Shaken but not deterred
The years seem to pass by faster the older you get. As I sorted through my paper work in the office (well, let's clarify that, I watched Jules sort through my paper work) the stats say that it's been my busiest year in terms of number of clients, hours and number of trips. Plus of course some great birding and birds.
I was in Auckland early in November ready to start leading a 21-day bird watching trip for Wrybill Birding Tours, but I'd arrived a day early to try and get a new bird for my New Zealand list - the Shore Plover. As I navigated New Zealand's largest city I must have stood out like a sore thumb dressed in various shades of green wearing a pair of binoculars around my neck, among the men in suits,. The suits and myself shared one common goal though, which was to get a good cup of coffee. Caffeine running through my veins helped negotiate the urban jungle of Queen Street and finally I made it to the wharf for a half hour boat ride to a predator-free island where I could relax in my preferred surroundings of trees and birdsong.
A walk in the sunshine brought me to a causeway between two islands and I scanned the beach. Through my scope the beautiful and rare Shore Plover came into focus. This tiny wader with beautiful red, black and tan markings was happily feeding on the mud flats. One bird became two for a while, and then one flew closer to me. I got my camera out and was happy with a few distant shots as I sat on the beach. The bird got even closer and the photos were now frame-fillers with beautiful light and this trusting little bird fed at my feet.
I got the feeling I was being watched and I wasn't wrong. Behind me were another three Shore Plovers! Just like buses, I wait for one and four turn up. All with brightly coloured leg bands, these heavily studied and monitored birds showed no fear of me. At one stage these birds were found all over New Zealand but their stronghold is now the Chatham Islands with roughly 150 birds left in the wild. It's right up there with Black Stilt in terms of rarity.
The next day our Wrybill Birding Tours 21-day trip began with mother nature dealing a cruel hand. A massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the coastal town of Kaikoura on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island. Our very good friends at Albatross Encounter were affected as were most businesses in Kaikoura. Sadly we had to pull Kaikoura from our itinerary and miss a few birds, but to keep things in context, everyone's favourite pelagic skipper, Gazza, had lost his house in the destruction.
As if the logistical changes were not challenging enough for this tour, the weather did its best to discourage us too. Extremely high winds meant the Whitianga pelagic was cancelled and biblical rain meant we didn't get to see Okarito Kiwi on the South Island's West Coast. We got sunburnt on Tiritiri Matangi Island and watched Kea in the snow. Maybe not quite four seasons in one day, but close enough.
We only got 146 species on the list for this tour (my lowest ever) but you have to look at the positives, which was that we got some of the best sightings of certain species I've ever seen.
North Island Brown Kiwi hadn't been seen for six weeks at the site we use, and all three previous Wrybill trips had dipped on it. So in very heavy rain we tentatively went searching and like a good Hollywood movie, as we turned the final corner there was a male feeding in front of us right alongside the path.
The following day we found New Zealand's rarest bird, the Fairy Tern - there are less than 30 of these birds in the whole country.
The Hauraki Gulf pelagic produced 15+ New Zealand Storm Petrels - the most I've seen on one pelagic.
Tiritiri Matangi Island is always a highlight and it didn't disappoint - awesome views of Kokako along with North Island Saddleback, Takahe, Stitchbird, Fernbird - and Little Spotted Kiwi in the evening.
At Miranda the iconic Wrybill made its way onto our list and further south we added New Zealand Pipit, New Zealand Falcon, Kaka and Long-tailed and Shining Cuckoo.
An early morning start proved fruitful for fantastic views of Blue Duck.
Near Napier we were lucky to connect with the recently found Wilson's Phalarope, only the fourth record for New Zealand and my best views ever of Australasian Bittern.
Leaving the North Island behind us on the Cook Strait Ferry (one of the great ferry journeys in the world) we headed for Picton, but the trip itself held much more significance because there was a chance of finding seabirds that we might struggle to find elsewhere due to Kaikoura being taken off the itinerary. Eyes peeled and bins at the ready we found White-capped and Salvin's Albatross, Northern Giant Petrel, Westland and White-chinned Petrel, Fairy Prion and Sooty and Fluttering Shearwaters, along with a couple of Arctic Skuas as we entered Queen Charlotte Sound.
Next was the detour to Westport which was our substitute for Kaikoura. Before the rain started we had just enough time to add Black-fronted Tern and Glossy Ibis to the tour list. Westport gave us time to catch up with some laundry and emails but to be honest it's not one of New Zealand's birding hotspots.
The group encountered their first Kea playing happily in the snow at Arthur's Pass as we spent the night in the mountains. Around the scrub land of the mountains we found South Island Robin, Rifleman and Brown Creeper (or Pipipi).
Next morning with wiper blades at full speed again we headed south towards another disappointment as torrential rain meant the Okarito Kiwi trip was cancelled.
The sun finally shone on us the next morning with Fiordland Crested Penguin, Australasian Crested-Grebe, and a stunning Yellowhead being added to the tour list.
Entering the town of Wanaka we had a magnificent encounter with a New Zealand Falcon surveying her territory from a tree - and watched her chase a dog that got too close - and later an epic mountain encounter with a pair of Rock Wrens building a nest.
I'm biased about the next part of our itinerary as Stewart Island is home for me and Ulva Island was its magical self. We found four Stewart Island Brown Kiwi that night and the following day's pelagic was a real goodie with five albatross species, two storm petrel species, and three penguin species and a supporting cast of Sooty Shearwaters and White-Chinned Petrels and a lone Broad-billed Prion.
Tremendous views of Yellow-eyed Penguins, Otago Shags and New Zealand Fur Seals brightened the way back to the mainland.
We finished the tour with the sun shining on a snow-capped Mount Cook watching our last endemic of the tour, the Black Stilt. This elegant wader has always been a firm favourite of mine and to have a pre-tour Shore Plover and finish with Black Stilt, to me was a perfect end to a great but challenging tour.
When I got home to Stewart Island I arrived at 10.30am and by midday was jumping on a boat to guide on a pelagic. No rest for the wicked.
Since then I've been busy guiding on Ulva Island which offers me a fantastic opportunity to show visiting birders some of New Zealand's rarest birds such as Yellowhead, South Island Saddleback and Yellow-crowned Parakeet to name but a few. We've also had incredible day time sightings of Stewart Island Brown Kiwi.
New Year's Eve was literally a washout weather-wise here but that is probably the cost of having a beautiful sunny Christmas Day!
Roll on 2017!