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  • Matt

Birds, backs and bubbles

Like much of the rest of the world, here at Stewart Island we are isolating ourselves from everyone outside of our homes in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19.  Some may say that living on an island is isolating anyway.  Stewart Island is geographically larger than Singapore so fortunately our population of around 400 has plenty of space in which to exercise, it's just weird not to see visitors.  More of that later - a lot has happened in the six months since my October 2019 news so I'll crack on.  

On 5th November 2019 I began leading a Wrybill tour, meeting the clients in Auckland which would finish in Christchurch 21 days later. This tour was slightly different because it was in conjunction with Sunrise Birding from Conneticut, USA. The group was made up of seven American birders plus owner/operator of Sunrise Birding, Gina Nichol, and her partner Steve Bird - yes that really is his name!

Bad weather was a major factor on this tour; a storm in Whitianga meant our pelagic was cancelled and we therefore missed getting Pycroft's Petrel; heavy snow and avalanche risk meant we couldn't access the site for Rock Wren.

Stichbird (male) at Tiritiri Matangi
Stichbird (male) at Tiritiri Matangi

On the positive side we got stunning views of male North Island Brown Kiwi just a few metres away. Hauraki Gulf pelagic produced great views of New Zealand Storm Petrel, Buller's Shearwater, Flesh footed Shearwater, Little Shearwater, Black Petrel, Cook's Petrel, and a long way from their breeding grounds; White-capped Albatross and Northern Giant Petrel. A highly successful overnighter at Tiritiri Matangi for excellent views of North Island Kokako, North Island Saddleback, North Island Robin, Whitehead and Stitchbird, Spotless Crake, Fernbird plus mega views of Little Spotted Kiwi, Tuatara and Morepork. Wrybill, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Far Eastern Curlew and Eurasian Whimbrel at Miranda as well as Broad-billed Sandpiper, the long-staying vagrant. Long-tailed and Shining Cuckoo, Blue Duck and New Zealand Falcon were added to the list before we left the North Island.

Northern Shoveler
Northern Shoveler

South Island highlights were Orange-fronted Parakeet and King Shag at Marlborough Sound. En route to Kaikoura we found two vagrants, Hoary-headed Grebe and drake Northern Shoveler. Two spectacular pelagics at Kaikoura provided us with six albatross species, Grey-faced Petrel and Hutton's Shearwater to name but a few. Heading to the mountains for Kea and on the West Coast some of the best views I've seen of Okarito Kiwi despite heavy rainfall. At Stewart Island we got six Stewart Island Brown Kiwi; an attractive Buller's Albatross on the pelagic gave us our seventh albatross species of the tour, plus three species of storm petrel and great views of Fiordland Crested Penguin. Mackenzie country was the location of our last full day birding and what an incredible day; great views of Black Stilt and with an hour left before getting clients to the airport we got Little Stint! This incredibly rare vagrant to New Zealand was in amongst a flock of Red-necked Stints and was a New Zealand tick for me!

This highly successful tour ended with a list of 164 species seen (and 1 Great Spotted Kiwi heard but not seen) during the 21 days.

Unfortunately in mid-December I slipped a disc in my lower back. I've never experienced pain like it; I couldn't walk, stand or sit. It got so bad that on Christmas Eve I was medi-vacced off the island by helicopter to Invercargill hospital. I spent the next 20+ hours being pumped with morphine and even ketamine, which I wouldn't recommend. Why people take this drug recreationally is beyond me, it took me to places I never want see again. A brilliant hospital physio explained that the disc was pushing on my sciatic nerve which was why the pain was so bad. On Christmas evening after some lessons on how to sit, stand and manage steps with a walker - and lots of medication - I was discharged from hospital. As the last ferry and plane to Stewart Island had long since departed, some amazing friends put us up in their Invercargill townhouse for the next couple of nights. A Christmas to remember.

As the end of January approached, a month of seeing a brilliant physio friend and doing the right kind of exercises, as the saying goes in New Zealand, things "came right". The physio advised that a 21-day tour might be a step too far in terms of my recovery, so thank you Brent for taking the reigns of the January Wrybill tour for me.

I steadily went back to guiding at Stewart Island. Kiwi spotting most nights we saw at least 4 birds; guiding at Ulva Island is never a chore; epic pelagics and a touch of nostalgia with skipper Ty.

And then it was almost March!

However, many months before this I had been contacted by Heritage Expeditions who invited me to guide on their Subantarctic Islands voyage in November 2019. I declined because I was already committed to lead a Wrybill birding tour at that time. However, they offered me a position as guide/zodiac driver/lecturer on the Western Pacific Odyssey otherwise known as the WPO, which I accepted.

The March 2020 WPO was a small expedition vessel with 10 staff of which I would be one; 12 Russian crew and 44 passengers. From Tauranga (New Zealand) the ship would effectively relocate from the southern to northern hemisphere, landing at Norfolk Island (Australia), New Caledonia, Solomon Islands, Micronesia, and two Japanese islands before ending the voyage at Yokohama in Japan, taking about a month in all.

Pacific bound - Matt Jones, Heritage Expeditions' newest guide
Pacific bound

So we set sail on Friday 13th March 2020 - what could possibly go wrong!

We didn't get to Norfolk Island due to a cyclone. Coronavirus rocked the world and borders began to close. Passengers that had come from all four corners of the world were being urged by home nations to return as quickly as possible. Despite daily medical and temperature checks carried out by our ship doctor we were denied entry into New Caledonia and Solomon Island. Fortunately the small pacific island of Vanuatu came to our rescue and agreed to let us disembark the ship there and go straight to the airport. Flights were hastily arranged but there was not enough space for the whole group to travel to New Zealand together and so those with onward international flights went the first day and the rest of us the next day.

While on board the ship I guess I did not fully realise the extent of what was going on in the world. However, on arrival to Brisbane the shock of seeing how the Covid-19 pandemic had taken its grip on the globe was distressing to say the least. From Brisbane, we were, as residents and citizens of New Zealand, permitted entry into Christchurch and with distancing measures already in place I was permitted to continue my journey to Invercargill by flight. The next morning I flew to Stewart Island and, again as a precaution, kept my distance from the small number of other passengers on the plane.

I got home on 22nd March, 10 days since leaving home after an incredible experience, albeit different to the one I imagined! Jules and I went into self isolation at home as a precautionary measure to me being overseas. A few days after that the whole of New Zealand was instructed to stay at home and only essential businesses would operate.

As we enter our third week of self isolation and staying in our "bubble" at home my mind has naturally turned to reflection and the WPO. I spent a week at sea. In that short time I saw some incredible birds: Red-footed, Brown and Masked Booby; Lesser and Greater Frigatebird; Providence Petrel; Magnificent Petrel (living up to its name!); Brown and Black Noddy; Bridle and Sooty Terns; I got a Red-tailed Tropic bird while still in New Zealand waters; and saw a Wandering Albatross as far north as Norfolk Island! I added a cetacean to my small cetacean list - a Cuvier's Beaked Whale and even though I only spent two hours in Vanuatu I got a lifer - a Uniform Swiftlet.

This was a tantalising taste of what the WPO could offer and I was particularly looking forward to the Solomon Islands and Japan.

But the world has changed.

As we sit here and read about the shocking death toll around the world, New Zealand which has always been a generally safe place feels even safer now.

Stewart Island and New Zealand as a whole relies on tourism for a significant part of its economy so the future will be rocky and uncertain. But New Zealand seems to be taking the right measures to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 and on Stewart Island social distancing is fairly easy. There aren't many people and I'm not very sociable.

As "self isolation" and "staying in our bubble" become phrases we'd not even heard of a month ago, I recall Queen Elizabeth II and the famed "annus horribilis" speech in which she referred to 1992 as "not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure."

I can honestly say that the 2019/2020 season is not one I will think of fondly.

As we develop new routines of dog walks, cooking, reading books, baking, cleaning windows, drinking wine and catching up with paperwork and I consider what would have been my tenth year of bird call counts for SIRCET, which is unlikely to happen in April. Hopefully May.

Stay safe everyone and wash your hands!!



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