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Cattle Egret?  It must be winter!

As I write, snow flakes flutter past the office window and the fire roars in the living room.  Winter has arrived, this year seems to have rushed by seemingly missing out autumn altogether.  The guiding season has certainly slowed down but continued well into April and May with occasional bookings for Ulva Island and evening kiwi spotting.  Also keeping me busy was five minute bird call counts for SIRCET, doing a piece to camera for the BBC and meeting a Prince!  More about that later.

A Naturalist's Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka book, gifted to me by author Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne for supplying Sri Lankan bird photos
A Naturalist's Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka book

In November's news I mentioned that I'd supplied some photos for Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne's latest book on Sri Lankan birds.  My copy of "A Naturalist's Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka" has just arrived in the mail - well done Gehan!

On Ulva Island some of the bird habits have changed.  Species such as Brown Creeper and Yellowhead usually spend the summer feeding separately but in winter they tend to flock together, often joined by Yellow-crowned Parakeets.  Red-crowned Parakeets, Kaka and Pigeon are feeding on the huge amount of Miro berries that have fallen to the ground and the male Robins are still holding territory.  Weka chicks that have been so regular at Boulder Beach have moved on.

Kiwi Spotting we've regularly found between four and six birds each trip and one night in particular showed a great interaction between a male and larger female, bill tapping and strange cooing and growling.  To a lot of visiting birders the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi is the holy grail of the endemics and I never get tired of watching them even though I've seen a lot.  The Stewart Island Brown Kiwi is not endangered and the population is thought to be around 18-20,000.  It's the largest of the five kiwi species, the female bigger than the male weighing in at about 5kg.

April saw me spending my days out in the bush monitoring and recording native and endemic bird calls for SIRCET's Five Minute Bird Call Count.  This annual count gathers data from two areas of Stewart Island to compare a project area that is actively pest trapped and a second other area that isn't.  It's the fifth year I've done this project for SIRCET and disappointingly bird call numbers were down this year, possibly due to a higher number of rats.

Stewart Island is not like New Zealand's two main islands in that we don't have major pests such as stoats, weasels, pigs, goats, ferrets, mice and rabbits.  We do however have two species of deer, three species of rat, brush-tailed possums and feral cats.  Birdlife down here is prolific with common endemic species like Tui, Bellbird, Tomtit fairly common and it's probably one of the best places in New Zealand to see Kaka.

New Zealand is a small archipelago of islands that broke away from South America at the time of Gondwanaland and had only three mammal species which were bats.  Only two of them exist in New Zealand today, so birds became king and many became flightless because of no mammalian predators.  Maori and Pakeha (European) brought pigs, goats, rabbits, hare and deer etc to New Zealand for food and rats and mice stowed away on ships coming to the country.  These introduced species thrived and so stoats, weasels and polecats were introduced to New Zealand to kerb the growing mammalian problem.  The introduced pests chose to eat the easy targets instead - New Zealand's flightless birds.  A classic case of man messing with the system.  Here endeth the natural history lesson!

In May I was contacted by the BBC Natural History Unit who wanted to film Sooty Shearwaters here on Stewart Island.  Two full days of filming was booked for around 4 minutes of footage.  Award-winning cameraman, Mark MacEwen and field assistant Claire Thompson were filming for a piece to be aired in the UK in October for a series called Big Blue Live.  It sounds a bit like the Springwatch format but is about the wildlife that visits, lives and passes through Monterey in California.  

Aurora Charters was hired to get us on out the water but our first day filming was a bit of a right-off.  Strong winds and roaring seas meant filming was virtually impossible.  Weather the next day was perfect so my good mate, skipper Ty on the good ship Aurora soon had us within filming distance of a flock of 60 rafting Sootys.  Mark got the shots he wanted and I was interviewed about the incredible migration the Sooty Shearwater makes.  The Sootys that breed here in southern New Zealand do a mega migration of around 47,000 miles to the Bering Sea and back across the Pacific.  Many of these birds fly through Monterey on their way north as well as a few that spend the summer off California.  I was a bit nervous and don't know how much of me will end up on the cutting room floor and suffice to say that Sir David Attenborough has no competition from me.  

I meet hundreds of birders every year through my work, whether it be for Wrybill Birding Tours, Ulva's Guided Walks, Aurora Charters pelagics or Bravo Kiwi Spotting.  With the greatest respect to all the awesome people I meet, when May comes around we all feel a bit jaded by the season and faces and names can become a bit of a blur.  However one of my last trips to Ulva Island was a little different.  

Stewart Island hosted His Royal Highness, Prince Harry on his first official visit to New Zealand.  For a small community of around 400 people it was special for everyone to have such a high profile visitor, and he even stayed the night!  Prince Harry walked everywhere; he met the local school kids, had fish and chips at the pub quiz, went to church, and visited Ulva Island.

Prince Harry meets Chairman of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust - Ulva Island, Stewart Island NZ 2015
Chatting with Prince Harry about Ulva Island in 2015

As Chairman of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting  with Prince Harry about Ulva Island and the birdlife for around 15 minutes.  He seemed like a very normal, grounded, nice guy - albeit one that doesn't have a normal life.  I've never seen so many media photographing and reporting everything he does and says.  He was quoted as saying that he loved Stewart Island and Ulva Island, its lack of tall buildings and abundance of green.

I refrained from calling this latest news "When Harry Met Matty"!!  I imagine that's what my mate Peter Moore would've called it!  

By now you'll know that I spend most of my working days on boats leading pelagics, showing birders from all over the world the rare endemics on Ulva Island and Stewart Island.  I guess most people try to avoid their place of work on their days off but I enjoy spending time on Ulva Island by myself walking around with my camera.  Just recently I spent a cold crisp winter morning there and saw most species.  Ulva Island is an important place to me so it's not a total surprise that five years ago I became a trustee of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust who's main focus is to raise money and awareness about how special Ulva Island is, and to help keep it predator-free and open to the public.  Perhaps a little more surprising is that I became Chairman of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust three years ago!  

Prince Harry received many gifts from islanders and community volunteer groups during his visit.  The Ulva Island Charitable trust gave him a copy of Primeval Paradise, a fantastic DVD containing stunning footage of Ulva Island's birdlife and a booklet that visitors can buy if they are going across without a guide.  The booklet contains information about birds, orchids and trees that can be encountered as well as the history of this jewel in the crown of Rakiura National Park.  He also received a copy of Ulva Goodwillie's book "A Visitor's Guide to Ulva Island" and "Seaberry Stomp", a book written by Jess Kany to raise funds for Rugrats, and illustratrated by yours truly.

Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret

I saw my first couple of Cattle Egrets of the year - a bit earlier than usual.  While photographing one of the birds I spotted my first ever Monarch Butterfly on Stewart Island.  Reasonably common further north where it's a bit warmer.  Maybe it had been blown across the Tasman with the Cattle Egrets.

Other bird news; I've also seen my first New Zealand Pipit in the township this winter and a couple of Welcome Swallows hanging around, but probably the most exciting came in the beautiful form of an adult Light-mantled Sooty Albatross (boom, lifer!).  It tracked the wake of the ferry for a brief moment as we headed back to Stewart Island from Bluff.  The Foveaux Strait living up to its reputation as being one of the most unpredictable stretches of sea.  This stunning looking albatross breeds on the sub-Antarctic islands south of Stewart Island and tends to migrate up on the west side of the island.  They are often seen on pelagics out of Tasmania and New South Wales in winter months.



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