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  • Matt

The offseason

My job as a bird watching guide is seasonal. The majority of my work - leading tours to Ulva Island, guiding on pelagics and evening kiwi spotting - occurs during our busy season of October through to May. During the off season June through September there is the odd day guiding but it pretty much takes a back seat because it's our winter and we don't get so many visitors. This year though there have been a number of film crews visit Stewart Island during winter, and I had the pleasure of taking host Clarke Gayford and the "Fish of the Day" crew out kiwi spotting one night. We had about 6 kiwi show really well, and the crew were blown away by the footage.

Fish of the Day is a New Zealand-based TV series that uses fishing to show off world-class travel destinations anywhere from the tropical South Pacific to the last inhabitable islands before Antarctica. In the show, host Clarke (who also happens to be the New Zealand Prime Minister's partner) catches fish, learns as much as he can about the location and fish species and then finds a good local chef to cook up a storm. The series is shown in New Zealand, Australia, Asia Pacific and the Middle East and the Stewart Island episode is due to air later in the year.

Southern Royal Albatross
Southern Royal Albatross

At the end of July, Jules and I took a short trip to Dunedin. I got to catch up with good mate Stevie Woods who is New Zealand's top lister with just shy of 300 birds. With a few other hardy bird watching souls we spent the day on the Monarch off the Otago Peninsula on a full day pelagic. It was a quiet pelagic as the weather was pretty calm but we got 6 albatross species - White-capped, Salvin's, Buller's, Northern & Southern Royal, and Black-browed - plus Northern and Southern Giant Petrel, Royal Cape Petrel and a few Fairy Prions. Nothing new for my list but it was good to be out on the water with like-minded souls.

Dunedin is New Zealand's oldest city and is home to the University of Otago, the country's oldest university. It's also the second largest of New Zealand's cities, but it's easy to walk around and we managed some retail therapy as well as taking in museums, movies and a curry! Dunedin has a fantastic "street art" trail with about 30 artworks by local and international artists. Of course I spotted two 8-feet tall Yellow-eyed Penguins!

Oceanic Birds of the World book, gifted to me for supplying a Southern Brown Skua image
Oceanic Birds of the World book

When we got home Stewart Island was hit by an antarctic blow from the south and snow even settled on the beach. Most of it had melted by the next day, but snow here is pretty rare.  It was a good excuse to sit beside a roaring fire at home and enjoy my new book, "Oceanic Birds of the World" by Steve Howell & Kirk Zufelt.

I met Kirk a couple of years ago on a pelagic at Whitianga looking for Pycroft's Petrel. He set himself the unenviable task of seeing every seabird in the world - and to photograph them if possible. I provided a Southern Brown Skua photo for his book. For anyone interested in seabirds it's a great book packed with ID photos and descriptions and is small enough to fit in a backpack.

The cold snap on Stewart Island has brought about another wave of rats. This year has been a "mega mast" year in New Zealand, meaning heavy forest seeding provided so much food for birds that rodents and other pests have also benefitted. Consequently, pest numbers increase which in turn causes serious threat to native birds. So most homes on Stewart Island and many public areas trap for rats to limit the damage to native species. As Chairman of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust  we have traps at both Golden Bay Wharf and Halfmoon Bay Wharf that myself and another trustee check on a daily basis. These wharves are the main launch points to Ulva Island and the aim is that we catch rats before they stowaway on boats and get to predator-free Ulva Island. At Golden Bay Wharf there is a Kelp Gull that waits for me every day because if there is a rat in the trip, he gets a feed!

Our chilly snap couldn't be more different to the temperatures in Mallorca where good mate Pete Moore recently holidayed - the mercury hitting the high 30s. It was great receiving reports from Pete about his holiday bird list and reading about Bee-eaters and Hoopoes in the Spanish sunshine. It brought back fond memories of the time Jules and I were there in the late 1990s.

Winter here also means it's calendar competition time - where locals submit their photographs for consideration to our local Halfmoon Bay School ready for the pre-Christmas reveal of who got which month, and who got the cover photo! Calendar sales are a great fundraiser for our little school and I was happy to be one of the judges. Amazing that we have such talented photographers on our small island.



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