Autumn has arrived to Stewart Island and with that comes colder nights and shorter days. A few days ago it also brought plane and ferry cancellations thanks to hammering 50 knot winds!
Watching the white caps (sea spray as well as albatross) put me in a reflective mood as this time last year New Zealand was coming out of a seven-week lockdown. At that time none of us knew how COVID-19 would affect us personally or globally. Immediate thoughts back then turned to work and how to manage financially - both Jules and I work in tourism and Stewart Island’s main economy relies on visitors. But it’s been a very busy season despite no international visitors as New Zealanders flocked here to tick Stewart Island off their bucket list.
Wrybill Birding Tours have not been in a position to run the 21-day bird watching tours that I would usually guide in November and January each year. Clients tend to be very keen birders from the UK and USA so without international travellers these are on hold, but the future looks positive.
In mid-April 2021 a travel bubble with Australia opened. I don’t think we will see many tourists as a result of this but for those separated from loved ones by the Tasman Sea it’s a welcome opportunity to reconnect. Also on the cards is a travel bubble between New Zealand and Cook Islands, so there is a sense of normality returning to this part of the world.
The bigger picture is a different story however. In India we see vaccines and oxygen in short supply, human pain and suffering, and second waves of COVID-19 raging rampant through countries to remind us that life is far from normal.
Strong leadership served New Zealand well and for that we are very grateful.
In mid-March this year I joined Heritage Expeditions as a guide/lecturer/zodiac driver, this time departing Bluff for Antipodes Islands, Bounty Islands and Chatham Islands, all new New Zealand destinations for me.
The day we left Bluff had an almost tropical feel to it and a pod of Dusky Dolphins was a great start to the trip. During our first full day at sea, remarkably we recorded 11 species of albatross along with petrels, prions and shearwaters. The weirdest bird we saw was a Song Thrush out in the middle of the Southern Ocean with no land around us.
Next morning we arrived at what felt like the end of the world. The impressive Antipodes Islands is home to thousands of New Zealand Fur Seals - we also spotted Antarctic Fur Seals and a couple of Elephant Seals. Grey Petrel, Soft-plumage Petrel abound here along with stunning Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. Both species of penguin (Erect-crested and Eastern Rockhopper) were moulting and not looking their best.
Two significant land birds are found at Antipodes Islands; the Antipodes Island Parakeet and Reischek’s Parakeet. These two small parrots are found nowhere else in the world. Antipodes Island Parakeet is the only all-green coloured parrot in New Zealand and unusual in that it is a meat eater, feeding on dead seals and penguins. Reischek’s Parakeet looks similar to the Red-crowned Parakeet and feeds on seed heads from tussock grass. We had goods views of both parakeets from the zodiacs as well as plenty of penguins and albatross.
Bounty Island was our next destination. These lumps of rock have no greenery whatsoever on them but are the main breeding location for Salvin’s Albatross, and where the unique Bounty Island Shag calls home. It was a wet miserable day when we arrived. Pretty big sea swells meant it was too rough to get the zodiacs in the water so the ship cruised around and we were rewarded with views of Erect-crested Penguin, Fulmar Prion, Salvin’s Albatross and Bounty Island Shag.
Heading north towards Chatham Islands (permanent population 650 people) the day’s sea time getting there was spectacular with great looks at Black-bellied, Grey-backed, White-faced and Wilson’s Storm Petrels. The highlight was a flying Chatham Island Petrel which is very rarely seen at sea. Only three of the four ‘birding brothers’ saw the Chatham Island Petrel. Unfortunately Fraser missed it as it disappeared like a missile behind the waves. Passengers referred to us as the ‘birding brothers’ - Mike Bell (bird guide) and Dave Howes & Fraser Gurney (two mates who were passengers on this trip) and myself.
As we got closer to Chatham Islands with the worst of the weather behind us, looming in the distance was the very impressive sight of The Pyramid. Coming out of the water like a dinosaur tooth, or a Bond-villain’s hide out meets Lord of the Rings, it is home to approximately 5,000 pairs of Chatham Island Albatross, pretty much the whole population. We put some chum in the water and circumnavigated The Pyramid encouraging Chatham Island Albatross, Northern Royal Albatross and the more common Buller’s Albatross.
Two new birds joined my New Zealand and world list in the shape of Pitt Island Shag and Chatham Island Shag. Incredibly New Zealand has 13 species of shag and now I have the set! Apparently the collective noun is a “hangout of shags” according to nzbirds.com
Steaming towards Waitangi, the main township of Chatham Island we saw a Northern Royal Albatross with a leg band and satellite tracker on its back. Photographs of the bird enabled Mike to work out that he’d put the transmitter on this bird about six weeks earlier!
The Spirit of Enderby anchored in the bay overnight and the following day was our first land excursion. We met local guide Jane, who was to drive us around in a bus to show us the delights and treasures of Chatham Island.
The main island is an extinct volcano! Chatham Island has never had moa or kiwi but it does have a number of unique bushes and trees. One other distinguishing fact is that there is no cell phone coverage! Supplies for the shop and pub arrive 4 times a year so understandably things can be expensive. It’s natural to make comparisons when visiting other islands, and many of Stewart Island’s visitors are surprised that (a) we have phone coverage and the internet; (b) our supermarket is well stocked with daily deliveries; and (c) things aren’t unnecessarily over priced.
Our bus trip with Jane was great - a highlight was the Kōpinga Marae (meaning ‘Grove of Kopi Trees’). It is the only Moriori Marae in the world. Moriori settled here over 800 years ago and it’s thought that they came from Asia rather than Polynesia. Europeans followed and then in 1835 Māori invaded and claimed the islands. Moriori refused to fight, hoping to live and co exist with Māori. Moriori were enslaved, slaughtered, even eaten, but some escaped to Fiordland and Stewart Island/Rakiura. Good friend and boss, Ulva Goodwillie’s heritage is both Maori and Moriori.
Much of Chatham Island land is private (providing grazing for cattle or sheep) so you do need a local guide who has permission - and keys! Unlike Stewart Island, native bush is minimal and bush birds are a challenge to find. We did however stop at a small bay called Blind Jim’s Bay where I was fortunate to find a few fossilised shark’s teeth in the sediment.
On the birding front we found our first Chatham Island Oystercatchers - distant but definitely tickable - and a most unusual avian encounter was with the wild population of Emu. Locals call them the Chatham Island Moa! We did ask Jane to stop the bus to take photos - what’s a bird watcher to do?! The emu are a self-sustaining population and it is seriously being looked at by the OSNZ for emu to join the New Zealand bird list. I have photos which is good insurance if they do make it to the list!
Pitt Island is the smaller of the two inhabited Chatham Islands with only 45 permanent residents. We took the zodiacs ashore and were met by Brent, a local man who drove us to the Caravan Bush Reserve where we connected with some of the more elusive forest birds. Another new bird for my list - Chatham Island Warbler. Similar to the mainland Grey Warbler but with an obvious paler head and eye stripe and not such a melodic song. We also encountered Chatham Island Tui (larger than the mainland bird), Chatham Island Tomtit and Fantail.
Caravan Bush Reserve is a predator-free area and is a breeding site for the Chatham Island Petrel. Fraser had missed this species when we saw it from the ship, so he clawed this new bird back - and nest boxes revealed a couple of fluffy chicks and one non-breeding adult.
At Mangere Island we saw Chatham Island Red-crowned Parakeet but it is most prominently known for being the last place that Black Robin was found in New Zealand. This predator-free island still has a small population of Black Robin. We couldn’t land here but heard these very rare birds calling. We were fortunate to have Rod Morris onboard the Spirit of Enderby who as part of Don Merton’s team in the 1970s, along with Brian Bell (Mike’s Dad) and Rodney Russ (one of the founders of Heritage Expeditions) was involved in saving the Chatham Island Black Robin from extinction. Rod is one of those guys you could listen to for a long time - his stories about wildlife, people and locations would definitely make a good book.
Mangere Island will also hold a very special place in my heart as the site of my 250th species of New Zealand bird seen … Forbes’ Parakeet was seen perching and flying around!
I walked into the dining room later to a round of applause and a celebratory beer from passengers and expedition staff as word had got out about my 250th NZ bird! Apparently there was also a yachting race going on and news filtered through that New Zealand had won - so more beers all round!
One of the most enjoyable zodiac cruises of the trip was South East Island/Rangitira Island where we got great views of the rare Shore Plover. The weather was stunning and it proved to be a spectacular morning’s birding with the equally rare Chatham Island Oystercatcher. To see two incredibly rare birds side by side was amazing - there are only 250 birds of the former and 400 of the latter left in the world. Great views of Pitt Island Shag, Tui and Red-crowned Parakeet too.
In the afternoon we headed past The Horns on the eastern side of the Chatham’s as this is renowned for being the flight path that the world’s rarest seabird takes to get back to its burrow. It’s believed that there are only 120 Magenta Petrel/Chatham Island Taiko left in the world and given that it was late in their breeding season, likely only 60 birds hanging around the area. Our expectations were low. It was incredibly fitting then that Mike Bell, the other Heritage bird guide (who now works with Chatham Island Taiko Trust) screamed at top of lungs “TAIKO!”. Sure enough, coming through the wake at stern of vessel was big, bold, black and white pterodroma.
To see a Magenta Petrel / Chatham Island Taiko at sea is incredible. One of the passengers took a photo of the ‘birding brothers’ after we’d just seen the bird which is in my BIRDING TIMES gallery.
The bird was first described in the South Pacific and got its name from an Italian majesty ship called “The Magenta” on 22nd July 1867 - it was shot and taken as a specimen. Thought to be extinct for 111 years, the Magenta Petrel / Chatham Island Taiko was rediscovered on 1st January 1978 by Davy Crockett when he caught one going into a burrow, after investigating sightings and reports by locals. This species only breeds at Chatham Islands. When it is not breeding it goes to the South Pacific, beyond Easter Island off the coast of South America.
Still reeling from the excitement of the previous day’s Magenta Petrel the following morning we were back on main Chatham Island and meeting our local guide Jane, who took us to predator-free Sweetwater Reserve. Sweetwater is New Zealand’s most isolated predator proof enclosure and protects the world’s most endangered seabird - the Magenta Petrel/Taiko! Here we met landowners Bruce and Liz who covenanted the site to create this protected area for Taiko to breed undisturbed. Mike arranged for a group of passengers from the ship to meet with Bruce & Liz and it was an incredible privilege to be invited to the Taiko Camp where the birds breed. We even saw a chick in one of the burrows. Our huge gratitude to the Taiko Trust was expressed with the donation of funds to assist with maintenance of the fencing. Just like anything at Chatham Islands, food and supplies cost more when it has to be shipped from the mainland, and conservation supplies are no different.
What a voyage! One trip ended and another was about to begin. I bade farewell to passengers and my “birding brothers” Mike, Dave and Fraser as they flew back to the mainland and I stayed onboard the Spirit of Enderby for a second trip.
This trip was based in and around Chatham Islands so revisiting some of the places we had been in the previous week. Caravan Bush Reserve on Pitt Island, Sweetwater at Chatham Island and exploring South East Island on the zodiacs. We met Jane again for our bus tour and she helped me choose some souvenirs. Mangere Island where I had seen the Forbes’ Parakeet previously was way too rough to attempt this time round with six metre swells. Not ideal in a zodiac.
Something different for this trip was being the first in the world to see the sunrise at the group of islands called the Fourty-fours, New Zealand’s most easterly point. This big flat rock of an island is one of the breeding colonies for Buller’s Albatross, Northern Royal Albatross and Northern Giant Petrel.
We then cruised to the northernmost area of Chatham Archipelago called The Sisters. Heritage don’t often visit here but we had an amazing zodiac cruise getting great views of Buller’s Albatross chicks sitting in flowerpot nests, low down on the cliff faces. Great views too of New Zealand Fur Seals.
All too quickly it was time to leave Chatham Islands. A small pod of Hector's Dolphins joined us on our journey to the mainland and when we woke the next morning we were at Lyttleton Harbour. Our Russian crew had been away from home for over six months and had missed Christmas and New Year with their friends and family. You could see they were happy to be heading home to the port of Vladivostok. Their voyage home would take approximately one month.
My journey home was a little shorter with a drive from Lyttleton to Christchurch, flight to Invercargill, overnight Invercargill and then flight to Stewart Island. While travelling I couldn’t help but think of the Russian crew and all they’d been through since we met in March 2020, prior to COVID-19. I was on the Spirit of Enderby with them at that time, starting the WPO (Western Pacific Odyssey) which was due to travel Tauranga to Tokyo but was curtailed due to borders closing as a result of COVID-19. They had gone back to Russian then, and had returned to New Zealand once permits were in place for this season.
Cheers guys, За здоровье! (to your health!).
Once back home on Stewart Island I started the SIRCET 5 minute bird call counts project (my eleventh year!) which must be completed in April. Despite challenging conditions, wind, rain, sleet, and sometimes all three at the same time I completed the project in time. Bird numbers are still higher at the predator-controlled Ackers Point, and not unexpectedly lower at the non-predator controlled Ryans’ Creek area. But at both locations bird numbers are down which I am thinking is due to the cold weather.
Winter is on its way and at least six Cattle Egrets have been seen at various locations - Horseshoe Bay Beach, the golf course, Traill Park - and one just now from our office window!
To keep warm and active we have stocked up firewood for winter, carrying three fadges’ worth of wood up the 100 foot climb to our house in the bush and are settling in for our fourteenth winter at Stewart Island.