Eurasian Skylark, actually two skylarks were the first birds I saw as I landed at Heathrow Airport at 6am. I always play that game - what will be the first bird on the list when I arrive in a country - I guess that's why I like a window seat as runways normally provide the first bird. They are usually pigeons, crows or starlings but this trip took me via Singapore and the first bird was Common Myna on the outward trip and a stunning White-throated Kingfisher, a real good looker, as I came back through Changi Airport. On arrival back to New Zealand it was a Kelp Gull at Christchurch Airport. I've read books by Bill Oddie and David Lindo and they say they do the same thing.
But back to the beginning. I left Invercargill on a frosty August morning and arrived thirty-something hours later at London Heathrow to a hot summer in full swing. I was back in the UK for a quick trip to represent Ulva's Guided Walks, Stewart Island and New Zealand at the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water.
I'd been in the UK for just a few hours and my good mate Pete Moore came over for dinner so we could catch up and get an early start the next morning to head off to one of my favourite reserves, Oare Marshes in Kent. I don't know if it was because it was a Saturday, or a nice hot day, combination of both possibly, but Pete and I were surprised at how busy it was compared to when we used to go there.
There were some great birds present, particularly waders, which were migrating south. Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Whimbrel, Common and Spotted Redshank were joined by Dunlin, Green Sandpiper, Greenshank and a couple of Curlew Sands.
I guess the most sought after bird was the returning Bonaparte's Gull. As we circumnavigated the reserve we bumped into Kent County Recorder, Barry Wright, who had just re-found the roosting gull. We spotted it hiding amongst some Black-headed Gulls but after a few minutes it took off and headed for the receding tide on the Swale. After a quick look we relocated the bird feeding with other gulls to give a good comparison with the Black-headed Gulls. The small american gull looked daintier than its european cousin with a smaller black bill and pinkish legs. Whilst searching for the gull we also found a Little Stint feeding on the shoreline with some Ringed Plovers.
A couple of days later I was at another old haunt with another Pete, this time Essex birder Pete Merchant. We spent the day down at Dungeness on the southern tip of Kent. It was a great day out, but to be honest, it was so warm and still it wasn't a great day for birding. We still managed to find a pair of Peregrines resting on the power station roof and as we walked around the perimeter fence I spotted a Hummingbird Hawkmoth, and a bit further on we found an adult Black Redstart feeding a juvenile.
While having a coffee in the visitor centre I reacquainted myself with Common Sandpipers that I hadn't seen for a year, and out on the reserve we found one of the almost resident Great White Egrets.
Two days of great birding with two great mates.
The next day I was heading north to Rutland Water near Oakham, pretty much in the centre of the UK, for the British Birdwatching Fair. On the New Zealand stand were Ulva's Guided Walks, Albatross Encounter Kaikoura, Wrybill Birding Tours, Kapiti Island Nature Tours and Heritage Expeditions - and from Friday to Sunday we answered questions and promoted New Zealand to visiting birders.
We thought that Brexit might have a significant impact on interest in travel as the pound was weaker than it had been for a long time, but to be honest it seemed to have no effect at all. Sunday is usually the quietest day of the three, but people were keen to book trips to Stewart Island and with Wrybill Birding Tours. The BBC series "New Zealand: Earth's Mythical Islands" helped to put New Zealand firmly on the map of many potential travellers - there's no better advertising than an awesome BBC natural history programme.
In previous years the New Zealand bird fair exhibitors stayed at Oakham School with hundreds of other exhibitors, a united nations of birding and natural history tourism operators, if you will! But for the last couple of years we've had the pleasure of staying with Mary, a lovely lady that lives in a quaint village just outside Oakham. It's a beautiful village with one pub, that we tried out one or twice. Maybe three times! Mary puts up with five visiting kiwis each summer; Lynette and Gary stay in the big house, and myself, Brent and Sav stay in the converted barn. Mary is a super host and treats us to home cooking.
After the bird fair the five of us went our separate ways; Lynette to Italy for a couple of weeks, Gary to London, Brent home to New Zealand, and Sav to the American Birding Expo. I had a few days left in the UK so I squeezed in a trip to Sevenoaks, Bough Beech, and back to Oare, where I got a few more species on my trip list, particularly warblers; Lesser and Common Whitethroat, Sedge and Cetti's Warbler,Water Rail and Green Woodpecker. Most enjoyable though was finding not one but two Turtle Doves. A species that's becoming critically rare in the UK due to hunting of this bird on its migration route through the Mediterranean, in particular, Malta.
All too soon I was saying goodbye to family and heading back at Heathrow to catch four planes home to New Zealand. Once at home I caught up with some emails and went through the post which included a parcel from the UK! Inside was a DVD and a nice letter from the BBC thanking me for my help when they came to film on Stewart Island - the DVD was "New Zealand: Earth's Mythical Islands"!! While I was in the UK I'd tried to buy a copy but it hadn't yet been released. I then recalled that Ty and myself had taken Mark MacEwen, a brilliant BBC cameraman, out with us on the boat in April 2015.
It's taken a while to get over the jet lag but it's meant that I'm wide awake to guide on the evening kiwi spotting trips and we've still been getting a few people wanting a guided walk on Ulva Island. I was also asked to judge a competition at our local school, Halfmoon Bay, for a Conservation Week project. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, the photos were great!
On Stewart Island it feels like spring is turning up. The clocks went forward this weekend and the Kowhai and Fuschia are flowering in the garden which are attracting lots of Kaka and Tui!