Dusting off the scope
Time to confess! When I lived in the UK I was a twitcher and would think nothing of getting up when most people are going to bed to drive through the dead of night to get to a site before dawn. From Kent to Norfolk, Yorkshire, Wales - even Scotland a couple of times - to get a new bird on my list. Sometimes the quarry was an unremarkable LBJ (little brown job) or sometimes more exotic - but most of these adventures were shared with Pete Moore.
Pete moved from Kent to the nearby county of Dorset but my move to Stewart Island has meant no more crazy road trips - at least not together! My focus is now as a local patch watcher and I like to think that I get to see most things that turn up on Stewart Island.
I have seen over 100 species on Stewart Island - but there is still an aggravating itch to twitch! April provided the perfect opportunity to scratch, in the shape of a long-staying Intermediate Egret at Milford Sound. I've seen one in other parts of the world, but it would be new for my New Zealand list.
Twitching from Stewart Island is different from the UK as I can't just jump in the car at 3am to be there at first light. Living on the island always involves a ferry or plane to get to the mainland first. The ferry crossing was pretty rough - people inside were desperately trying to hold onto their lunch - I was out on deck enjoying the albatrosses show their immense flying ability, Buller's and White-capped being the most common.
Some great birds to start off the trip. As I scanned through the Sooty Shearwaters a stonking Soft-plumaged Petrel glided into view through the wake of the ferry. I looked around to share this great bird with someone but the green-faced individual bending over the side of the boat didn't really appreciate it. As I watched a Northern Giant Petrel punching into the wind on one side of the ferry, we were being tracked by a White-headed Petrel on the other side.
I drove to Te Anau that evening and left early next morning in the dark for the two hour drive to Milford. From the Milford Sound car park I could see the Intermediate Egret** out on the mudflats.
I reacquainted myself with my scope - a piece of equipment that no twitcher in the UK is ever seen without. Working with forest birds and doing pelagics on Stewart Island has meant my scope has become a bit of a clothes horse and dust gatherer. But back to Milford - it was great to focus up on the Egret. Next dilemma … I've got the bird on my NZ list but a photo would be even better.
This particular bird had a reputation for being approachable but I was thinking I'd have to wait for tide to push it towards me. As I contemplated coffee and breakfast I noticed a guy doing survey work out on the mudflats. He walked straight up to the Egret as it fed and banged a large metal stake into the ground and the bird didn't even flinch! Decision made - I walked out to the mudflats and squatted by a shingle bank. The bird was completely oblivious of me and at one stage it walked within 2 metres of me! 300 photos and an hour or so later I headed for the long journey home.
Easter Monday presented another twitching opportunity thanks to Paul Jacques. An ex-British bird watcher now living in Bluff but working on Stewart Island, Paul took me out to Awarua Bay near Bluff where a Grey-tailed Tattler had been reported.
We saw a good collection of waders - Bar-tailed Godwits, Ruddy Turnstones, Banded Plover, and a few New Zealand Pipits - but no Tattler. We moved to a different spot and I was near the waters edge when to my right I saw a bird hovering. It took me right back to Elmley Marshes in Kent where kestrels were a common sight. But then the penny dropped - I'm not in Kent! The bird flew over us and we called "Nankeen Kestrel"! We watched the rare Australian vagrant for about 10 mins through the bins as it hovered and swooped down, feeding on a skink. By by the time I got my camera out the bird had drifted too far away for a decent shot. A quick "high five" and a pat on the back each and we got back to the waders.
NZ Dotterels were in small numbers, probably the same birds we had seen way back in November up in the hills on Stewart Island with Richard Chandler. Paul noticed a Lesser Sand Plover hanging around with the Banded Plovers but no Tattler.
Time was up for me as I had to head back to Stewart Island with two new birds for my New Zealand list.
Back on the island guiding is slowing up and winter creeping in. Just to prove that, I've seen two Cattle Egrets hanging around the township.
April saw the completion of the five minute bird call counts for SIRCET. This involves me walking to over 100 GPS locations, waiting for five minutes and counting every endemic and native bird I hear at each location. The locations are spread over two areas; one is actively pest controlled and the other isn't. Official numbers aren't out yet but the signs are good.
I now have a bit more time to do volunteer work and have been checking cat traps for SIRCET as well. Unfortunately no cats yet but two rats and a Weka (unharmed). The weka got a free feed in the cage and the rats were later … dispatched!
Unrelated bird news, Jules and myself headed down to the memorial service early on Anzac Day. A stunning sunrise provided a backdrop to the service and I took my camera to get a few shots. I sent one off to the Southland Times newspaper as Stewart Island often gets missed out. I was surprised to see the following morning the image had made the front page.
After reviewing photos and talking to Sav of Wrybill Birding Tours the consensus was that the bird was a possible hybrid (Intermediate Egret and Great White Egret). Subsequently the bird has been removed from my New Zealand list.