Birding, home and away ...
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.