Counting on it
It's not every day that someone phones to offer you a helicopter trip but in mid-April my good mate Paul Jacques did just that, with the bonus of helping him count New Zealand Southern Dotterels out at Mason Bay. Paul works for DoC here on Stewart Island and like me, is a keen bird watcher originally from the UK. We have a good rapport and connection stemming from the British bird watching scene even though we never met in the UK.
Paul is currently working on major pest control at the NZ Southern Dotterel breeding sites and hopefully heading towards them being recognised as a separate species from their northern cousins using DNA.
Teams were sent to the four known over-wintering sites; three here on Stewart Island and one on the mainland at Awarua Bay near Bluff. Paul and myself were helicoptered out to Mason Bay on the western side of Stewart Island for two nights. All four teams were at their locations at the same time as us so that simultaneous counts could be done to lessen the chance of counting a bird twice.
The first day was nice and clear and we found a large flock of birds out in the stone fields - we counted 138 birds (about half the world's population). The birds were very curious about our presence and they got close enough for me to get some photos of them in winter plumage (all my other photos are of them in breeding plumage). The second day was washout with heavy rain and strong winds making counting virtually impossible. On the final day we got a count of 98 birds - it's a big area at Mason Bay for a small bird to hide.
They are a great little bird, one of my favourites. Let's hope the recent DoC restructuring and job losses don't affect this species. It's bad enough that a small community like Stewart Island have taken a blow, but this bird could quite easily become extinct and slip under the radar. New Zealand has another rare wader, the Black Stilt, and like the NZ Southern Dotterel they don't travel very far. Could New Zealand end up letting many species down due to funding cutbacks? We see huge support for the high profile Spoon-billed Sandpiper with its international flyways under threat and many countries and NGOs working together to save this species from extinction which is great, but come on New Zealand, call yourself clean and green?
Earlier in April I started the five minute bird call counts for SIRCET. This involves going to certain GPS locations to count the bird calls heard during a five minute period. The first few days at Ryan's Creek the weather was good but by the time I reached the Acker's Point sites the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Cold temperatures and strong wind and rain made the counts very challenging. We seem to have gone straight from summer into winter without much of an autumn. To prove that, I have seen four Cattle Egrets hanging around the golf course area and I've also seen more Welcome Swallows around the township than ever before, with one flock of more than 8 birds noted. I still need a photograph of these!
One morning on my way to Acker's Point I stopped at the boat slip to chat to a friend and noticed a penguin at the base of the steps. Closer inspection revealed it to be a Snares Crested Penguin with the obvious pink fleshy bit of skin to the base of the bill. I rushed home to get my camera as this bird was a bit more viewable than the last one I saw here on Stewart Island a couple of years ago.
It looked in good condition apart from a few cuts on its feet. It was relocated to a quieter area and was last seen swimming out to sea. I wonder why rare penguins turn up in the main bay?!
The third set of counts in as many weeks is just coming to an end - we are taking part in the annual Weka, Kiwi, Morepork call counts for SIRCET which involves spending two hours in the evening at a certain location, listening to these three species call. The first night we counted two morepork. The second night I heard nothing but a kiwi walked past me (still put him on the list). When I got home I found a Weka wondering around the back garden and a pair seem to be calling all times of the day and night. Maybe next year we should suggest our back garden is one of the locations - but I won't count on it!