Below the 47
It’s almost a year since New Zealand went into full lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic - how the world has changed. New Zealand has fared better than many countries but our alert levels have increased twice in the past month due to outbreaks of the virus in the Auckland community; a reminder that we should not get complacent.
In my previous post “Full Circle” I was about to re-join Heritage Expeditions guide/lecturer/zodiac driver on the Spirit of Enderby vessel for three expeditions back to back taking in, Stewart Island, Fiordland and Subantarctic Islands.
On 23rd December we set sail from Bluff with with 48 passengers onboard heading south beyond latitude 47 degrees and woke up Christmas Eve morning 100 kilometres south of Stewart Island at Snares Island, New Zealand’s smallest Subantarctic group.
I had to pinch myself as I wandered out to the back deck wearing wet weather gear, life vest, radio and binoculars, that I was driving the zodiac to explore this rocky outcrop in the southern ocean. It was my first visit to Snares Island - and a completely mind-blowing experience! Thousands upon thousands of Snares-crested penguin, thousands of Sooty Shearwater, southern brown skua, Snares Cape Petrels. Not just visually impressive but their calls too - and we hadn’t even left the vessel!
The zodiac was lowered into the water alongside the Spirit of Enderby and I collected my passengers. We hugged the shoreline and travelled in a convoy of three zodiacs driven by Alex Ferguson our expedition leader, Courtney Rayes and myself. It was a superb introduction to Subantarctic wildlife being surrounded by penguins, lounging Fur Seals and Sea Lions on the rocks and Antarctic Terns feeding above us.
Our two-hour exploration of coves and bays revealed the ‘penguin slide’ an angled rock about 100 metres high that penguins use to get in and out of the sea to access their nest sites. Snares Island is home to two unique passerines: the Snares Island Fernbird is lighter and more golden coloured compared with the mainland Fernbird so I was pleased to grab a photo; the Snares Island Tomtit is pure black and was fairly easy to pick out amongst the rocks and scrubby bush. Both are endemic not just to New Zealand but to Snares Island, a tiny rock in the southern ocean. The day was certainly nothing like any other Christmas Eve I’d known.
We had all day to steam further south to our next destination, Campbell Island, the most southern Subantarctic Island at 52.5 degrees south. Fantastic seabirds en route included Campbell Island Albatross and the incredibly charismatic Light Mantled-Sooty Albatross - a small but sleek sharp looking albatross which is as good as it sounds.
Christmas morning we arrived at Campbell Island’s Perseverance Harbour where the first new bird for me was Campbell Island Shag, another endemic, this time to Campbell Island. This bulky heavy looking shag is similar in appearance to the Foveaux Shag on Stewart Island.
A new boardwalk led the way to Col Peak for views of Antarctic Tern and Pipit at close range, plus a Campbell Island Teal. I’d seen one of these flightless ducks at Codfish Island in 2009 so it was great to see it one at its island home. Dodging stroppy Sea Lions we headed up to the peak amid stunning scenery and I heard an unusual bird call. After a bit of scanning and detective work there was a lifer sitting under a bush - Subantarctic Snipe - a stunning little creature but a bit camera shy. As we climbed higher the route took us past Southern Royal Albatross breeding sites where every few hundred metres birds sat on eggs completely oblivious to our presence. An amazing experience.
Reaching the peak 300 metres up we were rewarded with incredible views across the island and its flowing megaherbs. Orange, pink and purple dots covered the landscape like someone had spilled dollops of paint everywhere.
Back onboard the vessel we sat down to Christmas dinner - the meals that the two chefs created were amazing - and just like any Christmas Day the wine and beer flowed and stories got taller. By 10.30pm everyone was in bed!
My Boxing Day assignment as zodiac driver was to drop off an early morning walking party and then cruise around the harbour with Courtney for passengers to see shags, skuas and impressive (but smelly) New Zealand Sea Lions, drawing an end to our time at Campbell Island.
North to the largest of the New Zealand Subantarctic group, the Auckland Islands was our next stop. Enderby Island is completely predator-free and teeming with wildlife - we landed at Sandy Bay which is home to one of the largest New Zealand Sea Lion rookeries. Huge beachmasters (male Sea Lions) weighing over half a ton hold their hareem of sandy-coloured females and are generally quite relaxed. We had a few close encounters, usually with the younger male Sea Lions who’d had no fun with the girls and had gotten beaten up by the big males that tended to be the trouble makers.
We found our first Auckland Island Teals at the beach - similar to Campbell Island Teal, this flightless duck survives on the beaches and foreshores of these remote islands. New island, new rock, new shag - new bird for my list in the
shape of an Auckland Island Shag which is only found on the Auckland Islands. While having some lunch we were the source of amusement and interest to a large group of juvenile Auckland Island Shags - we sat admiring the beautiful views from clifftops as young shags wandered between us, curious about the visitors to their island.
Other birds of note were New Zealand Falcon, Bellbird, Auckland Island Tomtit, and Auckland Island Parakeet and we saw an aerial display of Light Mantled-Sooty Albatross. A couple of young Northern Giant Petrels were beside the path and on the foreshore was Auckland Island Banded Plover (which surely is a separate species to its mainland cousin the Double-banded Plover) as it looks much more washed out in colour. We couldn’t help see and photograph the abundance of Yellow-eyed Penguins. On the mainland populations are declining but Auckland Islands population is increasing.
The following day we toured Carnley Harbour, a huge natural inlet amongst the Auckland Islands and anchored at Musgrave Harbour. A cool pre-breakfast zodiac cruise at Musgrave Harbour produced another new bird for me - Eastern Rockhopper Penguin. Similar looking to Snares and Fiordland Crested but with more flamboyant yellow crests and because we were travelling in the zodiacs we were able to close enough for photographs and enjoy these funky looking penguin antics.
Heading northwards again for a day and a half at sea, destination Bluff. Great seabird watching on the back deck with stunning White-headed Petrels and then it was inside for my first lecture about bird watching at Stewart Island.
The expedition ended at Bluff and it was an epic full-on trip. No rest for the wicked though, a quick turnaround to restock the boat and the following afternoon we sailed to Paterson Inlet on Stewart Island where the vessel would overnight for the start of a 6-day expedition of Stewart Island and Fiordland.
New Year’s Eve morning was spent at Ulva Island - familiar territory for me - and later in the day I was able to catch up with Jules and Nonu for an ice cream. From the comfort of the vessel later that evening passengers and crew watched the Halfmoon Bay fireworks as the arrival of 2021 was celebrated.
North-west towards Fiordland which comprises Dusky Sound, Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. I had never been to Dusky Sound before and it’s definitely the best of the three, with its small predator-free islands; Secretary Island, Anchor Island and Pigeon Island, the latter was of particular interest to me as it was the home of Irish conservationist (and the first paid warden in New Zealand) Richard Henry. As I looked at the remains of his home a pair of South Island Saddleback hopped around. They were translocated from Stewart Island and I’d like to think Mr Henry would be happy.
Next was Doubtful Sound which I had been to a couple of times previously. It’s stunning, particularly from a zodiac but the weather was pretty rough and tested my zodiac driving skills. From Doubtful to the more touristy Milford Sound, which has probably been hit hardest by Covid-19. It was a very popular destination with overseas visitors but the day we were there it looked like half the usual number of vessels were doing tours. With the exception of Dusky Sound the bird life in Fiordland doesn’t tend to be as diverse or plentiful as Stewart Island or the Subantarctic Islands. As the vessel steamed southwards towards Bluff and the end of this particular tour, we readied ourselves for a slightly different change-over. It wasn’t an immediate turn around so staff including chefs had a night free - the general consensus was that someone else was cooking that night … and I had my first curry of the year!
The next afternoon my third tour set off to Stewart Island for Rakiura-Snares Island-Fiordland expedition. Yet again it was nice to wake up in Paterson Inlet next to Ulva Island and we had a great morning looking at Saddleback and Yellowhead. The vessel shifted round to Halfmoon Bay and I ran the zodiac shuttles from the vessel into the bay so I managed another quick catch up with Jules before setting sail after dinner towards Snares Island.
One thing I found slightly unusual on all three trips was the lack of bird watchers. After dinner I would head out to the back deck with a cup of tea and my binoculars and had the place to myself. Scanning though Sooty Shearwaters, Mottled Petrels and Cook’s Petrels, pumping into a bit of an easterly, south-easterly blow I picked up a bird that I knew was a Bulwer’s Petrel.
Most birdwatchers do their homework before a birding trip and I’m no exception - prior to the Western Pacific Odyssey expedition in March 2020, the Bulwer’s Petrel was one I had hoped to see on THAT trip but this far south was way out of its range.
The bird looked like a big completely black storm petrel with a smudgy brown line across the upper mantle and wings and along a somewhat pointed tail. I knew I was looking at a Bulwer’s Petrel but of course nobody else was with me on the deck. My camera was in the cabin and this bird was not going to hang around so I made the decision to stick with it and look at every fine detail.
I knew this could potentially be the first live record for New Zealand.
I played through my mind what else it could be … Leach’s Storm Petrel?
But no, this was a Bulwer’s Petrel.
The bird skimmed over the water and came closer to the stern before arcing and banking away and disappeared after a couple of minutes. I hoped it would return but, no. With nobody else on the deck with me I high-fived the zodiac that was strapped to the back deck and ran inside to the library. Grabbing some field guides while the memory was still fresh, I looked at the plates rather than names to see if I could make anything else fit - both times Bulwer’s Petrel was it. I spoke with Sav Saville who is on the Rarities Committee to explain what I had seen and asked if it was worth submitting a UBR (unusual bird report) as I didn’t have a photograph. He suggested I should, and when I returned from the trip I did so - I know it’s an incredibly rare bird for New Zealand as a whole, let alone southern New Zealand. I know too that there’s a significant chance of it not being accepted without photographic evidence, but in my heart of hearts I know it was a Bulwer’s Petrel.
But back to the Spirit of Enderby heading to the now familiar Snares Island with its smorgasbord of seabirds. Once there we enjoyed another excellent zodiac cruise with penguin encounters, terns, petrels and breeding Buller’s Albatross plus even more looks at Fernbird and Tomtit.
From Snares Island to Milford Sound meant another sea day which some people didn’t enjoy - I did and we had a huge Sperm Whale off the bow of the ship, a massive pod of Dusky and Short-beaked common Dolphins that played around the vessel and lots of Wandering Albatross.
At Milford Sound the next morning a low sea mist hung around the steep cliffs looking like the entrance to a lost world or scene from a Hollywood movie. I loved getting back to Dusky Sound, it’s part of New Zealand that I’d not seen much of before and it certainly gets under your skin. At Secretary Island and Anchor Island we got some of the more common forest birds plus another visit to Pigeon Island, simply amazing and stunning weather. Back at Bluff where the trip ended, I left the vessel that had been home for three weeks and bade farewell to staff and crew that I hope to work with again in the future.
At the harbour gate I was met by old friend and Wrybill colleague, Neil Robertson who was going to take me bird watching! Pre-Christmas before boarding the ship I’d gone looking for a Greenshank that was hanging around at Riverton Estuary, but didn’t have any luck. So Neil and I headed off and had a slight change of plan deciding to check out where the Bar-tailed Godwits roost first. While Neil was getting his scope ready I looked over the sea wall and picked up the Grey-tailed Tattler that had been on the Estuary for some time. I called out to Neil that I’d got the tattler and got a “Great!” In reply. I scanned further right and there was a pale head sticking up amongst the godwits - the lone Greenshank! I shouted to Neil that I’d got the greenshank and got a reply full of expletives!! He set up the scope and we got excellent views of this unusual vagrant to New Zealand.
After an exhausting but incredibly rewarding three weeks working for Heritage Expeditions I returned to guiding life on Stewart Island with almost daily trips to Ulva Island as well as at least two nights a week evening kiwi spotting.
Early February the pelagic I’d organised was well attended with nine people joining us on Aurora Charters. It was a particularly sloppy day but we were rewarded with good views of Mottled Petrel, White-faced Storm Petrel, and Grey-backed Storm Petrel along with three species of penguin.
What does a bird watching guide do on his day off? He goes bird watching. It might sound funny because I spend my days showing other people birds but it’s a different kind of reward - and different when I’m doing it for myself. I caught the early ferry from Stewart Island to Bluff and was met by Brent Stephenson, mate and co-owner of Wrybill Birding Tours. Brent was conducting a bird survey for the local port authority and so we met up with Neil Robertson and spent the day bird watching.
At Invercargill Estuary (Tip Lagoon) we re-found the pair of long-staying Chestnut-breasted Shelducks - probably the same pair I’d seen at Stewart Island before Christmas. Nevertheless they were a year tick for Brent and myself. At Riverton we searched for the Tattler and Greenshank but after a couple of hours scanning the elusive Greenshank didn’t show however we did get the Tattler. On the way to get lunch I spotted a massive flock of Black-fronted Terns feeding in a field beside the road. Brent slammed on the brakes and did a u-turn so that we could look across the field at these quite rare terns. We counted 50 of them and then Brent spotted a (moulting) White-winged Black Tern - a rare annual vagrant to New Zealand!
A spectacular finish to the day’s birdwatching was at Awarua Bay where we found two New Zealand Southern Dotterels which breed only on Stewart Island - a lifer for Brent. Also at least 25 Red-necked Stints, one Curlew Sandpiper, one Greater Sandplover, five Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, 75+ Ruddy Turnstones - and one Wrybill.
While Neil & Brent were looking at the Dotterels and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers I spotted a bird by itself on the end of an island. Its legs and head were tucked away but I joked and referred to the Terek Sandpiper that had been reported a month prior. With that, the bird stood up - bright yellow legs and upturned bill clearly a Terek Sandpiper! What a way to finish the day.
Here we are in March and I’m due to guide for another three weeks with Heritage Expeditions as guide, lecturer & zodiac driver. On my return to Stewart Island in early April I’ll start the SIRCET 5-minute bird call count project for the 11th year.