May and June were pretty mild here on Stewart Island - there wasn't much rainfall and we even had one or two sunny pleasant days.
Birding-wise, May ended in a fizz. Walking to work one afternoon I bumped into Brent Beaven, head of biodiversity at the Department of Conservation here on the island. He'd been doing a rat trap line that morning and had seen an unusual bird which he thought was a shrike of some sort. Unfortunately work commitments meant I couldn't go straight away, but the twitcher inside me was eager to get round to Horseshoe Bay and I headed out there the next morning. An hour passed, checking every flying and perching bird I saw but without any joy. Heaps of Tui and Bellbird but no shrike. I was just about to give up when down the valley below me I caught a flash of ghostly grey in the long grass. The bird - was it a bird? - I couldn't say for sure, but 10 minutes later the bird gave itself up and flew to the top of a small tree to give me an unobscured view. As soon as I'd focussed my bins on it I knew exactly what it was - a juvenile Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike. A true New Zealand mega! I turned round to give someone a high five, but I was on my own. That's twitching on Stewart Island for you.
I watched it for a bit longer, soaking up the I.D. details and then decided to get some shots of it. It kept its distance but at one stage flew straight towards me, landing on a telegraph wire above my head. It flew back to the tree which ironically was a Blue Gum (it obviously made this Australian bird feel at home!). These birds are quite common through southern and eastern Australia right up to PNG. A few days prior to the bird arriving, the island had had some strong westerly winds which had probably brought the bird across the Tasman Sea. As I continued to take photos and watch the bird I saw it feeding on a stick insect. After about 45 minutes and a couple of hundred photos later I headed back to the car and texted Sav Saville about the sighting. He was quite excited and texted back asking if I could tie it to a tree for a few days ... but unfortunately after I'd seen the bird the weather turned to custard and it was never seen again. I went back a week later for a look but found nothing, which wasn't surprising given that these species are notorious short-stayers.
Doing some homework, there have been 20 records of Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike in New Zealand and this is only the second record for Stewart Island. The first was back in 2000. I think only half a dozen people saw this bird, including Brent and myself. The remoteness of the location probably puts off other New Zealand bird watchers from coming down to grab it for their list. It's one of the differences between New Zealand bird watching and, for arguments sake, the UK scene. With such a rare bird, guys would have chartered planes and thrown sick days to see and tick it in the UK. Ironically some even call them "bird flu days"!! My opinion is that New Zealand bird watching and twitching scene is very much in its infancy.
In June I saw my first Cattle Egret of winter coming in off the sea at Lonnekers Beach. A couple of days later another two appeared with Salt (the only horse on Stewart Island). Unfortunately a couple of weeks later Salt passed away - hope this doesn't put off the Cattle Egrets!
I saw a third bird as it walked up passed the Department of Conservation office on the main road and managed to get a few photos of it. Thinking about it I've seen some good birds on the main road: Kiwi, Weka (with chicks), Kaka, New Zealand Wood Pigeon ... Winter work has been a bit thin on the ground this year. After completing the bird call count for SIRCET I've done a few odd days on the ferry as relief crew. In July, as a birthday treat to Jules we were going to fly over to Mason Bay to spend a few nights and hopefully photograph Kiwi, Dotterel and Fernbird for me and some beach-combing for Jules. But if May and June were mild and settled, July was the complete opposite. Winter turned up, hissing and snarling and throwing literally everything she'd got at Stewart Island. Gale force winds, hailstones the size of, well, very large hailstones, snow, frost, sleet, heavy rain and freezing temperatures. We are less than 3000 miles from the South Pole here and it really felt like it. Subsequently the trip to Mason Bay was cancelled as the planes weren't even taking off, let alone landing, especially on a beach! So Jules' birthday was spent next to the fire at home and the next day when there was a short break in the weather we got the last two seats on the plane and left Stewart Island. I would have happily gone on the ferry (there would have been some good birds whizzing around) but Jules + ferry + birthday cake don't mix. Bit of a rollercoaster flight over the Foveaux Strait which looked like a giant washing machine. We spent a few days in Queenstown surrounded by snow-capped mountains which looked quite beautiful. Couple of days in Hanmer Springs for the thermal pools and a wedding, and then onto Kaikoura where I met up with Gary Melville of Albatross Encounter. Gazza and myself did a half day pelagic and got a great selection of birds: 20+ Black-browed Albatross, 1 Campbell Island Albatross, a dozen of the ever-photogenic Buller's Albatross, plus a huge gathering of Wandering and Southern Royal Albatross. After a few days in sunny Kaikoura we headed back to Stewart Island where the weather seemed to have calmed down a bit. At the end of July I was back in Kaikoura for a full day deep-water pelagic with Albatross Encounter again where I had hopes of adding Grey Petrel to my ever-growing seabird list ... A 6am start saw ten of us leave Kaikoura's South Bay heading out to the shelf about 20 miles out. The weather was relatively calm but it didn't take too long to start attracting birds. The usual suspects; Wandering (Gibson's) Albatross, Northern and Southern Royal Albatross, Northern Giant Petrels, NZ White-capped and Salvin's Albatross all squabbled around the iced chum block with the constant soundtrack of Cape Petrels in the background. Other good birds seen were Westland Petrel, Grey-faced Petrel, a lone Sooty Shearwater who'd obviously decided to stay put in the southern hemisphere, and the regular comings and goings of Fairy Prion. After 8 hours at sea we still hadn't seen Grey Petrel or white morph Southern Giant Petrel (local fishermen reported seeing two). On this trip I learned that Grey Petrel have been hit hard by long-line fishing as a by-catch. A few years ago on this kind of trip a dozen of them would have been seen. Steve Woods and Igor Debski were on this pelagic and they had also been on the Three Kings Pelagic back in March. On that trip we wore shorts and t-shirt. This one was woolly hats, gloves and thick fleeces! We're now into August and soon I'll be heading north for the gruelling 24 hour journey to the UK to represent the New Zealand Birding Network and Ulva Island at the British Birdwatching Fair in Rutland (19th-21st August). The New Zealand companies are all together on the one stand:
myself representing Ulva's Guided Walks and launching our new Birding Bonanza package
Lynette Buurman and Gary Melville from Albatross Encounter Kaikoura
Brent Stephenson & Sav Saville from Wrybill Tours
Pop in and see us - Marquee 4, Stand 45.
Being back in the UK is a great chance to catch up with family and friends - and obviously some birdwatching to be done! Hope to get down to Dorset and spend some time out in the field with my old mate Pete Moore and also revisit some old favourite Kentish sites.