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  • Matt

Blackcaps and Redshanks

It’s been a couple of months since my last instalment and quite a bit has happened. In brief:

  • SIRCET bird call counts

  • I’ve been to the UK

  • Got COVID

  • It snowed at Stewart Island

  • Busy season ahead!

In April I completed the Stewart Island/Rakiura Community & Environment Trust 5-minute bird call counts, the 12th year of doing so. Of the two sites I visit, the number of birds is slightly higher at the pest controlled site (Acker’s Point). Whilst not surprising, as it means the pest control is doing its job, it’s a relief because Stewart Island as a whole is seeing a bit of a rat plague at the moment. However, there are some highlights! At Acker’s Point the first (ever!) record of a Rifleman (male) and second ever record of Brown Creeper (a pair), plus a great daytime sighting of Morepork. Quality and quantity.

Just touching on the rat plague at Stewart Island that I mentioned, disappointingly it means that rats have gotten on to Ulva Island as well. This is incredibly disappointing and frustrating for the whole community that this predator-free gem now has rats breeding there. The Ulva Island Charitable Trust has two rat traps at Golden Bay Wharf which I check, and these are regularly catching rats - as are the 4 traps around our house.

Ian Foster and me at Stewart Island

Early in May I had the pleasure of spending some time with Ian Foster (All Blacks head coach) and his wife, to show them kiwi in the wild here at Stewart Island. They were a really nice couple enjoying some down time from a high profile life.

Then it was off to the old country for a visit to the UK to see my Mum, who just before her 90th birthday fell and broke her hip. With New Zealand openings its borders since the COVID pandemic began, it not only meant that people could come into the country, but it was also made easier for residents and citizens to get back into the country without having to go into quarantine.

So the first 20 minute hop was Stewart Island to Invercargill; then a 90 minute Air New Zealand flight Invercargill to Christchurch; 10 hour flight with Singapore Airlines from Christchurch to Changi - couple of hours sleep in the Changi Airport transit hotel, shower and bite to eat - 13 hour flight with Singapore Airlines from Changi to London Heathrow. I’m pleased to say my sister spotted me in the crowd at Heathrow when she picked me up as I was dead on my feet!

Blackcap (male) at Sevenoaks, Kent

Arriving in the UK for late spring early summer was great. First thing to unpack was my shorts!

It was great spending time with my family and Mum’s progress after her fall has been awesome. I also found a bit of time for UK bird watching and seeing some species that I hadn’t seen since my last visit six years ago.

Grey Heron at Sevenoaks, Kent

Walking around the hop garden and orchards near Mum’s house I was surprised to see how common Buzzard had become with regular daily sightings, as well as spotting migrants such as Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Spotted Flycatcher and Grey Herons.

A little further afield I managed a couple of day trips out to Rye Harbour in East Sussex for Little Terns, Oystercatchers and Little Gulls. Down to Dungeness I spent a fantastic day at Oare Marshes with Pete Moore, my birding mate from way back and we found a pair of Turtle Doves (unfortunately an incredibly rare species in the UK now).

Eurasian Oystercatcher at Rye Harbour, East Sussex

I visited one of my old haunts, Elmley Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey, which has changed hands since I was last there. No longer RSPB, it is privately owned by a farming family. What a highlight! It’s a working cattle farm that focuses on the wildlife.

Common Redshank at Elmley Marshes, Kent

Redshank and Lapwings were breeding by the road on the drive in; reeds and bushes echoed with Reed- and Sedge Warblers; Yellow Wagtails flicked across the path; and it has to be one the easiest places to see hares, they were everywhere. Awesome!

Another highlight was early o’clock at New Hythe gravel pits to find Nightingales. I was fortunate to see a few but to hear that song was amazing!

Throughout May the UK was gearing up for the Queen’s Platinum jubilee celebrations in June, so many public places, shops and pubs were decorated with bunting. Mum and I went out for a pub lunch one day - we sat in the pub garden which was filled with fluttering red white and blue bunting, the sky was blue, a skylark sang in a field behind us, I had a pint of nice warm beer and a Spitfire (the plane) flew overhead rehearsing for the celebrations. Quintessentially British! It wouldn’t have happened anywhere else in the world!

All too quickly my 3-week trip came to an end and it was time to farewell family, friends - and the British birds! The shorts and jandals were packed away for the long flight in reverse, except that this time I’d lose a day, leaving on 29th, travel for 28 hours, arrive on 31st.

On arrival to Christchurch Airport overseas arrivals were given three Rapid Antigen kits to test for COVID-19. My first test was negative but the second afternoon at home I felt decidedly unwell. The following morning it was no surprise to test positive for covid, the price you pay for overseas travel I guess.

Jules tested positive a couple of days later. Everyone’s experience seems to be different; some felt rough for a couple of days but it knocked me for six. It took a good couple weeks before I started to feel like I was coming through it. There was a couple of days when neither of us could manage to walk the dog but for the most part the occasional bit of fresh air outside with the dog helped.

Our self isolation at home while sick was timed with a dump of snow here at Stewart Island. Coming from the warmth of the UK summer I felt it! Snow on the beach is a weird thing to see; it used to be rare but is becoming almost an annual occurrence. The island looked like a Christmas scene and was bitterly cold

Since the slow recovery from COVID I have been relieved not to have to much guiding work. There has been the odd kiwi spotting night but on the whole it has been fairly quiet. I guess now New Zealanders have a choice to travel to the Pacific, Australia or further afield if they wish, that the chilly south doesn’t appeal.

However, the busy season will be upon us before we know it and it will be incredibly busy for me. This is the first season that I won’t be doing much guiding at Stewart Island. Instead my diary is full from September through to April with 21-day Wrybill Birding Tours and Heritage Expeditions to the Subantarctic Islands, Antarctica and Western Pacific Odyssey.

Saying that, COVID looks like it might be ramping up again or Mr Putin’s actions might affect those plans. Let’s see what happens …



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