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  • Matt

Keep calm and carry on birding

Perhaps this should read “get vaccinated, keep calm and carry on”. It’s been almost two years since the COVID-19 global pandemic changed the world as we know it. I still think New Zealand has been one of the most fortunate countries with relatively little disruption to day to day life compared with the rest of the world, but there’s no doubt that Omicron will find its way into the community here; a case of when and not if.

New Zealand tourism as a whole is struggling with the lack of International visitors. Stewart Island remains a popular destination for New Zealanders to tick off their bucket lists but the interest and spending on organised activities such as guided walks is far lower than last year - possibly connected to the 4-month long Auckland lockdown

I’m fortunate to have had some guiding on Ulva Island and the odd kiwi spotting trip, but pelagics don’t appear to be of interest to New Zealanders. This may well pick up when overseas visitors return; the thought among tourism operations is that this is likely to be 2023. Fingers crossed, but who knows.

Since 2020 with the sporadic nature of guiding at Stewart Island, it has opened the door for me to work with Heritage Expeditions on their 7-14 day voyages to New Zealand’s Subantarctic islands. Guests on these voyages would usually be from overseas, but New Zealanders have embraced exploring their own back yard to visit places that they may not have known even existed.

The 2021 pre-Christmas voyage to New Zealand’s Subantarctic islands was up there as one of the best. The weather was fantastic and I spent my birthday on Enderby Island surrounded by wildlife. It’s not often we get to circumnavigate Snares Island in a zodiac but we did this time. At the Auckland Islands we had a great day on Enderby; some of the best views I’ve had of Subantarctic Snipe, Yellow-eyed Penguins, New Zealand Fur Seals and the flightless Auckland Island Teal - my camera cards filled up pretty rapidly! In the evening, much to my embarrassment the onboard chefs presented me with a chocolate birthday cake (thankfully minus the correct number of candles for fear of fire hazard) which was devoured by myself, guests and staff.

Meeting the locals at Campbell Island

After a great couple of days around the Auckland Islands we headed further south to Campbell Island. I spent Christmas here last year and it remains one of my favourite islands. There is nothing quite like wandering to the top of Col Peak to witness the spectacular Southern Royal Albatross breeding colony - even if you have no interest in birds or wildlife you couldn’t help but be impressed by these magnificent seabirds at such close range. They are so ungainly on land but it’s fascinating to watch adolescent albatross perform what’s known as “gamming” - four or five birds would get together, open their wings and call to the sky to practice courtship. Quite magical.

From Campbell Island we could have landed at Macquarie Island but on balance it was decided not to because if we had visited this Australian territory, everyone on board would have had to self isolate for 14 days before “re-entering” New Zealand. Not much of a selling point for a two week voyage.

White-headed Petrel at sea

So a day and a half at sea heading north-east to Antipodes Islands, these phenomenal extinct volcanic islands rise out of the Southern Ocean. Home to spectacular bird and marine life, seabirds aplenty such as Light-mantled Sooty Albatross and Antipodean Albatross but also a significant number of Erect-crested Penguins with young. Very much the “ahhh” factor and among the Erect-crested Penguins was a few Eastern Rockhopper Penguins.

Reischek's Parakeet, Antipodes Islands

Bird watchers are always keen to see the two endemic parakeets here, the Antipodean Parakeet (New Zealand’s only all green parakeet) and Reischek’s Parakeet. For such an inhospitable location, it’s amazing that these two little parakeets are only found here. It’s no less challenging for guides and guests because we can’t land on this island and all viewing is done from the zodiac. Both species were seen well and I even managed some photographs, particularly a very respectable image of Reischek’s.

Marine mammals abound here too - lots and lots of New Zealand Fur Seals, a good number of Southern Elephant Seals and the easily overlooked Antarctic Fur Seals which can be mistaken for New Zealand Fur Seals.

Erect-crested Penguin & chick at Antipodes Islands

From Antipodes Islands we headed further north east to the remote Bounty Island. No vegetation to speak of whatsoever, just a low lying flat rock and a reputation for being rough, rocky and challenging seas. It’s not always guaranteed that we’ll manage a zodiac cruise to explore but the weather gods were with us and despite being a bit sloppy, we got zodiacs into the water. The island is home to Erect-crested Penguins, Fulmar Prions, Cape Petrels, and the endemic Bounty Island Shag … not to mention pretty much all of the world’s population of Salvin’s Albatross. There is approximately 40,000 pairs here, which on paper I guess looks like a big number, but in reality, is not. These gorgeous looking birds are struggling to survive the impact of man’s over fishing, long line fishing, plastic pollution in the sea and global warming.

With everyone back on board the ship after the last zodiac cruise of the voyage we turned south-west towards Bluff where the trip would end. The final day and a half at sea gave me time to reflect on what a fantastic trip this one in particular had been, thanks to a group of young explorers and new found friends …

Myself and two other staff had spent a little longer than just the voyage together as we’d met the ship in Lyttleton when it arrived back into New Zealand from Russia. Stephen (a chef from Dunedin) and Aviaaja (cruise director who hails from Greenland but lives in Westport) and myself had spent a week prior to guests boarding the ship setting things up, removing old food, getting new food on etc in readiness for the new season, and then sailed south from Lyttleton near Christchurch, down to Bluff. I joked with Aviaaja that I’d never met anyone from Greenland (or from Westport, come to think of it)!

Heritage Expeditions' staff at Bluff

Heritage Expeditions contribute to conservation by creating ambassadors through their “True Young Explorer Scholarships”. The scholarships are open to 18-30 year olds and the energy and enthusiasm that these young people brought was truly encouraging for the future of our planet. They came from all walks of life from DOC staff, doctors, artists, teachers to farmers, from all parts of the country.

Back home on Stewart Island after three weeks away, the reality was that it was one week to Christmas and for Jules and myself, our 15th doing it NZ style. The years seem to fly by as you get older that’s for sure. For us Christmas Day this year was bacon, eggs & avo for breakfast with friends and then the afternoon in bright baking hot sunshine at the beach, drinking beers. I don’t think I will ever get used to a summer Christmas, it just seems wrong!

Our “new year” plans so far include a Covid-19 booster vaccination in Invercargill this week, and then I’m back over to Bluff to once again work with Heritage Expeditions for two back-to-back voyages to the Subantarctic islands.



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