, guiding has taken a back seat for the winter season so to keep the wolf from the door, I work two-four days a week on the ferry service between Stewart Island and Bluff. As I've mentioned, it does have its advantages. In the last few weeks we've encountered Southern Right Whale, a huge pod of Bottlenose Dolphins including youngsters, Yellow-eyed Penguins, and Royal and Wandering Albatrosses.
My commute to and from work is in darkness. Kakas have always been fairly abundant in the township, which we do take for granted somewhat (it's my most common garden bird and definitely the noisiest!). I've noticed this winter that Weka have become much more vocal in the dawn chorus and many island locals are seeing them around the township. A lot of this is due to the success of SIRCET and its volunteers trapping cats, rats and possums.
My commute last Saturday though, involved something a wee bit more special. It's a ten minute walk to work and within a couple of minutes of leaving the house I could hear tapping footsteps behind me, similar to a small dog. I turned around (with head torch on) and looked down to meet my stalker. A kiwi! At 7.10am in the middle of the township. I stepped back, gobsmacked. I've seen a fair number of kiwi on Ulva Island and in the bush, but would never expect to see one in the township, and certainly never this close. I attempted to observe the guidelines of keeping my distance from the kiwi, but as I walked backwards viewing the bird, it tagged alongside and actually ran to keep up with me! It began feeding on the grass verge so I stepped back and knelt down to watch. The bird then moved towards me and started to probe around my feet and seemed very relaxed. It continued its pre-dawn ramble, walking across the main road into a neighbouring garden to melt out of view. Pretty much guaranteed I was the only person on the whole planet that day to encounter a wild kiwi on their commute to work. Awesome!
On a recent day trip to Ulva Island I had great encounters with Yellowhead, Rifleman, Brown Creeper, Saddleback and was lucky enough to catch a roosting view of Morepork. The disadvantages of winter birding is that the birds are a lot quieter, however the plus side for the seven hours I was there is that I had the island to myself!
Our summer season officially came to an end on 1st May, which means less visitors arriving to this southern isle. There has still been a bit of guiding work during the month including a group from Alma College in the USA.
As guiding takes a back seat for winter, I do a few days here and there working on the ferry between Stewart Island and Bluff. A ten minute walk down to the wharf in the dark serenaded by Kaka and Weka calling is a good way to start the day. Working on the ferry is tough, but the advantages (so long as you can handle the puke bags) are that seabirds are plentiful on the Foveaux Strait. A strong easterly a week or so ago brought a good selection of birds out on the Strait including Royal Albatross, White-headed and Mottled Petrels, and a nice close view of an Arctic Skua.
Saying that, we do have pleasant sunny days and I think on the whole islanders enjoy having the island to themselves for a few months of the year. A few days ago a large bull Hooker's Sealion decided to relax in the middle of the road, probably the nearest thing to a Stewart Island traffic jam.
Birds on Ulva Island have been very quiet, bulking up for the winter. Yellowhead, Saddleback and Rifleman can be quite elusive. At the beginning of this month the Ulva Island Charitable Trust launched its new website - see the links page for details.
One of the great things about living on Stewart Island is that opportunities can arise that don't seem to occur in "normal life". On Monday 29th March, a beautiful, sunny, autumn day I was out on the Department of Conservation (DoC) boat, skippered by Barney. Also onboard was Clinton Duffy, probably New Zealand's leading marine biologist, who is studying the Great White Sharks that spend a lot of their time in this area, attracted by the huge New Zealand Fur Seal rookeries on the surrounding islands of Stewart Island.
Clinton has been studying sharks here and around the Chatham Islands for about 4 years. A lot of these studies mean getting up close and personal with these often misunderstood animals.
About 3 hours of drinking coffee, the waft of rotten tuna heads floating off the back of the boat and minced fish thrown over the side at intervals brought the bird life. Northern Giant Petrels, Shy and Buller's Albatross, Sooty Shearwaters, Black- and White-fronted Terms and the bulky shape of a Brown Skua. I was happy just snapping away with my camera, when the albatross I was taking a picture of, disappeared rather quickly. Out the corner of my eye a big dark shape appeared just below the surface of the water, the apex predator had arrived and I was no longer a Great White Shark virgin. Seeing one, that is.
Clinton and his team said, "Oh it's just a small one", as they guestimated it was two and a half metres long. It looked big enough to me. To I.D. the shark, an underwater camera on a pole was put over the side, operated by Kina.
Sharks, like dolphins, have unique dorsal fins with scarring and patterns on the side of their bodies. This turned out to be a young male the team had not seen before. He was very interested in the bait and spent 45 minutes or so just circling the boat. I found it hard not to quote movie trivia, "You're gonna need a bigger boat ...".
One of the first things Clinton told me was that the dorsal fin is very rarely seen slicing through the water (as depicted in the movies) although when they migrate the dorsal fin does come out more. Most sharks around Stewart Island migrate to north-east Queensland around the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
The team decided to put a spot transmitter on the shark, which would send a signal to a satellite every time his dorsal fin came out of the water. It's hoped that the transmitter shows important data such as the migration route, depth and water temperature. But this meant actually catching him. So a fish head was put on a large hook with some buoys attached to the line, and it was thrown over the back of the boat.
The next few seconds were stunning. Frustratingly, none of it was caught on film. The shark took the bait, instantly diving taking the buoys with it. The buoyancy meant he was going to come up quickly, which he did - completely breaching out of the water, which even Clinton and his team said was bloody rare!
The shark gradually wore himself out and the team brought him alongside the boat. With the boat moving slowly forward all the time, so that water passed through the shark's gills, a rope was put around the tail and the shark's head was held tight against the side of the boat. It became apparent that I wasn't going to stand back and take photos. All hands were needed on deck to make this process quick and less stressful for the shark.
Clinton drilled through the dorsal fin and attached the transmitter (about the size of a pack of playing cards) with nuts and bolts. A sample of DNA was taken and the shark measured; he turned out to be 2.7 metres long, 8 feet 10 inches in old money. SMALL my arse! Females are normally bigger and the average size of a female around Stewart Island is 4.8 metres long.
Time to release the shark. First the tail is released and the hook in the mouth is cut with bolt cutters, leaving the tip in the mouth to be pushed out naturally. The cold black eye that's always associated with great whites, looked at us as he disappeared into the deep. Wow! I hope he's got the memory of a goldfish.
We went looking for another shark in a different area but with no joy. Just one lone juvenile Yellow-eyed Penguin appeared for about an hour, and then it was time to head for home.
See Stewart Island > Flora & Fauna for more photos of the Great White Shark
Autumn has arrived in my office. Birds are calling less, berries are appearing and birds are feeding up for winter. Yellowheads are still feeding young, as are the Saddlebacks. The damp spell at the end of March seemed to bring out quite a few kiwis during the day, which is always nice. The first one I saw was a huge female that slowly walked away from us after twenty minutes of good views and the one last week was a smaller male that started off about five feet in front of us, but after about ten minutes he melted into the bush in the background. Happy clients, happy Matt!
Thanks to Jules for revamping my website!