It's been a busy November and December, guiding on pelagics and Ulva Island and the Birding Bonanza package has been a popular choice.
In November we had our first full day pelagic of the season down to Port Pegagus in a quest for Antarctic and Arctic Tern. As we headed south we saw huge rafts of Fiordland Crested Penguin, Arctic Terns were noticeable by their absence and the Antarctic Terns were quite elusive. Once we got out to The Traps, a Campbell Island Albatross came into view and one Grey-backed Storm Petrel. At Wreck Reef we must have encountered 50+ Mottled Petrels, 10+ Broad-billed Prions and Black-browed Albatross was the only other bird of note.
Another half day pelagic didn't look too promising - no wind to speak of for a few days and calm sea conditions. I was at the back of the boat scanning for anything coming past when Ty the skipper called me into the wheelhouse to get my binoculars on something he could see off in the distance. For half a second we thought it was an upturned dinghy, but as I got my binoculars on it I could see it was covered in giant petrels. As we got closer it became clear it was a carcass of a freshly dead Humpback Whale with Northern and Southern Giant Petrels trying to get into the blubber. We think it hadn't been dead that long because the birds had not made any progress and there was no sign of sharks around either. The most common whale around here is the Southern Right Whale and I've never seen a Humpback around the coast of Stewart Island - a live one that is!
Earlier in the year at the British Birdwatching Fair Richard Chandler, the published wader expert, had asked me about a trip to the southern New Zealand Dotterel breeding grounds. New Zealand Dotterel are split into two distinct sub-species: the northern birds breed only on the North Island and are much brighter in breeding plumage. They breed on the beaches and have a population of around 1500. The southern sub-species breed only here on Stewart Island, high up in the hills of the national park and have a population of around 240.
In mid-November Richard and his wife arrived on Stewart Island. I'd enlisted the help of a mate, Paul Jacques, who is monitoring the breeding grounds of the birds here on the island and the three of us embarked on a 45 minute water taxi ride up Paterson Inlet and then a three hour hike up into the hills.
I've seen quite a few New Zealand Dotterels out at Mason Bay and occasionally at The Neck in winter plumage so I was looking forward to seeing these birds in breeding plumage in a more rugged environment. We reached the top of the hill by mid-afternoon and while Paul checked the pest control around the breeding area, Richard and myself got to work photographing nesting pairs that already had chicks. The landscape at the top was similar to the Cairngorms in Scotland where the northern hemisphere European Dotterel breed. The birds here were reasonably approachable and on more than one occasion flew towards us to check us out. They obviously don't get too many visitors up here. We noticed the birds had quite an unusual habit of climbing up into small bushes, something Richard and I had never seen waders do before! We guessed it was to get a better vantage point on their chicks and potential predators.
Tide times meant we couldn't get to the top of the hill and back in a day so we spent the night at the top in a small bivvy (hut) which was warm and cosy. Just as well as it was bloody cold that evening! Paul nipped outside just before we turned in for the night and called us out to see a kiwi snuffling around outside the hut. We could hear other kiwis calling in the distance. Kiwis are amazingly adaptable in terms of different habitats; they can be seen deep in the forest, feeding on beaches, and here these birds were high up in the hills above the tree line in a barren cold landscape.
The next morning Richard and I spent another couple of hours filling up camera cards before we retraced our steps back down the hill to meet the water taxi at lunchtime. We got down just in time because the next three days the weather "turned to custard" as they say here!
Planes and ferries were cancelled and Stewart Island became isolated. No produce for the shop, no mail or newspapers. Fortunately the pub was well stocked. The weather came right on the Saturday morning which was just as well as I was guiding on a Pelagic for Aurora Charters which had been chartered by Wrybill Tours, with Sav leading the party.
Also on board was a film crew with Mark Carwardine. Mark is an excellent photographer and cetacean expert and extremely well-travelled … but unfortunately he will always be associated with being shagged by Sirocco the Kakapo in the "Last Chance to See" series with Stephen Fry!
As the boat headed out of Halfmoon Bay for the half day trip, Sav and myself predicted some good birds would turn up, given the previous days' weather. Boy, were we proved right. It has to go down as one of the best pelagics that we've had in this part of the world!
By the time we got to Wreck Reef, half way down the east coast of Stewart Island, we started chumming. The reliable guestimate was 700+ New Zealand White-capped Albatross around the boat, 40+ Salvin's, 25+ Royals, and a couple of wanderers, not forgetting the three or four Black-Browed Albatross and the same count of Campbell Island Albatross. Both giant petrel species were in the melee along with Broad-billed and Fairy Prions, Cape Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters and the odd Mottled Petrel going through to spice things up. As we watched a White-chinned Petrel fly by, I noticed a small storm petrel skip into view and got everyone onto the Grey-backed Storm Petrel that passed the stern of the boat. These are probably our most common storm petrels around here, I'm not sure where they breed but we see them regularly on pelagics.
The cameras were running hot and batteries and memory cards changing regularly - and then someone called "Wilson's Storm Petrel". Sav and myself got onto a large dark storm petrel with an obvious white rump but as it banked we noticed the pale under wing and white on the breast. I fired off several shots of the bird as it flew past the back of the boat and Sav clinched its I.D. as a Black-bellied Storm Petrel. A larger bird than the Grey-backed stormie that followed on behind it. It then got a bit surreal because at one stage we had 3 Black-bellied Storm Petrels in view and 4 or 5 Grey-backed stormies. We think there was possibly 8 different Black-bellied Storm Petrels around the boat. Seeing one of these birds around the three main islands of New Zealand is rare in itself because these birds breed a lot further south, but having this many was amazing.
Later in the day as we headed back into Halfmoon Bay via Bench Island we picked up Yellow-eyed Penguin and Brown Skua and the last good bird of that pelagic was a lone Cook's Petrel. Summing up: in 6 hours we had seen 18 species of tubenose which included 6 species of albatross.
Everyone departed the boat extremely happy and Mark Carwardine said it was one of the best wildlife experiences he'd had which is an excellent testimonial. He'd taken over 3500 photographs!
The following morning, Ulva Goodwillie and myself lead Mark and the film crew around Ulva Island to get images of the forest birds. They showed well for the camera - we had good views of Saddleback, Yellowhead, Rifleman, Robin and a very approachable female sea lion. I think the film is being made for the internet for Tourism New Zealand, The Sunday Telegraph and Wanderlust magazine.
Early December saw another birthday come and go, a wee bit older but no wiser. Off to the mainland for Christmas shopping and a first aid course and then back onto Stewart Island to guide on the first cruise ship of the season and the following day on another full day pelagic down to Port Pegasus. This time Chris Gaskin leading a Kiwi Wildlife tour. A surprisingly quiet day with no unusual birds of note as we travelled south. As we got to The Traps there was a couple of fishing boats and decent flocks of albatrosses began to appear with a few Mottled and Cook's Petrels flew into view.
We stopped near one of the fishing boats and began to chum. The usual New Zealand White-capped and Salvin's Albatross were present quickly with a couple of Royals and then … there it was … a bird I had wanted to see since I moved to New Zealand! Sitting quietly among the White-capped Albs was a stonking Chatham Islands Albatross. With its sooty grey head and banana coloured bill it was so eye-catching. Instantly I got the lens on him and got image after image. Ironically it was exactly the time I was meant to be on a trip to the Chatham Islands (that was cancelled) so to have one of these magnificent birds in our local patch and on my Stewart Island list was a real bonus.
A brief update about Ulva Island. As mentioned in previous news, certain species of bird are lower in number after the aerial drop of poison. Stewart Island Robin, South Island Saddleback and Stewart Island Weka took the brunt of the hit, but already weka chicks have been seen on Ulva Island, Robin chicks have already fledged and Saddlebacks have been seen feeding in the flowering Rata.