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  • Matt

Full Circle

Oh dear, what a long time since my latest news way back in April 2020.

The world then was coming to grips with the enormity of COVID-19, the uncertainty of how we would cope and what was going to happen.

Stewart Island and New Zealand in general has managed better than many parts of the world thanks to clear leadership and the willingness of its citizens and residents to commit to full lockdown, known as alert level 4 here. In March 2020 everything was closed except for truly essential services such as supermarkets, pharmacies, and medical services.

Lockdown dragged me kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I’ve never been a big fan of Facebook, Twitter and I’m sure there are others that I don’t even know about, but in May I joined Instagram. It was a way to stay connected during the lockdown and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, probably because it’s more photo based than other social media. Follow me @birdymattonrakiura. One of Jules’ lockdown projects was my website. If you’re reading this Latest News then you will be seeing the fruits of her labour on this new Wix-hosted website for my warblings and photos.

In May/June 2020 New Zealand steadily moved down the alert level system to our current status of alert level 1. For most people life is almost “normal” - New Zealand remains in its own bubble with borders open to returning citizens/residents and compulsory managed isolation on arrival.

Tui in the garden
Tui in the garden

Picking up from the last sentence of April 2020’s Latest News, I did get to complete the SIRCET 5-minute bird call counts in May, just a little later than usual and celebrated my tenth year of doing so. Bird numbers are up slightly in the Ackers Point area where active trapping continues, so good news there - and for me personally as it was the first time I’d been able to get out in the forest with a pair of binoculars since early March.

As restrictions on domestic travel gradually lifted within New Zealand it became apparent that Stewart Island was going be a popular destination. I guess because we don’t cater for mass tourism and Stewart Island tends to be one of those places to visit “one day”, when domestic travel became possible many New Zealanders were keen to tick Stewart Island off their bucket list.

One of the first people I guided in July was renowned travel editor and columnist, Mike Yardley. After 30 years in the media industry this was Mike’s first visit to Stewart Island. You can read about our time together at Ulva Island and his “Away with the birds on Stewart Island” article here.

There was relief to find that there had been no rat incursions at Ulva Island during lockdown as the rat traps were unable to be checked, so thank you rats for staying in your own bubble!

July and August were busier than those months in previous years and while the clientele for Ulva Island guided walks has changed - they are not hard core British and American birders - I still get to work at Ulva Island most days showing kiwis (New Zealanders!) their own back yard. Ulva Island bird life has been pretty prolific with Mohoua (Yellowhead) being very vocal and South Island Saddlebacks are already feeding this year’s chicks. Stewart Island Robins and Wekas are ever obliging and we’ve even had the occasional daytime kiwi sighting.

In August I was meant to be leading a group of American birders on an 18-day tour of New Zealand but it’s no surprise that it never happened. Wrybill 21-day tours I had in the diary for November/December and Jan/Feb 2021 unfortunately went the same way. Most of the international birders participating in these tours have postponed rather than cancelled which is a positive sign. The world awaits vaccinations and the lifting of restrictions when safe to do so.

When it is safe to travel internationally I believe New Zealand will be a popular destination, whether it’s birders or not. Our recently re-elected Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is very popular on the global stage - and obviously in New Zealand as evidenced by her landslide election victory in October.

I guess the one side of my job that has changed with no international travellers is that we are doing less pelagics at Stewart Island. However, saying that, last week I got out on the water for a half day pelagic which produced the goods: 5 Grey-backed Storm Petrels, 1 White-faced Storm Petrel, 4 species of albatross including stunning adult Campbell Island Albatross, and 3 species of penguin. I’ve said it before, but Stewart Island has to be one of the best pelagic destinations in the world.

As well as guiding at Ulva Island during the day, I’ve also been guiding two or three nights a week kiwi spotting for Beaks & Feathers. It can be tiring but it’s always rewarding and the irony right now is showing kiwi (the bird) to kiwis (New Zealanders) many of whom have never seen kiwi in the wild.

In early November I kept it local myself and spent a few days out at Mason Bay on the western side of Stewart Island which I hadn’t visited for years. The journey involves a 40-minute water taxi ride to Freshwater River and then 4 hour hike into the wilderness. I took my camera and bins - heavy but worth it.

Stewart Island Robin on Freshwater to Mason Bay track
Stewart Island Robin on Freshwater to Mason Bay track

On the walk I encountered quite a few inquisitive Stewart Island Robins, Brown Creeper (Pipipi), skulky Stewart Island Fernbird, NZ Pipit, plus Tui, Bellbird, South Island Tomtit, Red-crowned Kakariki plus a few Common and Southern Skinks, sunning themselves on the boardwalk.

I spent the night in a small Department of Conservation hut and woke on my first morning to a sunny calm day. I was up and out early to climb Big Sandhill which overlooks Mason Bay. By about 8.30am I spotted fresh tracks in the sand dunes and off to my right happily feeding in broad daylight was a female kiwi. I have seen plenty of kiwi in my time but never take my camera with me when I’m guiding - if we do bump into a kiwi at Ulva Island I tend to use video on my phone.

The kiwi and I spent an awesome few minutes in each other’s company. She was so relaxed I was able to watch her feed and drink from a creek. The reward for lugging my camera 50+ miles! Stewart Island remains one of the best places to see kiwi in the wild. The Stewart Island Brown Kiwi (Apteryx Australis Lawyri) is a subspecies of the Southern Brown Kiwi and is the only one of five kiwi species to be regularly diurnal. The Maori name is Tokoeka which literally means ‘weka with walking stick’.

Stewart Island Brown Kiwi (Tokoeka) at Mason Bay
Stewart Island Brown Kiwi (Tokoeka) at Mason Bay

We parted company and I headed down through the dunes to a place on the south-western tip of the bay called The Gutter. It’s a magical place and I reflected on the privilege of sharing time with this shy iconic bird. At the sand bar I was not surprised to find evidence of the whale stranding from two years ago where a pod of short-finned pilot whales had perished. Being such a remote location sadly aid usually arrives way too late. It was incredibly humbling to walk amongst the sun-bleached skulls and bones.

Walking back to the hut I found two unusual bird species for Stewart Island; Black-billed Gull and Sanderling.

Black-billed Gulls are a rare endemic that breeds inland near lakes and rivers. It’s an uncommon visitor to Stewart Island in the winter so to see a pair of adults on a remote beach in early summer was unexpected! One of the birds had leg bands and I was able to get the band number to give to DOC - hopefully I’ll be able to find out where the bird has come from. The second species was a pair of first-summer Sanderlings running around ahead of the surf. Sanderling is an uncommon migrant to New Zealand shores - the first Sanderlings I ever saw in New Zealand were at Mason Bay many years ago and it makes me wonder what else slips under the radar unseen.

My last morning the alarm went off at 5.00am and by 5.45am I was hiking back to Freshwater Landing to meet the water taxi. The first bird I saw was a male kiwi running across the track in front of me but it didn’t stop my shoulders from complaining that my backpack wasn’t any lighter. At Freshwater Landing a few hours later I welcomed the sight of Rakiura Charters water taxi and cruised back to Golden Bay Wharf. I thoroughly enjoyed my mini island break but it was good to get home, and after a hot shower to have a cold beer at the pub and an evening meal that wasn’t boil in the bag curry!

With limited guiding and bird watching opportunities on the mainland this year, Stewart Island isn’t a bad local patch. An Australasian Magpie has been hanging around at Ringaringa Golf Course for a few months and I spotted a Pukeko (Purple Swamp Hen) at Horseshoe Bay a few weeks ago. Both are common on the mainland but not so on Stewart Island.

Just a few days ago while walking our dog Nonu at Ringaringa Golf Course I found pair of Australian Shelducks aka Chestbut-breasted Shelduck. It caused a big twitch by Stewart Island standards - three of us turned up to see these Aussie Shelducks that had most likely come across from Invercargill’s Tip Lagoon as opposed to flying from Tasmania or Victoria! The first time I found this species at Stewart Island was about 8 or 9 years ago. However the birds a few days ago were more approachable so I grabbed few photos and will get onto the UBR (unusual bird report) asap.

Australian Shelducks, male and female
Australian Shelducks, male and female

As 2020 nears an end it will be a year the world will remember. When I reflect on last year December, being in agony with a slipped disc, hospital, the kindness of friends - and from a work perspective, the anticipation and excitement of joining the Heritage Expeditions team for the WPO, which now feels like unfinished business!

Ironically I was one of the last staff members to leave the Spirit of Enderby vessel in March 2020 when the WPO was cut short. The vessel returned to Russia and was recently granted permission by the NZ Government to re-enter New Zealand waters, so it was strange to see the ship moored near Ulva Island 9 months later. Last week Ulva’s Guided Walks had the pleasure of guiding Heritage Expeditions’ passengers and staff around Ulva Island for the morning. New Zealand travel journalist Kate Evans joined my group and you can read “The story of New Zealand’s earliest conservation efforts” article here, in which she describes places she has read and written about over the years, but never seen.

This Christmas and New Year I will re-join the Heritage team as a guide/lecturer/zodiac driver on the Spirit of Enderby vessel for Stewart Island, Fiordland, Sub-Antarctic and Chatham Islands expeditions. Full circle.



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