From our treetop office overlooking Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island I am watching the weather which has been dramatic to say the least. Predicted wind speeds of 120kph couldn't have been far wrong, along with sideways rain, hail, thunder and lightning and a sudden drop in temperature blasting us from the south. Reflecting on another busy season of great birds and birders, I've led plentiful trips to Ulva Island, evening kiwi spotting tours and occasional pelagics here on Stewart Island as well as the two 21-day national birding tours and a few days guiding in the North Island for Wrybill.
The 21-day tours for Wrybill are both rewarding and hard work. Not only do we guide and find the birds, we are first up and last to bed. We drive the length of the country, sort out logistics and keep the group fed and watered for three weeks, hopefully ending the tour with the same number of people we started with!
On my drive to Auckland prior to the Jan/Feb 21-day Wrybill birding tour I stopped at Miranda and got myself a New Zealand tick in the shape of a Broad-billed Sandpiper. This rare New Zealand vagrant had chosen to overwinter here. Good fortune continued once the tour began and our first night we found EIGHT North Island Brown Kiwi at one site. This included an adult male and chick feeding together and two birds seen from the van as we left the site. It's the highest number I've ever seen in a night.
A successful Hauraki Gulf pelagic produced at least a dozen NZ Storm Petrels and 40+ Blue Noddy aka Grey Ternlets; a hot and sticky 24 hours at Tiritiri Matangi produced good daytime views of Kokako, Morepork, Takahe, Stichbird, Spotless Crake as well as evening success of two Little Spotted Kiwi feeding together and two Tuatara. Back at Miranda among a flock of Wrybill I re-found the diminutive Broad-billed Sandpiper for our trip list, plus Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Pacific Golden Plover and Black-billed Gull. It was a sloppy day for the Whitianga pelagic but at least it went (I've been on it three times out of a possible nine because of unsuitable weather conditions!). Eleventh hour suspense but we finally connected with Pycroft's Petrel. Roadside birding provided some good stuff and a flooded field became a magnet for Far Eastern Curlew, Glossy Ibis and Cattle Egret. Scanning a Bar-tailed Godwit flock I noticed a white rump and black tip to the tail. Black-tailed or Hudsonian? The bird was fast asleep. We waited and finally it woke up and stretched to show its diagnostic dark underwing. Hudsonian Godwit joined the Wrybill tour list and for me a New Zealand tick. Two new birds for me in less than a week.
We had an incredible encounter with a small pod of Hector's Dolphins on the South Island, which was declared the 'bird of the day' - well, it was a bird watching tour! The tour ended with a highly respectable 158 species. The group of 5 Australians and 3 Brits gelled well and there were lots of laughs, I think partly down to the agreement at the start of the tour that sport and politics were not to be discussed!
The full trip report, photos and check list will be available on the Wrybill website
While I was away leading the Wrybill tour, Jules had a phone call from New Zealand Post who were looking to track me down. It was a bizarre phone call as they mentioned getting my name from the New Zealand Defence Force … thoughts of my possibly being a spy and leading a double life were quashed when they asked for my permission to use one of my photos to create a New Zealand postage stamp! It turns out they had seen my image of Stewart Island's Anzac Day dawn service on the New Zealand Defence Force Facebook page, so now this image is one of a set six stamps commemorating Anzac Day dawn services around the country.
A bird watcher connected to a stamp collection … don't worry, I don't plan on buying an anorak to start train-spotting any time soon.
One of the perks of working as a bird watching guide for premier bird watching companies is the opportunity to purchase discounted optical equipment. I am a huge fan of Swarovski equipment and have a scope and pair 10x42 ELs but thanks to Wrybill and Swarovski I am now the proud owner of a new pair of 10x42 ELs. All I can say is wow! I've taken them out of the box - polished them - and put them back.
Ulva Island guided walks continue to be as popular as ever and even though I know I'm never going to see new species there it still gives me a huge buzz to go, with clients or by myself. Typically the most sought after birds on Ulva Island are Yellowhead and South Island Saddleback but we've also had the occasional day time sighting of Stewart Island Brown Kiwi.
Our house on the hill must be in the territory of a local kiwi family as most evenings we hear them calling and the other night things must have gotten physical as there was a definite scuffle and fighting going on outside. Nonu, our border collie was pretty nervous the next morning going out for a morning pee as he could smell the kiwi scent near to his favourite tree. However he passed his third year of kiwi avoidance training and was delighted to receive a congratulatory sausage and certificate from SIRCET (Stewart Island/Rakiura Community & Environment Trust) in connection with Paws4Conservation.
During April I carried out the 5-minute bird call counts for SIRCET, a non-profit organisation that focuses on ecological restoration through control of pests and weeds.
This is the ninth year that I've carried out these counts. I enjoy it immensely because it strips back birding to its raw form in that I'm not pointing out birds to anyone else or explaining anything about the bird's habits and habitat. I'm working on listening to calls of endemic and native birds and it's just me, alone in the forest. The number of birds this year seems to be down which is not a total surprise as New Zealand as a whole is having one of the heaviest mast years. This means tree/bush/shrubs are producing vast quantities of fruit and berries and the birds can't eat it all. It's a double-edged sword because rats are triggered into breeding if there is plenty of food around and when the fruit disappears the rats turn their attention to eating birdlife. No-one likes to hear the word 'plague' but that's pretty much what will happen so we are getting some extra rat traps for outside the house.
As part of my Chairman duties for the Ulva Island Charitable Trust I check a couple of rat traps on a daily basis at Golden Bay Wharf, which is where most boats depart to go to Ulva Island. We are catching at least one rat a day ...
NEWS JUST IN … the Pink-footed Shearwater that Neil Robertson and myself found on a Stewart Island pelagic in November 2018 has been accepted by the Records Appraisal Committee at OSNZ (The Ornithological Society of New Zealand / Birds New Zealand). It was the first record of this bird at Stewart Island and became the ninth record for New Zealand. Amazingly it was the second record in 2018 - Gazza Melville in Kaikoura saw the first. Maybe it was even the same bird? All previous records have been at Kaikoura, so the one that Neil and I saw was the first outside of Kaikoura!
As I finish up this instalment of Latest News I've just added a Sacred Kingfisher to my garden list - it flew past the window caught in the high winds and I don't think it had much choice in the matter!