Touring, Sketching & Twitching
November is always a busy month for me and this one was no exception. I spent most of the month on the road leading a 21-day bird watching tour for Wrybill Birding Tours.
Leaving Auckland we bird-watched all three of New Zealand's islands. The weather seemed to be against us but all in all it was a successful trip. Highlights were North Island Brown Kiwi on the first night, getting Greater Crested Tern on my New Zealand list (embarrassing myself with a victory dance!), five NZ Stormies on the Hauraki Gulf pelagic (despite a storm), plus Bryde's and Humpback Whale.
At one stage it looked like we might not get onto Tiritiri Matangi Island due to rough weather, but we made it and cleaned up on all the endemics; North Island Saddleback, Whitehead, North Island Kokako, Stitchbird, Brown Teal, Takahe - and in the evening, Little Spotted Kiwi. Awesome!
At Miranda Reserve we feasted on (not literally!) a great selection of waders; thousands of Bar-tailed Godwits, a lone Far Eastern Curlew, Pacific Golden Plovers, Red-necked Stints, NZ Dotterels, Curlew, Sharp-tailed and Pectoral Sandpipers along with the iconic Wrybill.
Unfortunately the Whitianga pelagic was cancelled due to another storm (bit of a theme developing here) but heading through the centre of the North Island we picked up Yellow-crowned Parakeet, North Island Robin and Blue Duck. South of Taupo we had at least 9 Australasian Bitterns and Fernbird.
Onto the South Island, we had a great trip in Marlborough Sound. Plenty of New Zealand King Shag and a pair of Orange-fronted Parakeet. The wind died down in Kaikoura - just when we needed it for the pelagic! It was pretty quiet compared to its usual very high standards but we got plenty of Hutton's Shearwater, Westland Petrels and four albatross species: Wandering, Southern Royal, NZ White-capped and Salvin's.
Heading through Arthur's Pass to the west coast we picked up views of Kea and NZ Falcon plus a very brief encounter with Okarito Kiwi. The rarest of the kiwi species was very bashful as it sped across the path. Rock Wren was the star at the Homer Tunnel near Milford Sound.
Another storm threatened our trip to Stewart Island. The ferry was delayed for hours and kiwi spotting didn't happen at all. We did manage to get to Ulva Island for awesome views of Yellowhead, Yellow-crowned Parakeet and South Island Saddleback. In the afternoon we did a half day pelagic with Ty on Aurora Charters and had great views of White-chinned Petrel, more Southern Royal, Fairy Prions, and ever present Sooty Shearwaters.
Leaving Stewart Island we spend the last couple of days of the trip back on the South Island where we encountered fantastic views of Yellow-eyed Penguin and Black Stilt. After dropping the clients off at Christchurch it was home to Stewart Island for me and straight back into the Birding Bonanza; guiding on Ulva Island and with Ty on Aurora Charters!
A full trip report and check list will be available on the Wrybill Birding Tours website.
Mid-December I was honoured to be invited to a book launch at the Stewart Island Gift Shop by Jess Kany. About 18 months ago Jess had asked me to illustrate a children's book that she had written as a fundraising project for the Stewart Island Early Childhood Education Centre. The idea came to her because I'd done the odd sketch for the Stewart Island News, of which she is editor. I agreed to take on the project, but it wasn't as easy as I'd first thought! Jess is a straight talker so I knew if it wasn't good enough she'd have told me. Even so, I think I make a better bird-watcher than illustrator of children's books, but it's a privilege to be involved - and slightly terrifying signing books for people!
Jess, like myself, is an 'import' to Stewart Island - originally from New York she married a local fisherman and is mum to two sons. No stranger to writing she's had articles published in many magazines, but "Seaberry Stomp" is her first children's book which is about a young sea lion's adventures around Stewart Island.
Later in December Alan Davies and Ruth Miller from North Wales visited Stewart Island. In 2008 Alan and Ruth broke the world record for seeing the most species of bird in one calendar year - 4341! The previous record of 3662 had stood for 19 years held by Jim Clements.
The Biggest Twitch blog and book recorded their amazing birding adventures and I defy any bird-watcher not to admire their courage at giving up everything (house, car, jobs, savings) to fund this astonishing achievement.
I'd met Alan and Ruth at the British Birdwatching Fair in 2010 and became friends with them. The Biggest Twitch in 2008 didn't bring them to New Zealand but they were keen to get here. We met again at the BBF in 2011 and 2013 and finally at the end of 2014 they made it to New Zealand - and Stewart Island!
The weather during their stay was fantastic! The birds on Ulva Island performed very well for our Birding Bonanza that day and Alan and Ruth got more lifers for their bulging life list. It wasn't too windy for the afternoon pelagic with Ty on Aurora Charters - which suited Alan who isn't a great sailor - but we still four species of albatross and a few more lifers for them. Kiwi was one of Ruth's most sought-after birds which she got later that night.
I accompanied them for a couple of days on the South Island. First stop was Bushey Point B&B - Jenny and Ian showed us around their great private reserve on the outskirts of Invercargill where we got awesome views of Fernbird. From there we based ourselves in Te Anau and drove out the next day to Homer Tunnel near Milford Sound. A pair of Rock Wren were very interested in Alan's "pishing" - maybe something in the accent?! Whatever it was, these little guys were very curious.
Milford Sound itself was very touristy but has stunning scenery. Tourists provided much amusement with the latest craze of "selfie sticks" - posing with iPhones on a stick to get a wider angle photo of themselves!
Alan and Ruth encountered their first Kea; we piled sticks and stones like a game of Jenga and these very intelligent parrots could not control their curiosity as they pulled at sticks and made the tower fall over.
At lunch near the river we got Blue Duck and into the lowland forest and flat lands we encountered South Island Robin, Yellow-crowned Parakeet, Brown Creeper, Rifleman and beautiful Black-fronted Terns hunting on the braided river.
After breakfast and a farewell to Alan and Ruth I left Te Anau and returned to Stewart Island. They continued up the west coast of New Zealand's South Island and are now leading a bird tour in Thailand.
Christmas came and went and what a scorcher it was this year. Shorts and t-shirt weather, sunny blue skies and not a breath of wind. But I don't think I'll ever get used to a summer Christmas!
2015 is here and a new bird list for the year has begun. In mid-January I'm back on tour with Wrybill for another 21-day bird-watching tour of New Zealand.
No rest for the wicked - but I know I'm a lucky b*stard! I'm very fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world and get to show lifers to bird-watchers of all standards.
Happy fun-filled birding everyone!