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  • Matt

Almost a desert island

A quarter of the year gone already and April has arrived. Time definitely goes faster the older you get. Back at the beginning of 2022 work was still fairly busy guiding at Ulva Island, and kiwi spotting in the evenings as Stewart Island continued to be a popular destination with New Zealanders.

In mid January, I joined Heritage Expeditions once again to guide on the Spirit of Enderby for two back-to-back voyages to New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands. The “Forgotten Islands” trip takes in Snares Island, Auckland Islands, and Campbell Island. The second trip included all five of Subantarctic Island groups; Snares, Bounty, Antipodes, Auckland and Campbell Islands.

The Forgotten Islands voyage was chartered by the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron to mark 150 years since forming in 1871 - their 2021 voyage was postponed because of a covid-19 lockdown. Expedition Leader Aaron made a very good call to run the voyage in reverse. The weather wasn’t looking favourable so instead of starting at Snares Island, we sailed a day and a half non-stop to Campbell Island. My hopes of watching seabirds for the day and a half at sea were thwarted by thick fog, you could barely see more than a few metres and I got only the merest glimpses of albatross and shearwater. Pretty frustrating.

Southern Royal Albatross gamming

Campbell Island is one of my favourite New Zealand Subantarctic Islands; incredible views, flowering megaherbs, Southern Royal Albatross gamming - it never disappoints and this visit was no exception. A Subantarctic Snipe sat up next to a boardwalk for a few moments so I was able to grab some half decent photos. Strong winds followed us from Campbell Island to Auckland Islands but we weren’t too disrupted by the weather and even managed to land at Enderby Island, in my opinion the premier NZ Subantarctic Island as far as abundance of wildlife goes. Yellow-eyed Penguins, New Zealand Fur Seals, Northern Giant Petrels to name but a few. The contrast in habitat and wildlife showed really well on the walk from Sandy Bay to the cliffs. At Snares Island we had fantastic views of Snares Crested Penguin, Snares Island Tomtit and Snares Island Fernbird before the day-long voyage back to Bluff.

Snares Island Tomtit

After a one day turnaround at Bluff the ship departed for my second voyage, this time to include all five of the Subantarctic Island groups; Snares, Bounty, Antipodes, Auckland and Campbell Islands. With familiar faces among the staff and crew this trip felt very comfortable, especially as a mate of mine, Dave Thomas, was onboard as a young explorer - Heritage Expeditions contribute to conservation by creating ambassadors through their “True Young Explorer Scholarships”. Dave is fairly new to birding but super keen and has been signed to guide with Wrybill Birding Tours for the upcoming season. This Subantarctic Islands voyage held a lot of new birds for Dave as he’d never travelled this far south before and I think he left the trip getting everything that he hoped for.

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross

At Snares Island we can’t get the zodiacs close enough to be able to land but we saw everything including Elephant Seal, Leopard Seal, NZ Fur Seals and NZ Sea Lions all on one rock! At Enderby Island, this time on the longer walk we got good views of Auckland Island Teal, Auckland Island Shag, lots of Yellow-eyed Penguin, plus a few grumpy sea lions. At the far north-eastern cliff we watched a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross chick sitting on the lip of a cliff as its parents put on a fantastic display, playing in the upcurrent of the cliff face.

Blood-stained Northern Giant Petrel

Walking back down the hill Sandy Bay, Dave and I noticed a Northern Giant Petrel fly past, its head completely red! After some investigation, we found a gang of at least six Northern Giant Petrels and ten or twelve Southern Brown Skua devouring a freshly dead sea lion pup. The birds were sticking their head into a body cavity explained the red-headed petrel we’d seen earlier. It was pretty grim to watch them squabble over entrails and intestines. When we caught up with the group and explained what we’d seen, everyone wanted to see it, so we tiptoed through the field of sleeping sea lions to witness this gory spectacle. I’ve heard that you see more sex and violence at Sandy Bay than any Quentin Tarantino movie!

Back to more sedate findings, we saw quite a few Double-banded Dotterels at the Auckland Islands. This subspecies is screaming out to be split - these birds are completely different to the mainland species, with huge lanky legs and always scruffy plumage. From Auckland Islands we travelled south to Campbell Island where the weather wasn’t as good. However, we managed to see everything including a pretty zodiac cruise where we found a rookery of Eastern Rockhopper Penguins.

From here we sailed a day and half eastwards towards the volcanic Antipodes Islands. These remote islands are home to the Antipodes Wandering Albatross and, like so many albatross species they are in rapid decline. The BBC were filming this rare seabird while we were here. The weather was perfect for a zodiac cruise - and it was the first time for almost all the staff that we’d been able to circumnavigate the whole island. It was pretty special finding incredible little caves and bights in this rocky landscape, surrounded by Erect-crested Penguins, plenty of NZ Fur Seals, a few Eastern Rockhoppers Penguins, as well as the chattering calls of NZ Pipit and Reischek’s Parakeet. Reischek’s Parakeet are only found on this remote rock in the southern ocean - an afternoon cruise to find the other endemic parakeet, the Antipodes Parakeet, proved successful too.

We sailed overnight from Antipodes Islands to Bounty Island - probably the most inhospitable rock of the subantarctic islands - and home to pretty much the world’s population of Salvin’s Albatross, thousands of erect crested penguins, Fulmar Prions, and Bounty Island Shag. There is no vegetation whatsoever and it is small and low lying; a washing machine of white water. Once we had the zodiacs in the water it became apparent that it would be impossible to get passengers on and off safely. Expedition Leader Chris, and Captain Alex decided it was safer to reposition the ship to a calmer side of the island and the five zodiacs would meet the ship there to disembark passengers. It was a great bit of teamwork and while we couldn’t get the zodiacs the whole way around the island, we had great views of all the species.

The day-long voyage back to Bluff rounded off another fantastic trip and I returned home to Stewart Island … to do a full day pelagic! These have been a rarity over the last couple of years with no international visitors. I had organised the pelagic in the hope of attracting a few NZ bird watchers. It was a pretty good day out on the sea; great views of Mottled Petrels, seven species of albatross, and a Gray’s Beaked Whale that surfaced near the vessel. Sadly no storm petrels.

Rakiura Sunrise

Mid February I was back into the swing of things at home, guiding for kiwi spotting although this has taken a bit of a hit as the ground is baked hard and dry as a result of drought. Stewart Island is a temperate rainforest but it hasn’t rained here (at least any decent rain) for around three months and now the whole of Southland is experiencing a drought. The majority of houses at Stewart Island are on tank water which effectively means we wash, bathe and drink in what we catch off the roof. We are always pretty frugal with our water consumption, but the island has seen nothing like this and we are desperate for rain.

Early in March I had a small piece published in the New Zealand Herald newspaper's travel section about a local's perspective of hidden treasures at Rakiura Stewart Island.

In mid March I was due to be joining another two back to back Heritage Expeditions voyages (Antipodes, Bounty, Chatham, and Pitt Islands - and then reposition the ship to Tauranga to sail to Kermadec Islands. The Kermedec group of islands sit to the north east of New Zealand and is the most northern part of New Zealand’s territory. Subtropical as opposed to subantarctic, so instead of albatross and penguin, we would have been looking at frigate birds, boobies and noddies.

Unfortunately, another global event put paid to these trips. The vessel chartered for these trips is The Spirit of Enderby, also known as Professor Khromov, a Russian ice-strengthened expedition vessel. When the NZ Government passed its ‘Russia Sanctions Bill’, sanctions were imposed on people, companies and services associated with the country. It’s the right stance to take of course, but also a desperately sad situation. I don’t get to see a few birds and wear shorts while driving the zodiac, instead of wet weather gear ... but who knows what the Russian crew will go back to. I spent a couple of days in Bluff helping to unload the ship before its month-long voyage back to Vladivostok as they had to leave New Zealand waters. I got home three and a half week earlier than planned and am back at Stewart Island leading the occasional Ulva Island guided walk.

I’m about to start my 12th year of doing five minute bird call counts for SIRCET which is almost guaranteed to make it rain and break the drought!

Today New Zealand opens its borders to all intents and purposes the first time in two years allowing Australians into the country without having to stay in a managed isolation facility. In May, the rest of the world will be allowed entry. Already enquiries are coming in from overseas visitors and birders who are planning to come to Stewart Island. Next season looks incredibly busy as I’ll be guiding with Heritage Expeditions, Wrybill Birding Tours and at Stewart Island. It will certainly have more of an international feel.

Moulting Royal Penguin

As for birding locally there is not too much to talk about except I did get a new bird! A Royal Penguin was found moulting in amongst some Fiordland Crested Penguins here at Stewart Island. We jumped into a mate’s dinghy to see the miserable-looking Royal Penguin. These birds only breed on Macquarie Island, an Australian Subantarctic Island, which is further south than the New Zealand group of islands. It’s the first twitchable bird in New Zealand for a while! At home our noisy neighbours, the Stewart Island Brown Kiwis call most evenings and the Morepork joins in. There is plenty of sign around the house (kiwi poo!) so I’ve set up an old trail cam to see if I can get a few images. As I write this latest instalment there is a little bit of rain …. a welcome sight.



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