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  • Matt

A few shades of grey

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.

Grey Warbler in our garden
Grey Warbler in our garden

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.

Grey-headed Albatross, Stewart Island - a rare bird for this area
Grey-headed Albatross, Stewart Island

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.

Australian Wood Duck
Australian Wood Duck

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.  



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