Life behind the bins!
It's been a long time since my last instalment - in short it's been one hell of a season!
At the end of January I led another 21-day tour of New Zealand for Wrybill Birding Tours. A mega three weeks of birding with seven clients, five from the US and two from the UK and we found some awesome birds along the way.
Prior to the tour I added a lifer to my New Zealand and world list on the coast of the Bay of Plenty - the long staying Oriental Plover. A true global mega, this showy lanky wader shared a north island beach with some New Zealand Dotterels and surprised me how approachable it was.
The Wrybill tour was one of my most successful with great clients that got on really well together, great weather and great birds along the way. Highlights of the tour included Black-winged Petrel on the Hauraki Gulf pelagic and excellent looks at New Zealand Storm Petrel. During our stay on Tiritiri Matangi we connected with all possible birds including a close encounter with a Little Spotted Kiwi - and I didn't give anyone food poisoning with my BBQ dinner. On the Whitianga pelagic we encountered at least four Pycroft's Petrels and Miranda Shorebird Centre proved sensational as we hit the tide just right and every bird showed itself really well - with thousands of Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot were at least 300 Wrybill, two Far Eastern Curlews, one Asiatic Whimbrel, two Marsh Sandpipers, two Pectoral Sandpipers, one Curlew Sandpiper, three Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and a few Ruddy Turnstones amongst the flock of 30+ Pacific Golden Plover. Star of the show was a Little Whimbrel that that hadn't been seen for a couple of weeks - my second lifer in a week and another new wader. Leaving the Miranda car park we spotted a Buff-banded Rail with chick hiding in the mangroves. It must be my Kentish upbringing but I'd be content to spend a whole day looking at waders.
The North Island delivered tremendous views of Blue Duck, NZ Falcon and Australasian Bittern and at Foxton we reconnected with a Terek Sandpiper that we found on December's tour. The South Island produced awesome views of King Shag on Bluemine Island and Orange-fronted Parakeet made us sweat, revealing itself at the very last minute in a tree above the path. Kaikoura never disappoints and the sunrise pelagic was made more special with five albatross species plus Sperm Whale, Short-finned Pilot Whale, Bottlenose and Dusky Dolphins. Into the mountains at Arthur's Pass we saw South Island Robin, Rifleman and Kea and surprisingly a couple more Blue Duck, a species that can be troublesome to find. On the gorgeous rugged West Coast we had outstanding views of Rowi (Okarito Kiwi), the rarest kiwi, thanks to the expert help of Ian Cooper. Onwards to Wanaka and Te Anau and just 15 minutes of searching rewarded us with both Rock Wren parents feeding their young at the nest. Then home for me and two nights on Stewart Island where we went straight across to Ulva Island for South Island Saddleback, the only bird we needed for the trip list. A bonus was an awesome interaction with a massive flock of Yellowhead that fed just a couple of feet above our heads and stayed with us for several minutes. After dinner (we don't go hungry on these trips) to find our last kiwi of the tour, the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi. After a bit of searching on the beach we were graced with great views of a large female feeding amongst the kelp, completely oblivious to us. A full day pelagic the next day delivered fantastic views of Brown Skua and Yellow-eyed Penguin, Mottled Petrel (always a favourite) and the tiny Grey-backed Storm Petrel. The real plus was finding a couple of Fiordland Crested Penguins just finishing moult, never a sure thing this late in the season.
Back to the mainland where it's north all the way, we lunched with views of half a dozen Sea Lions. Small sandy coloured females to massive bulls with huge manes, none of them smell that great! Fantastic views of Yellow-eyed Penguins with chicks at a few metres range. Another great day's birding. On our last day we headed west for Black Stilt. After lunch at the base of Mount Cook we sat near a braided river and looked as if we were in a New Zealand tourism commercial, as if on cue an adult Black Stilt decided to come and feed right beside us. The last endemic was on the list!
On the way to the airport (there's always time for birding) at 7.30am our feet were getting slightly damp in a small swampy bog looking for Ballion's Crake, a bird that has always given me the run around. We had an outstanding encounter as this skulky bird climbed a small bush for us to have a look at. Wow! 8am we back on the road and reached the airport in good time with a total of 162 species seen and some new friends made.
Two days later I was back on Stewart Island guiding on the Birding Bonanza and within ten minutes of being on Ulva Island we saw a male kiwi walking on the path in front of us. I never tire of seeing these iconic birds. Pelagics have now finished for the season but we've had some goods birds, notably Sub-antarctic Little Shearwater and Soft-plumage Petrel. The first half of April I've been leading kiwi spotting tours most evenings for Phil Smith/Bravo Adventures and with winter on its way the trip departs early evening so I've been home by around 9pm. We've usually been lucky enough to see at least two kiwis each night, sometimes four and it's always a special thing to find a really sought after bird for visitors to Stewart Island.
As April comes to a close I'm half way through the SIRCET Five Minute Bird Call Counts, an annual project that I've been doing for them for the past few years. Always a pleasure to do this - who wouldn't enjoy standing in the bush listening to birds?!
It's not often these days I get to go on a twitch but last week I went overseas. Well, across Foveaux Strait to Awarua Bay near Bluff on the southern tip of mainland New Zealand! I hooked up with Neil Robertson who is Southland's regional representative for the Ornithological Society of New Zealand and his mate Shawn Herron to try and connect with the Siberian (Grey tailed) Tattler that they had found a week earlier. I picked up the bird some distance away and it took well over an hour for it to get closer as the tide moved in. We also found two Sanderlings, never common in NZ and a lone Wrybill. Most of the world's population of Wrybill tend to over winter at Miranda so it's unusual for one to be this far south. Great to get the twitch juices flowing and more importantly it was a successful one. Thanks guys!
Other bird-related news is that Nonu, our 7-month old border collie puppy has successfully completed his kiwi-aversion training. At the moment this training isn't compulsory for dogs living on Stewart Island but because we live surrounded by National Park dogs are encouraged to attend. In my view it's a no-brainer; I don't want my dog to kill a kiwi, it only takes ten minutes, and it's free to attend. Simple. The device used is called an "e-kiwi" and looks like an upturned pudding bowl covered in kiwi feathers and liquidised kiwi poo. Ummm, lovely! Two e-kiwi are hidden and the dog is left off the lead to explore the area. What the dog can't see so well (and isn't expecting) are the fine fibre optic wires that stick out of the e-kiwi so when the dog sticks his nose in for a good sniff, he gets a mild tingly shock like you would if you touched an electric fence. Nonu found the first one straight away and went into reverse pretty quickly. It was amazing to see instantly how wary he was of the second e-kiwi and gave it a wide berth. Because he is so young he will do another training session in six months time, and once he's a year old it will be annually.