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Southland 24-hour bird race record broken!

Prior to the bird race I had a chance to get the camera out and photograph one of the three leopard seals that have been hanging around Stewart Island and Ulva Island.  Always a very impressive apex predator to see up close (from behind the camera lens!).  

Leopard Seal at Stewart Island
Leopard Seal at Stewart Island

On 11th October 2018 a group of four avid bird watchers set out to break the record for highest number of bird species seen in Southland during a 24-hour period.  Ten years earlier, the record had been set at 68 …

It was just after midnight when a car parked in a quiet Stewart Island street.  Headlights flicked off and four shadowy figures emerged from the car, blending into the darkness.  No words were exchanged, just the gentle swoosh of waterproof gear becoming quieter as they disappeared into the bush.  Their mission would lead them through primeval forest, across rugged terrain, up steep climbs and head-spinning descents, challenging seas, snow, and whatever else nature could throw at them.  And this was just Southland?! What were they up to?   

It sounds like an introduction to a murder mystery novel - but it was actually four bird watchers trying to break a record!

About a year before this midnight madness began, esteemed natural historian Lloyd Esler had an article published in The Southland Times about bird watching in New Zealand.  In it he referred to two people that were, at that time, the only Southland bird watchers to have seen more than 200 bird species in New Zealand.  Winston Cooper (214) and Matt Jones (224).  He also referred to a Southland Bird Race.  Contrary to what it may sound like, this does not involve pitting a Pukeko against a Mallard in a hundred metre dash!  It's actually an attempt to see as many bird species in a 24-hour period in a given area.  The record for the Southland 24-hour bird race was set in 2008 by Russ Cannings (a Canadian bird watcher living in New Zealand) and "Jukka the Finn" (a travelling bird watcher from Finland) at 68 species, although 69 if one bird heard but not seen, was counted.

Reading Lloyd's article at his Stewart Island home, bird watching guide Matt Jones' interest was peaked. He made a call to friend and fellow guide, Neil Robertson in Te Anau.  Neil agreed that they should attempt the Southland 24-hour bird race, and two more bird watchers were swiftly recruited.  Shawn Herron, also Te Anau-based nature guide and Phil Rhodes, bird recorder for Ornithological Society of New Zealand (OSNZ) based in Invercargill.  A formidable team!

There aren't many rules for bird racing and much of it is based on honesty.  See as many bird species as you can in a 24-hour period.  This group decided they would not count birds heard, only those that were seen, and only count those seen by the majority of the group, so at least three of the four; and they would start at one minute past midnight through to midnight.

So, back to the shadowy figures in the darkness at Stewart Island where Matt led the group to a site for Stewart Island Brown Kiwi (Tokoeka).  At twenty minutes past midnight the group witnessed a family of four birds; male, female, juvenile and chick.  New Zealand's icon was Bird #1 on the list!    A further two female kiwi joined the party and flushed a Skylark out of the long grass; Bird #2.  An unexpected bird at this point in the proceedings, but welcome nonetheless.

On the way back to the car, Morepork was heard but not seen nor counted and the group decided to get some sleep ready for a 5am start the next morning.  Hot showers, coffee and bacon sarnies kicked the morning off, and from Matt's house in the treetops, Bellbird and Tui were seen. Birds #3 and #4 on the list.

Down to Halfmoon Bay for a scan of the foreshore produced Variable Oystercatcher, Paradise Shelduck, Red-billed and Kelp Gulls, Chaffinches and Starlings feeding on the beach. Song Thrush, Blackbird and Dunnock were found around the township.  Onwards to Mill Creek for the only chance to see Sacred Kingfisher - got it!

By now the dawn chorus was tuning up and light improving.  New Zealand Pigeon/Kereru in a tree beside the road; Kaka and Red-crowned Kakariki flew overhead; a male South Island Tomtit landed beside the car.

Redpoll feeding in small bush at Butterfield Beach; White-fronted Tern and Spotted Shag at Horseshoe Bay; Grey Warbler in Fuchsia bush near the beach.  Local knowledge was key here because Matt knew where a pair of Fiordland Crested Penguins were and they were seen in the scope; at Lee Bay a Fantail hopped around as Foveaux Shag swam just offshore.

Mallard and House Sparrow were spotted on the drive to Golden Bay Wharf and by 8am the group were meeting Chris for the seven minute water taxi crossing to Ulva Island.  They had just two hours to see as many endemics as possible. Stewart Island Weka on the beach; Pied Shag sitting offshore; the distinctive call of a stunning South Island Saddleback brought attention back to the tree canopy and the bird count up to Bird #28.

With ears tuned to every whistle and call on Ulva Island, Brown Creeper (Pipipi), Stewart Island Robin, Yellow-crowned Parakeet and Yellowhead were on the list before reaching Boulder Beach.  One of the challenges of a bird race is to tick and keep moving which doesn't come easily when a Weka is at your feet demanding attention, but it was already on the list!  On the rocks were White-faced Heron and Little Pied Shag.  

Logistics for the bird race had been planned meticulously and the two hours on Ulva Island whizzed by. Chris had the water taxi ready to shuttle the group from Ulva Island onto the waiting Aurora Australis skippered by Ty for a pelagic en route to Bluff. 

Southland record breakers: Neil, Matt, Phil, Shawn
Southland record breakers

Heading towards Bench Island NZ White-capped Albatross and Little Blue Penguin were spotted plus an incredible sighting of a single Yellow-eyed Penguin leaving thick vegetation to walk into plain view on the beach as the boat steamed past.  A circumnavigation of Bench Island provided Northern Giant Petrel and Southern Brown Skua; Bird #42

Allowing themselves a short time to photograph and admire Buller's and Salvin's Albatross, more Fiordland Crested Penguin appeared as did Sooty Shearwater and Cape Petrel.  Binoculars in one hand and a coffee in the other to keep focused and alert, a surprise squeak overhead revealed Black-fronted Tern, a bird expected later in the day (inland/on braided rivers) but it was a tick!

Brown Skua & Fairy Prion
Brown Skua & Fairy Prion

Bird #49 was a Fairy Prion which flew away quickly but not before being spotted by the Southern Brown Skua. Aerial combat ensued and all the will in the world could not prevent the inevitable thwack and puff of white feathers as Bird #42 killed and devoured #49.  Among the Sooties was Bird #50 a Short-tailed Shearwater, and the boat had not even reached the mainland.  

The delicate Welcome Swallow was an apt Bird #51 on arrival at Bluff around 1.30pm.  A hasty bakery lunch was gathered and consumed leaving a dusting of pie crumbs in Neil's car.  Bluff highway blurred past the windows slowing down only to focus on the feeding Greenfinches, Pukeko, Australasian Magpie and Feral Pigeon.  Incredibly no Australasian Harrier!

Next destination was Tip Lagoon in Invercargill and Goldfinch calls gave their presence away easily.  Black Swan, Royal Spoonbill, Grey Teal, New Zealand Scaup, Australasian Shoveler, Pied Stilt.  Phil's local knowledge paid off here and a small island on other side of lagoon presented Black Shag, Caspian Tern, three Australasian Shelducks (aka Chestnut-breasted).  This Australian vagrant had been hanging around the lagoon for a year, occasionally up to six birds showing, but only one was needed for the race.  South Island Pied Oystercatcher (aka S.I.P.O.) and two distant harriers were spotted.  Bar-tailed Godwit was next and then Black-billed Gull sitting on a post. 

Tip Lagoon delivered 14 species in an hour.  The female Chestnut Teal that had been reported the previous week was conspicuous in its absence.  Quantity not quality.  More importantly the record had just been broken!  Black-billed Gull on a post was Bird #70.  High fives, pats on the back and then a serious discussion.  Again local knowledge came into play; Shawn and Neil said that snow had closed the Milford Road the day before.  Was three hours driving worth doing for a possible one or two more species, or spend less time driving and more time birding?  The latter was agreed upon and Awarua Bay was the place to go.  

The tide was coming in and provided perfect wader spotting at this Southland hotspot.  A group of 30 small waders flew overhead calling; Ruddy Turnstone was Bird #71.  A walk along the foreshore dodging a Double-banded Plover with tiny chicks and scopes scanned a flock of Godwit to pick out Red Knot.  


Look behind you!  Birds #74 and #75 came in quick succession; two Wrybill fed happily in the kelp and Shawn got us our only New Zealand Pipit of the day. Neil spotted a distant flock of birds, tide lapping at their bellies but which way were they going to move? Towards the binoculars!  Five Pacific Golden Plovers were a real bonus that hadn't even been considered as a possibility and Bird #76 joined the list.

Around 4.30pm after a fruitless search for Fernbird in the flax it was onwards to Te Anau.  Along the way lambs lay in the snow and Black-billed Gull and Black-fronted Tern were seen but already ticked.  At Kays near the Mararoa River Matt spotted a distant pair of Canadian Geese but he needn't have worried as more sat on the river bank around the corner.

It was a bitterly cold drive beside the lake in Te Anau, light was fading but at 8pm an Australasian Crested Grebe swam towards the shore.  Bird #78!

At Neil's house, celebratory pizza and beer were devoured by the new record holders.  Attempts to attract moths and bugs to the house lights outside in the hope of seeing Morepork failed, they were heard but not seen.

Midnight approached.  The adrenaline rush of the day began to wane, discussion drifted towards the thrill of birding with mates, the camaraderie, replaying every one of the 78 birds seen, and finally the species that hadn't been ticked.  Yellowhammer was seen by twice but both times by only two of the group and therefore not counted.  Silvereye was heard on Ulva Island but not seen and therefore not counted.  It could have been a total of 80 if they were counting hearing birds as well as seeing them. And Southern Royal Albatross never appeared at all.  

Russ Cannings, previous record-holder of the Southland 24-hour bird race, was among the first to congratulate the group on their success with a very congenial late night text message: "Booyah! An impressive effort and that's stellar getting everyone onto everything.  The Southland Crown returns to its rightful home!" 

The next morning snow flurries swirled in Neil's garden and the smell of bacon and eggs wafted around the kitchen.  Silvereyes fed happily on sugar water outside.  Ain't that just the way.  Mugs of hot tea were sipped and Silvereyes were observed leisurely for their beauty. And not ticked.

Matt, Neil, Phil and Shawn would like to thank Ange at Beaks & Feathers; Ulva at Ulva's Guided Walks; Chris & Matt at Rakiura Charters & Water Taxi; Ty & Riki at Jenkinson Marine, and Matt's partner Jules for serving up a roasted bird for dinner the night before the big race!  Without the generosity of these people, the day would not have been possible.  

Birds in order of appearance:

1. Stewart Island Brown Kiwi (6 birds) 41. Northern Giant Petrel

2. Skylark 42. Southern Brown Skua

3. NZ Bellbird 43. Common Diving Petrel

4. Tui 44. Buller's Albatross

5. Blackbird 45. Cape Petrel

6. Starling 46. Salvin's Albatross

7. Red-billed Gull 47. Sooty Shearwater

8. Chaffinch 48. Black-fronted Tern

9. Variable Oystercatcher 49. Fairy Prion

10. Kelp Gull 50. Short-tailed Shearwater

11. Paradise Shelduck 51. Welcome Swallow

12. Dunnock 52. Greenfinch

13. Song Thrush 53. Australasian Magpie

14. Sacred Kingfisher 54. Pukeko

15. NZ Pigeon 55. Spur-winged Plover

16. Red-crowned Parakeet 56. Feral Pigeon

17. South Island Tomtit 57. Goldfinch

18. Kaka 58. Black Swan

19. Redpoll 59. Royal Spoonbill

20. Grey Warbler 60. Australasian Shoveler

21. White-fronted Tern 61. Grey Teal

22. Spotted Shag 62. Pied Stilt

23. Mallard 63. NZ Scaup

24. Foveaux Shag 64. Australasian Swamp Harrier

25. Fiordland Crested Penguin 65. Black Shag

26. NZ Fantail 66. South Island Pied Oystercatcher

27. House Sparrow 67. Caspian Tern

28. South Island Saddleback 68. Australian Shelduck /

29. Brown Creeper / Pipipi Chestnut-breasted (3 birds)

30. Pied Shag 69. Bar-tailed Godwit

31. Rifleman 70. Black-billed Gul

32. Little Pied Shag 71. Ruddy Turnstone

33. Yellow-crowned Parakeet 72. Banded Dotterel

34. Yellowhead 73. Red Knot

35. Stewart Island Weka 74. Wrybill - two birds

36. Stewart Island Robin 75. NZ Pipit

37. White-faced Heron 76. Pacific Golden Plover

38. White-capped Albatross 77. Canada Goose

39. Little Blue Penguin 78. Australasian Crested Grebe

40. Yellow-eyed Penguin

Morepork and Silvereye heard but not seen / not counted.



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