On the road
January is generally a busy month on Stewart Island; primarily for me as a guide with Ulva's Guided Walks and Aurora Charters pelagics. This January however was different because I left the island to learn the ropes for a new guiding opportunity with Wrybill Birding Tours.
I've known Sav and Brent, owner/operators of Wrybill Birding Tours for a number of years and have huge respect for these guys. Both played a key part in the rediscovery of the thought-to-be-extinct New Zealand Storm Petrel in 2003 and Wrybill is at the forefront of putting New Zealand on the international bird watching map. So from a personal point of view it was a no-brainer to accept Brent & Sav's offer. My departure from Stewart Island during our busy season was made easier thanks to the support of Ulva Goodwillie, Colin & Margaret Hopkins and Ty Jenkinson.
The 21-day Wrybill Birding Tour of New Zealand begins in Auckland and the plan was for me to travel from Auckland to Kaikoura with Brent's tour and Kaikoura to Stewart Island on Sav's tour.
Day 1 on the road with our clients we got a few common endemics (Tui, Tomtit, New Zealand Fantail) in the bag just north of Auckland. The popular Australasian Gannet colony at Muriwai is a great place to see these birds at close quarters and everyone's camera got a good warm up as White-fronted Terns, Kelp Gulls joined the gathering. By lunchtime we had New Zealand Dabchick, Grey Teal and New Zealand Scaup and before we went to bed North Island Brown Kiwi were on the list. A cracking first day.
The Fairy Tern, New Zealand's rarest breeding bird (population 40-50) as well as New Zealand and Banded Dotterel, Red Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit and Reef Heron made Day 2 a good one too.
We were all at sea on Day 3 and New Zealand Storm-petrel was the target bird on a full day Hauraki Gulf pelagic. Plenty of other birds joined in the fray as camera shutters clicked away framing this diminutive bird among White-faced Storm Petrels. Flesh-footed Shearwaters, White-fronted Terns, Fluttering Shearwaters, Buller's Shearwater, Arctic Skua, Black Petrels, Grey-faced Petrel and even Grey Ternlets roosting on some rocks - plus a couple of Manta Rays for the list.
Other highlights of the trip included a perfect day on Tiritiri Matangi with a glimpse of the grey ghost, the North Island Kokako, the prehistoric looking Takahe, and an overnight stay to see Little Spotted Kiwi.
Miranda Shorebird Centre is the best place in New Zealand for waders and our arrival was timed perfectly with the tide pushing Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knots and South Island Pied Oystercatchers into view. Finding the less common birds in these big flocks got us all working but it paid off with Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Curlew Sands and a lone Marsh Sandpiper on the list - and Wrybill, the iconic New Zealand wader is always a favourite with the clients.
Our good fortune ran out at Whitianga - the pelagic was cancelled due to strong winds but our consolation prize was a New Zealand Dotterel showing well on the beach. Heading south we got Australasian Bittern and a lunch stop at Pureora Forest produce some good common forest birds; North Island Kaka, Rifleman and Yellow-crowned Parakeet.
A long-staying pair of Plumed Whistling Ducks at Anderson Park in Napier was a New Zealand tick for me and after a night at Turangi our target bird was Blue Duck - we got that on the list before breakfast the next morning - and just outside of town was a pair of New Zealand Dabchicks beside the road!
Brent was unfortunately taken ill as we headed towards Wellington so I got a taste of leading the tour for real. Two species of Albatross (White-capped and Salvin's) during the three-hour ferry crossing to Picton and for some of our clients it was their first ever Albatross encounter. Northern Giant Petrel, Westland Petrel and Sooty Shearwaters were spotted plus Dusky and Common Dolphins.
With Brent recovered, the next day we were out on the water. A showy pod of Hector's Dolphin had us sidetracked but we soon found a dozen of our target bird, which only breeds in the entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound - the King Shag. Later in the day on Blumine Island was a lifer for me in the shape of an Orange-fronted Parakeet. Our clients were pretty happy too especially as we only had 10 minutes left until the boat was due to collect us! While we waited we got Silvereye, Tomtit, Western Weka, South Island Saddleback and NZ Pigeon on the list.
Probably one of the best pelagic destinations in the world, a couple of days in Kaikoura with Albatross Encounter was next for us. Pelagics on both days and five Albatross species for the trip list (Wandering, Northern & Southern Royal, Salvin's and White-capped) not to mention White-chinned and Westland Petrels to test ID skills, Buller's, Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters, along with Kaikoura's very own Hutton's Shearwater. The big surprise was two species of storm petrel; White-faced and one lone Grey-backed and not forgetting the New Zealand mega, a Black Noddy, albeit distant.
After a couple of days in Kaikoura Brent's group continued on their way while I waited for Sav's group to arrive. What better way to spend this time than by going on a few more pelagics with my mate Gazza Melville of Albatross Encounter - another view of Grey-backed Stormie and Black-browed Albatross as well as all the usual suspects.
With Sav's group we left Kaikoura for Arthur's Pass and found the Kea being their mischievous selves. Onto Punakaiki for Great Spotted Kiwi - probably the most difficult kiwi species to find and unfortunately we missed out here. Lunching on the west coast a New Zealand Falcon called above us and coffees and sammies were ditched as clients and guides scrambled for bins to get a view New Zealand's only endemic raptor.
The search for Okarito Kiwi was led by Ian Cooper and after feeding the local mozzie population for an hour and a half we were resigning ourselves to failure, boosted only by a male and female calling close by. And then I heard rustling in front of me and signalled to Ian - a male kiwi walked straight out in front of us, alongside the group and for the next 10 minutes or so we all got very good views of this elusive bird. Everyone slept well that night!
On our way to Wanaka we got our first views of Yellowhead driving through the spectacular Haast Pass as well as Rifleman and Tomtit. On the shoreline at Wanaka we got some good photos of Black Billed Gulls before enjoying a fantastic curry that evening!
A big driving day out of Wanaka saw Black-fronted Terns on the Milford Road and more Blue Duck (two adults and a duckling). At the Homer Tunnel our target bird was Rock Wren but unfortunately that didn't work out for us. Five hours searching resulted in our first major dip of the trip although a success for the Kea that had destroyed our wiper blades while we had left the van in the car park.
We didn't see much during the foggy drive from Te Anau to Bluff but the New Zealand White-capped Albatross followed us on the ferry to Stewart Island, and home for me - and the Stewart Island Shags on the list. Straight over to Ulva Island for our group to see South Island Saddleback adult and chick. The rest of the walk around Ulva Island was relaxed and we got Stewart Island Robin, Stewart Island Weka, and Brown Creeper. We hoped for better views of Yellowhead but our focus changed pretty quickly when a Stewart Island Brown Kiwi walked up to our group at 5pm - and Sav's first day time sighting.
Even though we'd seen kiwi well on Ulva Island, Phillip Smith's Bravo Adventures is still the best way to see Stewart Island Brown Kiwi in the wild and we had prolonged views of three kiwi at Ocean Beach that evening.
Next day back to my "day job" we took our group out for a full day pelagic with good mate Ty on Aurora Charters. It began with a hiss and a roar with a pair of Fiordland Crested Penguins sitting on a rock in Halfmoon Bay. They are usually quite tough to see after Christmas so it was a good start to the day and we also got some good views of Yellow-eyed Penguins.
Out at Wreck Reef looking at a group of Cook's Petrels I noticed one of them looked different - a Stewart Island tick for me in the shape of a Gould's Petrel. Related to Cook's Petrel, breeding in New Caledonia this guy was a long way from home. I'd seen a couple on a Three Kings Pelagic a few years ago but even in the far north they're not that common so to get one on a Stewart Island list was quite incredible.
It was a great experience working with Sav and Brent and I'm looking forward to joining Wrybill as a guide as well as continuing to guide for highly respected companies on Stewart Island.
As I saw Sav and his group leave Stewart Island it was back to work for me, leading a group to Ulva Island. It was nice not having to drive anywhere!
While I was away learning the ropes for Wrybill, my Swarovski binoculars were being repaired in Austria because there isn't a repair centre here in New Zealand. I'm pleased to say they arrived back in New Zealand the other day, looking shiny and new and better than ever!