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Birding night and day, land and sea

It's a couple of days before Christmas and almost the end of another year. It's been a very busy start to the 2018/19 season with regular trips to Ulva Island, pelagics, evening kiwi spotting tours, a 21-day Wrybill Birding tour of New Zealand, and a 3-day Wrybill Birding tour of Northland. In September Jules, Nonu and I relocated to a house high up on a hill. It offers fantastic views of Halfmoon Bay, Mount Anglem in the distance, and the expansive landscape of Rakiura National Park. The view from our office never get tiresome and we often pinch ourselves that we've lived on Stewart Island for more than eleven years.


Tui in my Stewart Island garden

The house is surrounded by native bush, not much of a garden, but the flowering Kamahi is very popular with visiting Tui. A couple of squatters were resident when we moved in - two Kaka that use our deck to look across the Bay and communicate to other Kaka that there are some nice strawberry plants that need to be destroyed. The back of the house is Kiwi territory and at least once a week we hear them calling but they are yet to be seen! Overhead we regularly get White-fronted Tern, Kelp Gull and Variable Oystercatcher commuting between Halfmoon and Golden Bay as we sit in a saddle between the two bays. During September and October there was more guided trips to Ulva Island than other years. Ulva Island continues to be my most regular place of work but I never get bored of it. Near enough every trip we are getting great views of South Island Saddleback, Yellowhead, Brown Creeper, the occasional diurnal kiwi - and in the last month or so, roosting Morepork. We also get fairly regular sightings of New Zealand Sealions on Ulva Island's beaches. Late in October I left Stewart Island to lead a 21-day Wrybill Birding tour of New Zealand with fantastic clients; four Americans, two British and one Aussie. They all got along exceptionally well - we had lots of laughs and fun and found some incredible birds. A full trip report and bird list will be available on the Wrybill Birding Tours website. Bizarre and unpredictable weather certainly played havoc with logistics of the tour; scorching hot sunny days, biblical rain and flooding, gales, and on the last day of the tour it snowed! We couldn't get on the Whitianga pelagic due to incredibly high winds, however we did manage the Hauraki Gulf pelagic just before a major storm front hit, and a bridge was washed away in Arthur's Pass meaning we could not get to our planned accommodation.

Black Stilt

Amazingly (and thankfully!) the number of bird species we saw didn't reflect the weather related challenges we faced. Four kiwi species, NZ Stormies, Fairy Terns mating in front of us, four Kokako calling and displaying above us, New Zealand Falcon mating (bit of a theme for this tour), Spotless Crake, Takahe, mega looks at Rock Wren and Black Stilt … plus a few "write-ins" (rare vagrants that are not be expected to be seen on tour) such as Little Egret, Hoary-headed Grebe, Northern Shoveler (showy drake) and Wilson's Storm Petrel to name just a few. We finished the tour with 154 species, not a bad haul. At Christchurch Airport we said our farewells and I returned home to Stewart Island for four nights.  The few days at home were mostly spent working right up until I had to leave again, literally jumping off a pelagic for a quick change of clothes in a public loo, and running for the departing flight from Stewart Island! The next day after further two flights to Auckland I was preparing to lead two Swedish birdwatchers around the north of New Zealand for a 3-day Wrybill Birding tour. Wrybill's guide in the north, Phil Hammond, would usually lead tours in his local patch, but he was part-way through a 21-day Wrybill birding tour. During the 3-day tour we had some shocking weather but incredibly it did not stop us doing anything. Day one saw us at Tiritiri Matangi with a fantastic haul of the island's endemics: great looks at North Island Saddleback, North Island Kokako, Whitehead, Stitchbird, Takahe and Brown Teal. Amazingly we saw Cook's Petrel and Flesh-footed Shearwater from the Tiri ferry which is very unusual. Unfortunately there was no time for an overnight stay on Tiri so no chance of Little Spotted Kiwi. The next day after Fairy Tern giving us the runaround we eventually got good views, plus New Zealand Dabchick and Aussie Little Grebe. At our North Island accommodation, after a tip off, I did a bit of searching in the grounds and found a daytime roost of Morepork, a lifer for my clients. After dinner we headed to a site for North Island Brown Kiwi and incredibly one was waiting for us in the car park! A less showy male was seen and then a mega encounter with a large female that we watched for several minutes, as well as another Morepork. Next morning we drove from Kerikeri through Auckland which is not always straightforward, but we were were lucky with traffic and the tide was perfect when we arrived at Miranda. Great views of Wrybill, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Pacific Golden Plover, Red Knot and thousands of Bar-tailed Godwit. When I dropped the clients at Auckland Airport, this 3-day tour had bagged us 80 species which is not too shabby. Early in December, I led the same clients on another tour, this time spending a day at my local patch of Ulva Island where, incredibly, we came across a kiwi - another fabulous daytime sighting. Recently I had the pleasure of leading renowned bird watcher, conservationist, and author, Keith Betton around Ulva Island for the day. He has a world life list of almost 9000 birds but Keith was missing Mohoua (Yellowhead) and South Island Saddleback. I'm chuffed to say that I got these two birds for his incredible life list - cheers Keith for signing my copy of "Behind the Binoculars"! For a lot of visiting birders, New Zealand is a great place to add seabirds to their list. I'm probably biased but I still believe Stewart Island to be one of the great pelagic destinations of the world with several albatross species, petrels, shearwaters and prions can be seen. I've been on only a handful of pre-Christmas pelagics this season but they produce the goods; seven species of albatross seen on most trips: Northern and Southern Royals, Salvin's, White-capped, Campbell Island, Black-browed, and Buller's Albatross. Mottled Petrels, Broad-billed Prion and Grey-backed Storm Petrel are seen on most pelagics along with the three penguin species; Little Blue, Yellow-eyed and Fiordland Crested.

Pink-footed Shearwater

The great thing about pelagics is the unexpected. At the end of November it was an unusually quiet pelagic which sparkled into life when a Pink-footed Shearwater landed at the back of the boat. It was New Zealand's ninth record of this bulky long-winged shearwater that breeds in Chile - all previous records of this bird in New Zealand had been recorded off Kaikoura - until now! I've seen this species in California but was a bit taken aback to see one in New Zealand waters - and to get it onto my Stewart Island list! I've still yet to do the UBR (unusual bird report) but with good photos and confirmation from other birders, I'm very confident that it will be accepted. Kiwis spotting trips on Stewart Island have been growing in popularity and I've been guiding these roughly once a week, which may well increase in the future. We are regularly seeing 4+ birds; a very large female, smaller males, last year's juveniles, and only a month ago, this year's chick which was probably born during September/October. The chick is about the size of a grapefruit and looks like a snipe. It puts in an appearance on most of our trips, which is a great compliment that the bird feels safe in our presence. It's always a privilege to see kiwi in the wild and I don't think I'll ever get tired of it. In December, the Ulva Island Charitable Trust had its AGM and I was voted back as Chairman for my eighth term. 2019 will be the 20th anniversary of the UICT and we are debating ways to commemorate this - watch this space! www.ulvaisland.org


In January I'll be leading another 21-day Wrybill Birding tour, so more birdy nerdy news to come after that! Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and happy and healthy 2019!

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