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  • Matt

Wader minute

Stewart Island is great place for a birdwatcher to visit and I count myself very lucky to live here.  Not only do we have Ulva Island virtually on our doorstep, with its rare Saddleback, Yellowhead and Robin populations, Stewart Island is also one of the best places to see kiwi in the wild.  They can be seen in the outskirts of the township, on some of the overnight tramps, occasionally on Ulva Island in the daytime, or with Phillip Smith on the Bravo Adventures kiwi spotting trip.  Phillip was the first person to run kiwi spotting trips on Stewart Island and he hasn't lost any enthusiasm for it in the 20-plus years he has been operating.  I am very fortunate to be a relief guide on these trips - it's such a pleasure to show people this iconic bird.

The other big draw to Stewart Island is pelagics.  It's the place to get close to albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, penguins and stormies.  The summer has been good but it doesn't make good weather for pelagics with no wind to speak of.  Great for the folks that aren't good sailors but not so good for the sea birds who can't show off their immense flying skills.

White-faced Storm-Petrel (Pelagodroma marina)
White-faced Storm-Petrel at Stewart Island

We've seen lots of White-faced Storm Petrels, a bird in the last three years we had only seen three times.  This season we regularly had two or three birds feeding with Fairy Prions on most trips in January and February.  Other birds of note are Hutton's Shearwater from Kaikoura and Buller's Shearwater from Hauraki in the north.

What many people don't associate Stewart Island with is waders and water birds.  We have the whole population of Southern New Zealand Dotterel (around 300 birds) as this is the only place they breed and they don't tend to venture very far.  It's surely only a matter of time before they are split from their northern cousins.  The Southern New Zealand Dotterel - or should they be called Stewart Island Dotterel? - breed up in the high country and tend to feed on the more remote beaches making the logistics of seeing them a challenge.

Being brought up in Kent in the UK with its corridor of marshes, waders have always been a firm favourite of mine.  I would regularly visit Elmley or Oare Marshes and during the autumn migration it would not be uncommon to log over 20 species of wader in just a few hours.  The beautiful Northern Lapwing, the secretive Common Snipe, Common Redshank, Dunlin and Ringed Plover, to the not so common Whimbrel, Wood Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper - and a sprinkle of real rarities, such as Long-billed Dowitcher and White-rumped Sandpiper from the USA to eastern birds like Broad-billed Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed and Marsh Sandpipers.

Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) a first for Stewart Island
Far Eastern Curlew (first for Stewart Island)

But back to Stewart Island.  I love our resident Variable Oystercatchers and I love that we get Bar-tailed Godwits this far south.  Only a few days ago I saw a flock of them leaving, heading north on the start of their long migration to Alaska where they will breed.  I've found a lone Sandling at Mason Bay to add to my small Stewart Island wader list.  For a week in mid-March we had a visit from a Far Eastern Curlew, a bird that breeds in Indonesia and northern Australia which turned out to be a first for Stewart Island.  It spent most of its time at Mill Creek feeding on small crabs and looked comfortable with White-faced Herons and Sacred Kingfishers as company.  But like the Bar-tailed Godwits it has since moved north.  A couple of days after its departure its place was taken by a Great White Egret (White Heron).  Not a first for Stewart Island but another bird for my Stewart Island list.  Photos of the Curlew and the Egret are on my Stewart Island water birds gallery.

As Easter approaches, the birding season starts to grind to a halt.  In April I am back into the bush conducting the 5 minute bird call counts for the Stewart Island Rakiura Community & Environment Trust  which I'm looking forward to.  Hopefully this good weather will last just a bit longer.



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