This trip was the third New Zealand birding excursion organized by Ross Silcock, a New Zealand native currently residing in Tabor, Iowa. Previous trips went down under in November 1995 and November 1997. Ross developed the itinerary, and Nature Quest, an ecotour agency operating out of Dunedin, N.Z. provided a van with driver and made all travel arrangements in New Zealand. We paid a package amount, $4995, which included round trip airfare from Omaha, transportation in N.Z., boat charters, all lodging and almost all meals. Our only additional expense was for souvenirs, phone calls, bar bills, a few admission fees to tourist activities, and a one day car rental, shared by the group, to get an extra bit of birding the final day. We stayed in a variety of hotels, motels and guest houses, all of them quite comfortable. Evening meals were at local restaurants, usually from a set menu with limited but very adequate choices. Most of the lodgings provided either room service or buffet breakfasts. Lunches were usually bountiful picnics in scenic and/or birdy places.
The participants were:
Ross Silcock, Tabor, Iowa organizer and co-leader
Betty Seddon, New Zealand, Driver and co-leader
Bill Niendorff, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Marjorie Birkmann, Talmage, Nebraska
Ruth Green, Omaha, Nebraska (first week only)
Neva and Kenneth Pruess, Lincoln, Nebraska
The trip was planned to maximize chances of seeing endemic and native birds along with a good number of pelagic birds and migrant shorebirds. Birding New Zealand requires long treks between places, and often we would drive much of a day (through scenery that ranged from pleasant to downright spectacular) to a location that would add one or a few species to the trip list. Three weeks is barely enough time to get to all the key sites. The itinerary generally included several places where we would have a chance to find the more difficult to locate species. Pelagic trips were nicely spaced throughout the three weeks. We left Omaha the afternoon of November 2 and flew via Los Angeles to Auckland, losing November 3 en route and arriving early AM on November 4. We were on the North Island until November 14 traveling from Paihia in the north to Wellington in the south with offshore trips to Tiritiri Matangi and Kapiti islands. After a ferry crossing to the South Island the evening of November 14 we traveled down the east coast, then inland, and reached Invercargill on November 21. From there we flew across to Stewart Island and on November 23, returned to Auckland by air. We did some additional birding south of Auckland on the 24th, left the Auckland airport just before midnight on November 24th and arrived in Omaha about 11 PM, still November 24th. Such are the mysteries of travel across the international date line.
The weather was the typical wet spring variety, but it really didn't rain as much as it seemed to. We generally were lucky and had good weather when we needed it. The South Island had serious flooding in some areas while we were in the vicinity but our routes avoided flood closed areas. We were advised to bring winter coats, and we complained about the extra luggage the first half of the trip and were glad we had it when we got to the Southern Alps and Stewart Island. The group logged 137 species including most of the endemics and a good variety of pelagic species and migrant shorebirds. Personally, I had 120 life birds since I have not birded Europe, and the common introduced Eurasian species were new for me. A list of the birds seen on the 1999 trip will follow the detailed day by day account which begins below. An annotated, composite list of the 149 species seen on the 1995, 1997, and 1999 trips, (coded for difficulty of finding) can be seen on Ross's website along with some videos and still photos of some of the 1999 birds.
In the following accounts I have used common names as given in Heather and Robertson's Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. A different name used by Clements is in parenthesis the first time mentioned. Scientific names are in the list at the end. The first listing of all species is noted and given in capital letters. Heather and Robertson was very adequate for identification. If one has space to carry another book, Harrison's Seabirds was useful on Pelagic trips. Wild South, Birds of New Zealand CD-ROM, which has photos, videos and songs, was very helpful for pre-trip study. Information about the CD-ROM can be found from several vendors (1, 2, 3). The Nature Quest van contained a nice little library of books covering most of New Zealand's natural history.
After a 12 hour overnight flight on Qantas from Los Angeles we were glad to touch down in the rain at Auckland just before dawn. We got through baggage claim and customs quickly and found Betty Seddon, our driver/guide from Nature Quest (who is an old friend of Ross and his family) waiting for us. It was daylight when we got outside and while we waited for Betty to bring the van around we tallied the first birds of the trip, just what everyone predicted, HOUSE SPARROW and (European) STARLING. However, a (Eurasian) BLACKBIRD was soon spotted on the lawn across the parking lot, and a few WELCOME SWALLOWS were flying about and perching on signs in front of the terminal. On the drive into the city we saw SPUR-WINGED PLOVERS (Masked Lapwing) in several fields. We checked into the Imperial Hotel, in downtown Auckland and about 9:30 headed out in light rain toward the west coast. There were RED-BILLED GULLS flying about downtown, and COMMON MYNAS were spotted in trees along the streets.
This was a day for ticking off the common park, garden and farm species, many of them introduced birds, many of which we would see daily. It also was one of the rainiest days of the trip. We spotted a few PIED SHAGS (Cormorants) on a tidal flat near the city and not much else as the rain increased and we crossed over to Muriwai Beach on the Pacific Coast, a scenic coastal area with high eroded black lava cliffs and a spectacular colony of AUSTRALASIAN GANNETS nesting on top of an enormous sea stack and on several other cliff areas. Paved trails lead to good viewing platforms, one of them directly above a large nest area where the birds are neatly spaced out, a peck length apart. There were eggs in the nests and Bill spotted one chick. It was an amazing sight in spite of the wind, rain and generally wretched weather. We also got a good telescope view of a small colony of WHITE-FRONTED TERNS on the cliffs near the Gannets. In the parking lot we had a close up look at the Red-billed Gulls and also some SOUTHERN BLACK-BACKED (Kelp) GULLS.
We found shelter in a small park pavilion and had lunch. CHAFFINCHES and a TUI were calling in the shrubbery; Blackbirds and a SONG THRUSH were out on the lawn in the rain. On our way to Cascade Kauri Park, one of a series of preserves maintained in the Waitakere range west of Auckland, Betty obligingly turned the van around and pulled up a lane so we could have a close look at two PUKEKO (Purple Swamp Hens) in a roadside ditch. Ross and Betty both knew how common and conspicuous these, and the Spur-winged Plovers, would be almost everywhere we went, but they let us savor our first looks at them. Betty didn't stop as we had a very fleeting look at a WHITE-FACED HERON ("you'll see lots of them"). In the park we spotted our first AUSTRALIAN MAGPIE, another bird we would see on a daily basis, and a solitary duck walking in the wet grass, which Ross judged to be an "almost Grey Duck". This species has interbred with Mallards so extensively that "pure" specimens are hard to find except in remote areas. We didn't officially list it until the third week of the trip.
The rain had eased a bit and walking the trail to the park's biggest Kauri tree we heard more Tuis and got a good look at one. Those with good hearing (and I'm not one of them) could hear a GREY WARBLER (Gerygone) but, as is usually the case, we couldn't see it. Driving out, we spotted a flock of small birds on a golf course tee and among the House Sparrows were four beautiful, bright YELLOWHAMMERS and a Chaffinch. Nearby three (Sacred) KINGFISHERS were perched on utility wires, their beautiful blue color showing nicely in spite of the gloomy weather. Betty brought the van to a screeching halt when Ross spotted two CALIFORNIA QUAIL on a side road. The rain started again and a stop at a park visitor center in the Waitakere range produced no new birds. Damp, and feeling our jet lag, we went back to the hotel. I walked around downtown a bit and added ROCK DOVE to the list.
The high winds and high seas had prevented our charter boat, which was to take us to Tiritiri Matangi the next day, from moving down the coast but Betty and Ross got busy on the phone and rounded up another one. At dinner the Gannets and Yellowhammers both received votes for "bird of day" but Ross chose the California Quail because they can be hard to find, and Bill voted for the EASTERN ROSELLAS he had seen flying over when the rest of us were looking the other way.
It was raining lightly as we had breakfast, but by the time we left the hotel bits of blue sky appeared and soon we had our first intermittent New Zealand sunshine. In heavy traffic we slowly made our way across the harbor bridge to the North Shore. Along Rt. 1 north of the city Spur-winged Plovers and Pukeko were everywhere, and no-stop highway birding ("We'll see lots of those") added MALLARD, PARADISE SHELDUCK, BLACK SWAN, and AUSTRALASIAN HARRIER (Swamp Harrier) to the trip list. Out on the Whangaparaoa peninsula we stopped for groceries and spotted a Black-backed Australian Magpie in a field behind the parking lot. Most of the Magpies we saw during the trip were the white-backed subspecies. We met our charter at a large marina near the end of the peninsula where several CASPIAN TERNS were seen among the usual crowd of larids. We had a fairly smooth crossing to Tiritiri Matangi Island, about a half hour trip, and ticked off FLUTTERING SHEARWATER on the way.
Tiritiri is one of the world's special places. After our 20 hours on this island sanctuary we realized how worried Betty and Ross were that the bad weather and high seas would keep us on the mainland. Nowhere else on the trip were so many of the native and endemic birds so easily seen. Several were seen only on Tiritiri. The island, about three miles by one mile, rises several hundred feet above the sea. It was extensively farmed for over a hundred years, largely deforested and occupied by rats, cats, dogs and other mammalian predators. After farming leases expired in the early 1980s the Department of Conservation (DOC) took over management of the island. The lighthouse, which had guarded the entrance to the Auckland Harbor since 1864, had been automated, and Ray Walter, the last lighthouse keeper, became resident conservation ranger. He retrained in horticulture and island management and with his wife, Barbara, oversees the ongoing reforestation of the island. Gradually, as predator elimination and forest habitat restoration progresses, various endangered species are being translocated to the island. Tiritiri remains an "open" preserve; access to most other predator-free and conservation preserve islands requires permits, and many are totally closed to visitors. But Tiritiri is open to the public. We learned (not to our disappointment) that a large group of school children were scheduled to come out on this day but had canceled due to the iffy weather.
The boat arrived at a long dock, and Ray brought out a trolley for our baggage, which went up the hill in his truck while we hiked. At the trail head, the welcome committee, a pair of TAKAHE, were ambling about tamely in the grass. Takahe were introduced in 1991 and 1992. By this date there were 17 on the island, all color-banded, named and closely monitored, but living free. Eggs from the present nesting season were due to hatch any day now. A short way up the road, Brown Teal can often be seen on a small pond, but it was quite duckless this morning. In the shrubbery by the pond, GREY FANTAILS, wonderful little birds, were flipping about, spreading their tails. A Gray Warbler was singing, and just up the path a pair of BROWN QUAIL, an Australian introduction, were pecking around in the grass.
Leaving the road, and taking a trail through the woods up to the lighthouse area, we were surrounded by bird calls. SADDLEBACKS, the first species relocated to the island, were all over and conspicuous. WHITEHEADS, brought here from Little Barrier Island in 1989 and 1990 were also numerous and noisy but harder to get a look at. RED-CROWNED (Red-Fronted) PARAKEETS, first reintroduced in 1973, flew over at intervals. These birds were probably here before the island was cleared of forest but they were gone by the early 20th century. Tuis and BELLBIRDS called continuously. Both were easier to see than the Whiteheads. Just before we rounded the crest of the island, and got a splendid view of the beautiful white lighthouse, we heard a KOKAKO calling some distance away. These are the most recent translocation, six birds brought here in 1997 and 1998.
We settled into the bunkhouse (full kitchen facilities and equipment provided, showers, four bedrooms with bunk beds -- bring your own food and bedding) located just down the hill from the lighthouse and the Walters' residence, just past the little fenced area marking the grave of "Mr. Blue" the first Takahe brought to Tititiri. After a quick lunch we headed out for the trails, first enjoying a good look at Eastern Rosellas in the pines behind the building. Another pair of Takahe can usually be found near the lighthouse, and since Pukeko are everywhere it's easy to compare the chunky, huge-billed, flightless, endangered species with its more slender, agile, dirt common, cousin. A pair of Paradise Shelducks were also ambling about and we found NEW ZEALAND (Australasian) PIPIT in the large grassy field below the lighthouse. At the north end of the island, a well developed trail, with boardwalk sections, leads through the densest forest, a remnant of the original vegetation. We listened to Tui and Bellbird calls and tried to tell them apart. The Tuis throw in a lot of grunts, whistles and wheezes but the Bellbirds mostly produce clear ringing notes. As we stopped along the boardwalk to listen there was a movement just off the trail and there, about four feet away, stood a little NEW ZEALAND ROBIN, full of curiosity. It hopped up on a bench and watched us, inching closer. I thought it might perch on my knee.
We heard the hum of a bee swarm passing over and soon spotted a feral bee colony with a large open comb on a tree snag. We had been hearing STITCHBIRD calls, and there were several in this area. It took some doing but we all got a look at a female and finally the male, a beautiful brightly colored bird. We wondered if they feed on the honey. Unlike Bellbirds and Tuis, the other two N.Z. Meliphagids (Honeyeaters), Stitchbirds did not adapt to human settlement. By 1885 they survived only on Little Barrier Island. They have been translocated to several other islands but generally have not done well. The Tiritiri birds arrived in 1985 and they are being helped by supplemental nectar feedings. A little further on we passed one of the feeding stations, a nectar bottle within a wire cage entered from below. A Bellbird was utilizing it. Nest boxes are also located throughout the wooded areas. These are also used by the Saddlebacks and, we noted, the bees.
The trail goes down through a gully filled with the large native flax plants commonly found along all the coasts and comes out at a rocky beach bordered by cliffs covered with enormous Pohutukawa trees, survivors of the original forest. They were covered with clusters of waxy white buds ready to burst into red flowers by December. Pied Shags and VARIABLE OYSTERCATCHERS were on the beach and the offshore rocks. The oystercatchers here were black phase and looked very much like the North American Black Oystercatcher. We worked our way back to the boat landing area and came to a group of nest boxes -- small rock cairns with a removable lids. Upon lifting the lid and pressing your face down to the plexiglass cover you can dimly see the baby BLUE (Little) PENGUINS within. Having no sense of smell I was able to do this nicely and observe the penguins, one or two, in each box. One box had either a very fully grown one or an adult present. Everybody else was repelled by the odor and took only a quick look in one or two boxes.
By the landing area, Takahe were still there, wandering about, pulling up grass, but the pond remained teal-free. Ray came down the road on a forklift tractor and discussed teal conservation saying they should be around somewhere, but they are nocturnal feeders and hide in the vegetation most of the day. Back up the trail through the woods we heard the Kokako call again, quite close, and then Ross spotted them. A pair were at about eye level, fifteen feet or so off the trail, climbing around in the tree branches, pulling off leaves and letting us get a good look. We could see their blue wattles. A little further along, a New Zealand Robin, with a beak full of caterpillars, hopped across the trail, and, making no attempt to hide its nest location, flew up to a snag and fed the babies. One begins to understand why these trustingly tame birds have had trouble surviving the invasion of Homo sapiens and other mammals.
After we patronized the gift shop near the lighthouse and inspected the material Barbara uses in her programs for school kids we decided that if we walked fast we had time before dark to check out another teal pond on the other side of the island, but Ray came along and took us all down in his ancient Toyota truck. There were Takahe and Pukeko all along the grassy strip "road", and flocks of Red-crowned Parakeets were flying about. Ross and Betty thought that Parakeets and also Brown Quail were much more numerous on Tiritiri than they were two years ago. A light rain began, and there were no teal visible at the pond, but from midway down the cliffs we had a spectacular view of Fisherman's cove on the east side of the island.
Back at the bunkhouse we had dinner, compliments of chief chef Betty, and when it was fully dark we put red cellophane over our torches (a.k.a. flashlights) and headed out to listen for Kiwis. Little Spotted Kiwis, now absent from mainland N.Z. maintain a stable population on Kapiti Island. Since the mid 1980s some have been translocated to other islands. The Tiritiri birds, now numbering about 15, were introduced in 1993 and 1994. They are breeding successfully, and they tend to hang out in the horticultural nursery area near the lighthouse and along the nearby trails at the south end of the Island. A female LITTLE SPOTTED KIWI was calling repeatedly in the nursery area, and later a male gave his much higher pitched call, but cautious searches with the torches failed to locate them. About 9:45 Ross, Bill and I circled around the far side of the nursery on a narrow side path and spotted movement in the long grass just above the trail. And then to my utter delight, in the light of the torches, a rotund little Kiwi shape jumped down from the raised edge of the path, scurried across and disappeared; one of the most exciting three or four seconds in my birding experience. The rest of the group trooped around to the path, and we heard a whole chorus of calls down the hillside but we didn't get another sighting. We retired to the bunkhouse but Bill went out again to listen for Morepork (no luck). He did hear more Kiwis along the forest trails. The day was so exciting we forgot to vote on Bird of the Day. At dinner time I would have been torn between the Robins, the Stitchbirds and the Kokakos, but the Kiwi topped my list.
After breakfast we got to work packing and cleaning up the bunkhouse. We were instructed to take garbage to the compost heap, which turned out to be some bins out back. As soon as a lid was lifted, releasing a swarm of fruit flies and assorted small insects, a fearless Fantail swooped out of the nearby trees seeking its breakfast. I had great fun lifting the lids at intervals to feed the Fantail who seemed to be familiar with this particular food source.
Bill and I trekked down to the landing pond ahead of the rest of the gang, hoping to sneak up on a teal (none there). Everyone but me could hear the Grey Warbler and several actually saw it. Bill and Ross also heard a SPOTLESS CRAKE calling. A catamaran arrived at the dock bringing a new bunch of visitors. After Ray finished transferring luggage back and forth he offered to take us over to the east side teal ponds again. And this time a female BROWN TEAL was present on the lower pond. Ray tossed stale bread out and lured her in quite close for photo ops. Brown Teal were brought to Tiritiri in 1987, and a few pairs continue to occupy the small ponds which have been constructed by scooping out and damming gullies. Gulls prey heavily on the nests, and the population remains small. Ray drove up to an open grassy area on the northeast crest of the island where an Australasian Harrier was hunting over an open grassy area and SKYLARKS were displaying, singing their beautiful flight songs. Large flocks of Parakeets were busy in the Pohutukawa trees along the cliff edges.
Back at the landing I finally saw the Grey Warbler out in the open, singing close enough so I thought I could hear it. A lot of Fantails (I love 'em) were about, and we all had a fine look at colorful little SILVEREYES. The Spotless Crake continued to remain invisible. After a visit to Tiritiri those who keep lists must decide how "countable" some of these birds are. Of the nine translocated species, Saddlebacks, Whiteheads, Robins and Red-crowned Parakeets were probably on the island before it was deforested. The present populations have been here for some time and seem well established. The Brown Teal population is small, but they have been breeding here for about twelve years. The Kiwis are more recent but they have been breeding since the first introduction. The Stitchbirds still need supplemental feeding, and the Kokakos, although nesting, are a very recent introduction. If I ever get my world list to the ABA reporting threshold I would not include the Stitchbird and the Tiritiri Kokako and I'd have to think about the Little Spotted Kiwi. Our group agreed that for personal lists one makes a personal decision about what to include.
About 10 A.M. our boat arrived, the one that was supposed to come down the coast to bring us over yesterday. We went out to sea in the Hauraki gulf, a few miles beyond Tiritiri, getting a nice view of the lighthouse end of the island, and also a sighting of Little Barrier Island, mistily rising up off in the distance. We quickly spotted Fluttering Shearwaters, SOOTY SHEARWATERS, BULLER'S SHEARWATERS and FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATERS. While I was trying to get all these common shearwaters sorted out Ross spotted a BLACK PETREL, an uncommon endemic breeding only on Little Barrier and Great Barrier. It's a big petrel, as large as the shearwaters. A POMARINE SKUA (Jaeger) cruised by, and we saw several Blue Penguins bobbing about on the water, looking rather duck-like.
As we headed back to the mainland marina we observed one of the great sporting events currently going on in New Zealand. Preliminary elimination races to choose the challenger for the America's Cup competition were being held in the Hauraki Gulf whenever weather permitted. Several pairs of beautiful tall sails could be seen and we went over for a closer look, inadvertently getting in the actual race course. A harbor police vessel full of gendarmes came roaring out to chase us off and we meekly headed for the docks but we did get a fine view of Dennis Conner's boat battling a French contender.
We crammed all the luggage into the van and headed north for a picnic lunch in a beachfront park at the Waiwera Estuary. A brief search across the beach turned up a pair of NEW ZEALAND (Red-Breasted) DOTTEREL, beautiful little plovers, in breeding plumage. Several White-faced Herons were around and just before we were ready to leave a (Pacific) REEF HERON, dark phase as they all are in N.Z., turned up. This was the only one we saw the whole trip.
We continued on through the lovely green, hilly, Northland district stopping at Waipu Estuary, a nesting area for Fairy Tern, which in New Zealand breeds on only a few North Island sandspits. On the broad sand flats there were more New Zealand Dotterel, flocks of BAR-TAILED GODWITS and Variable Oystercatchers, both black and pied color phases, but we could only find White-fronted Terns. It was getting late, so we decided to try again the next day on our way back south. A large flock of turkeys near the parking area seemed to be too close to a farm to be countable as Wild Turkey. As we continued north the countryside became more rugged, a mixture of forest tracts and green sheep and cattle pastures. The Northland was all forest but was extensively cleared by the early settlers who then discovered that the soil was very poor for growing anything except grass and trees. Rows of huge Kauri stumps are often seen, but Betty also pointed out many stands of young Kauri trees. Just before dark we reached Paihia, a pretty harbor town on the Bay of Islands, settled into our motel and had dinner.
Then we went out to a lookout point on Mt Bledisloe, in the Waitangi forest north of the city and played Kiwi tapes. NORTH ISLAND BROWN KIWIS, both male and female, were noisy in the wooded and brushy area below the cliff but we could not get a sighting of one. Next we tried a MOREPORK call and one answered immediately from the trees behind the parking lot. It continued giving its distinctive "morepork" call but torch searches failed to spot the bird. We gave up and headed back to bed. Opinions were diverse again on bird of the day with votes for Brown Teal, Blue Penguins on the water and the Fantail at the compost bins. Ross, who usually picks the most difficult to find bird, chose Black Petrel, and Bill voted for the America's Cup sailboats.
We awoke to rain and lots of wind. From the balcony of our room I spotted a pair of "hard to find" California Quail pecking about in a grassy verge at the end of the parking lot. While downing a big breakfast we discussed weather and options, eventually deciding to cancel a boat trip scheduled for the morning. Instead we headed out to the Waitangi Reserve Treaty House, one of New Zealand's major historical sites. On the way we passed a great sight: a golf course inundated by Eastern Rosellas, out in the drizzle, walking around, feeding(?) on the ground. There were at least 20 of them. These very colorful parakeets are usually seen up in the treetops or flying overhead.
The treaty house museum features an audiovisual presentation of the events leading up to the historic treaty signed here by the Maori and the British in 1840. We walked about the grounds in precipitation varying from drizzle to downpour and enjoyed seeing Silvereyes, Tuis and Chaffinches along with the restored British resident's house, a Maori meeting house and an enormous war canoe, both constructed in 1940 for the treaty centennial. The Maori people and the New Zealand government continue to have conflicting views about how the British honored the treaty.
With the weather improving a bit, we headed out northwest of town to a small farm lake where about 40 Black Swans were swimming and also flying, exhibiting their showy white wing patches. A pair of GREY TEAL were in a backwater, and we also logged our first LITTLE SHAG (Little Pied Cormorant) of the trip. Traveling south through the countryside we saw WILD TURKEY we considered "wild" enough to count and also spotted a few PEAFOWL. Both of these introduced species continued to be seen occasionally in rural parts of the North Island. The sun was reappearing by the time we found a waterfront park in Whangarei and had lunch, entertained by Red-billed Gulls. They were mostly juveniles (which have black bills), and there was one whom we named "Napoleon" who was determined to keep everybody else back at least six feet from a food source (our sandwiches).
Mid-afternoon, as we drove along the Waipu Road, Bill caught a glimpse of what looked like a white heron flying off to the north. Any white Ardeid in N.Z. is worth checking out so we reversed course and soon, in a cow pasture, located the bird, which turned out to be a CATTLE EGRET in breeding plumage. Cattle Egrets are a common winter migrant but most are gone by November. Waipu is a typical New Zealand tidal estuary with an immense area of beautiful sand flats. The tide was low, and we walked far out enjoying the birds and the lovely afternoon. Soon after we arrived, two FAIRY TERNS came by, hovering, diving and putting on a good show. They resemble our North American Least Tern. Less than a dozen pairs of the New Zealand subspecies breed in the Northland. There seemed to be more godwits than yesterday, and we tried unsuccessfully to find a Black-Tailed Godwit among the Bar-tails. We added (Ruddy) TURNSTONE and LESSER (Red) KNOT to the trip list.
After swinging inland though some of the highest hills on route (splendid green scenery which Ken compared to Costa Rica) we reached Wenderholm park on the coast, one of the places where Kookaburra can be found. Ross's previous trips had failed to find any, and this one didn't break the record but we did get our first good look at the huge NEW ZEALAND PIGEON, a spectacular bird, about twice the size of a Rock Dove. We had afternoon tea in the picnic area and enjoyed the Chaffinches and added (European) GOLDFINCH to the list. Then a SHINING CUCKOO was heard, and we got excited, staged a diverting spectacle for the non birders using the park, and finally managed to spot the pretty little green thing in the top of a large tree. At dinner, back at the Imperial Hotel in Auckland, the Rosellas on the golf course and the Shining Cuckoo got votes for Bird of day. I chose the Fairy Terns because I saw them first. Ken picked "Napoleon", the gull.
About an hour's drive south of Auckland, near the hot springs of Miranda on the shallow southeast corner of the Firth of Thames, extensive mud flats provide foraging areas for thousands of migrant and overwintering shorebirds. At high tide the birds crowd onto the shell banks formed by billions of mollusk shells washed onto the shores. We arrived at the "Stilt Pond", a shallow pool between the road and the shell beaches, shortly after high tide and found PIED (White-headed) STILTS everywhere along with enormous flocks of Bar-tailed Godwits and Lesser Knots. This is one of the great shorebird places of the world, and another Nature Quest group (people from England - we would cross paths with them the entire trip) and several other small clusters of birders were working the area. We spent the morning scoping the masses of birds, looking over the smaller clusters around the edges of the big Godwit/Knot flocks. We picked out one PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVER, several Ruddy Turnstones and a few SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS. Small groups of WRYBILLS could be found in around the edges of the pond. By November most of the breeding Wrybills have moved to the South Island rivers but a few remain at Miranda. We were close enough to see their uniquely curved bills. BANDED (Double-banded) DOTTEREL were seen in the "cheniers", the ranks of old shell beaches above the shoreline, where they nest. Skylarks and Chaffinches and Goldfinches were singing everywhere. Most of the gulls here were BLACK-BILLED GULLS. There were plenty of Variable Oystercatchers but also several flocks of PIED (South Island) OYSTERCATCHERS, distinguished by the white tab in front of the wings.
While we were working over the pond and adjacent shell bank areas three large white birds flew into the top of a small tree on the other side of the road. They were ROYAL SPOONBILLS, spectacular creatures. As we walked back to our van we caught a quick glimpse of a BANDED (Buff-banded) RAIL sneaking, in typical rail fashion, across the mud flat between two mangrove clumps. We had been looking and listening for this rail at various mangrove areas along the coast for the past two days. We drove further down the road, passing close to the Spoonbills, who were still standing in the top of the tree, looking magnificent, and we spotted several BLACK SHAGS (Great Cormorant) perched on poles on the other side of the field. More beaches and shell banks further along were crowded with more of the same birds, now beginning to move out onto the exposed tidal flats. Out on a sand spit we found one LITTLE TERN, (another Least Tern look-alike), in non-breeding plumage at this time of year.
We made a grocery stop at Kaiaua, a tiny coastal town and went back to the Miranda Trust headquarters and nature center where a large busload of tourists were lunching in the main meeting room and hearing a program about the importance of preserving bird habitats. We adjourned to the courtyard in the dormitory area at back and agreed that an overnight stay here, which would allow working the area at two high tides, would be a good addition to future trip itineraries. In the morning as we were driving in, Ross had spotted a ROOK near Miranda but because of tidal times we had not bothered to stop. This turned out to be the trip's only Rook. After lunch we checked out a former colony site and found only a few battered unused nests. Fields nearby held a gathering of Magpies, about 30 of them.
We now headed east across the Hauraki Plains -- the first flat country we had seen -- an extensive area of peat bogs and dairy farms extending inland from the south end of the Firth of Thames. After passing through Pipiroa (Ross Silcock's birthplace) and, crossing the Waihou River, where Captain Cook anchored to explore inland, we drove up a narrow winding road across the scenic Coromandel Mountains through extensive stands of huge tree ferns, Kauri trees and lone tall Ratas, which start as an epiphyte vine and grow into an enormous tree bearing large brushy red flowers. Late afternoon we arrived at the lovely little town of Whitianga, on Mercury Bay. We had splendid accommodations, right on the beautiful curving beach. After wine and snacks in the garden we adjourned down the beach road (noting with satisfaction that Banded Dotterel nesting areas in the public park were roped off) for dinner at "On the Rocks" restaurant where Royal Spoonbill was unanimous choice for bird of the day. It's a tough life but somebody has to do it and it might as well be us.
It was a cloudy morning with light rain but not much wind, so after a huge room service breakfast we met Captain John Neighbors and Andy Kerr at the marina, boarded Infiniti, a comfortable cabin cruiser, and headed out into Mercury Bay (named by Captain Cook who observed the transit of Mercury while anchored here in 1769). The rain ceased as we got a short way out. The many small islands and sea stacks that dot the bay were beautiful even under the overcast sky. We spotted Gannets and Fluttering Shearwaters close in. After we passed an island bisected by a spectacular high arch the bird numbers increased with CAPE PIGEONS (Petrels) and a few COMMON DIVING PETRELS joining the shearwaters following the boat. The Fluttering Shearwaters began to drop out replaced by Sooty, Buller's and Flesh-footed as we got further out. At Red Mercury Island (a nature preserve posted with "No Landing" signs) we anchored in a bay and enjoyed a spot of tea while watching the Pied Shags nesting in the trees along the shore. There was one Little Shag, the white-faced color phase. Saddlebacks, which have been translocated here, could be heard on the Island. By 1910 nearby Hen Island held the only surviving population of the North Island Saddleback Subspecies.
We headed out from the island and threw over a burley bag which produced an oily slick behind the boat. Andy went to work chopping up fish for chum as shearwaters began to appear. They were mostly Flesh-footed and we had wonderful close looks at them as about 50 or so gathered about the boat. A few Sooty Shearwaters came; a bit smaller, daintier jizz, darker bill and feet than the Flesh-footed. A few Black-backed Gulls (who were unpopular with the shearwaters) joined in, but Gannets cruising by stayed out of the feeding frenzy. Finally we saw several petrels which were presumed to be PYCROFT'S PETREL, which nests on Red Mercury. However they didn't come in close enough to rule out the very similar COOK'S PETREL (which nests further north and generally is seen further offshore than this vicinity). In the middle of all the bird excitement at large blue shadow attacked the burley bag which was just below the water surface at the back of the boat. Andy leaned down, grabbed its tail and hauled up a four foot Blue Shark which had some nasty big gashes on its back, possibly from being in a net. Later a larger, healthier one, six feet long at least, went after the burley. Andy left that one alone.
It was still drizzling back in town. We picked up our lunch at the gourmet sandwich shop and then headed back across the mountains. About 30 Km out of Whitianga the van got temperamental about shifting gears and soon froze up entirely. Fortunately it did this right by an orchard with a tourist tea room so we had a place to pull off the road (hard to find in the mountains) and a telephone available. Betty and Ross got busy arranging a rescue. The rest of us looked at Blackbirds and Chaffinches, dug into the van library, or had naps. (I got out my needlepoint which I keep handy for emergencies.) After about an hour and a half we heard Shining Cuckoo calls, and there were two of them in a nearly leafless tree by the van giving us a much better look than we had at Wenderholm two days earlier. Soon after that a school bus type vehicle arrived from Tairua, the next town up the road. We shifted all the luggage, and Betty stayed with the van until a tow truck arrived for it. The rest of us waited at the Tairua Backpacker (one of the many such low cost hostels scattered throughout New Zealand) until she caught up with us and finally, after more phone calls, the bus headed out about 5 PM to take us to Rotorua, several hours behind schedule.
We retraced yesterday's route across the Coromandel range and headed south along the west side of the mountains though lush green farm country, mostly pastures, many of them separated by neatly trimmed hedge fences, and occupied by dairy cattle, sheep, Spur-winged Plovers, Pukekos, Mallards, Paradise Shelducks, Harriers and Magpies. It got foggy and rainy after we crossed the wooded Mamaku plateau and dropped down into Rotorua. Ross's parents and a niece were waiting for us at our motel. They joined us for a late dinner where the masses of shearwaters and the Shining Cuckoos received most of the Bird of the Day votes. Bill voted for the big rescue bus.
Today was programmed as a mostly free day to do tourist things and rest up with a bit of birding on the side. Ken, who was on this trip as a nonbirding spouse, toting along two fly rods (and dutifully carrying binoculars and looking at the larger, easy to see birds), had booked a fishing guide for this day, and he went off early to pursue the famous New Zealand trout. Betty got busy arranging for a rental van to take us onward, and although it was raining and windy the rest of us borrowed Dad Silcock's car and went out to parks along the shore of Lake Rotorua to look for birds. We found lots of NEW ZEALAND SCAUP and a nesting colony of LITTLE BLACK SHAGS (Cormorants). The Black Swans had fuzzy brown cygnets, and a Red-billed Gull colony contained chicks of all sizes, some of almost ready to fly. We failed to find Dabchicks, which are usually seen here. The lake was very rough.
We all went off our own way for the rest of day: doing laundry, exploring the tourist attractions and shops and checking our E-mail at a coin in the slot for Internet access place (daughter had thoughtfully sent me the score of Nebraska's football game). Late in the afternoon Ross, Bill, Marjorie and I drove out to the scenic lakes in the forest park south east the city. It had stopped raining but was still cloudy, and Blue Lake (Tikitapu) was not displaying its characteristic color. It did have a pair of easily seen NEW ZEALAND DABCHICKS (Grebes) . At nearby Lake Okareka we added AUSTRALIAN COOT to the trip list. Ken had not returned by our announced dinner time, but he showed up at the restaurant half an hour later, quite happy. In spite of rain and high muddy streams he had caught six or seven decent-sized trout. If we took a vote on bird of the day I have no record of it. I'll choose the Dabchicks. Ken was not at all dismayed about missing his best chance to see that species.
The rain we had heard most of the night stopped by early AM. We discovered that the Budget Rental van was smaller than our disabled Nature Quest Van, and we had a tough time getting everything stowed. Ken shared the back seat with several of the suitcases. Just after daylight we headed southwest through steeply rolling countryside bound for Pureora Forest. The roadsides were bordered by masses of bright yellow flowering shrubbery. This was the notorious broome, an introduced European woody legume, which has taken over the countryside in much of the North Island and almost all of the South Island. It's a terrible weed, but in November, when it is in full flower, it's also quite beautiful. Further south we would see hills, river banks and whole mountainsides covered with brilliant yellow. Bill remarked one day as we drove through the lovely green sheep pastures and hills of blooming broome that one can view the New Zealand landscape as either exceptionally lovely countryside or as an ecological disaster. That summed it up nicely.
We spotted our first PHEASANT (Ring-necked Pheasant) for the trip as we drove through farming country. As we approached the forest, the terrain turned to rocky hills with many plantations of planted pines, clear cut in places, and we began to dodge logging trucks. Pureora, one of the first N.Z. forest preserves is an ancient lowland Podocarp rainforest, quite tropical in nature with huge emergent trees: Rimu, Miro, Totara, Matai, Kahikatea. Tree ferns, smaller ferns and epiphytes are abundant. We stopped at the forest preserve headquarters and picked up one of the employees who would guide us around. At the parking lot we spotted a DUNNOCK pecking about under some shrubbery. Down a side road at an open clearing, with a good view of the forest canopy, we found a camper van with an English couple; she still in bed and he out with his spotting scope. The resident Kokako (very countable here) was putting on its usual early AM show, perching up high, singing its loud ringing notes, and then gliding down from the tree tops. We watched it do an exceptionally long glide across the clearing. When we came by this spot later it was back up on top and this time it performed its typical steep swan dive down to a lower level. The long-tailed psittacids in the treetops and flying about were YELLOW-CROWNED (Yellow-fronted) PARAKEETS and the big chunky ones were our first KAKA.
As we drove to the tower parking lot, the people in the front of the van got a glimpse of a LONG-TAILED CUCKOO flying across the road. We all piled out but failed to locate it again. Pureora's 40 foot wooden forest tower extends above the understory of tree ferns and other low vegetation and gives an open view of the emergent canopy trees some of which are more than 100 feet tall. From the tower we had close looks at Yellow-Crowned Parakeets, New Zealand Pigeons, New Zealand Robins and TOMTITS. About 10 AM we drove to a campground area on the edge of forest and had brunch, enjoying a lovely view of the countryside while watching unsuccessfully for a New Zealand Falcon which is occasionally seen in this area. We walked around a forest trail looking for RIFLEMAN. They were heard but not by me. Their very high pitched song is beyond the hearing range of many people. Nobody saw one here.
A gravel link road on the south side of the forest, through very rugged green hills dotted with multitudes of sheep, took us to highway 32 and a scenic overlook high above Lake Taupo and the Tongariro River delta. Down at the bay by the marshes at the south corner of the lake we saw 100 plus Black Swans, Grey Teal, New Zealand Scaup, three cormorant species (Black, Little and Little Black) a pair of Dabchicks and one Royal Spoonbill. Over by the marsh, we played Marsh Crake and Spotless Crake tapes with no response but then we heard a FERNBIRD. This individual had not read the books which describe it as secretive and unlikely to stay in view. It climbed up a cattail, foot over foot, about 15 feet away from us and put on a terrific show, spreading its strange spiky tail and complaining loudly about our presence. Then it did the spraddled out, feet on two reeds pose, exactly as pictured on plate 68 of Heather and Robertson. What a bird! Of course the cameras were all back in the van.
We continued southwest through volcanic country, where on a clear day one can enjoy a view of three volcanic peaks, all of which were cloud capped today. We did see steam from a hot springs area on the lower slopes of Mt. Tongariro. At the high bridge over the Mangawhero River we stopped to scan for Blue Ducks but found none. Late afternoon we reached the little town of Ohakune and checked into the Alpine motel which offered a nice view of the clouds covering Mt. Ruapehu, the highest volcano, which last erupted in 1995-1996 (ruining the ski season).
After our dinner of rack of lamb, Kerry Oates, who is doing Kiwi research in a forest area west of Ohakune and conducting nocturnal Kiwi viewing treks, met us, and we followed his SUV out of town. He picked up a group of German tourists at a B&B and led us onto a gravel road which dwindled to a muddy track as we got deep into the forest. We parked in a clearing somewhere (it was pitch dark and raining lightly by now) and had tea served from the back of Kerry's vehicle while he talked about Kiwis. About 130 to 150 of them occupy the area and several are wearing radio transmitters. The weather was not promising for finding them, but we all trekked along a muddy vehicle track using our torches sparingly and soon picked up 60 per minute beeps from a wired Kiwi. This meant it was foraging about. The transmitter beeps 30 per minute when the bird is still and switches to 90 per minute if it has not moved for 12 hours (which means it's probably dead). Kerry thought the bird was close but he couldn't spot it. We scrambled into the jungle-like forest and viewed a Kiwi burrow and then turned off all the flashlights and stood in the chilly rain in the absolute pitch dark while Kerry did North Island Brown Kiwi calls using a duck call-like gadget. There were no replies so we trekked back down the muddy path. The transmitting bird seemed to have moved away, but Kerry tried the calls again, and finally a female called, close by. Kerry said he glimpsed it but no one else did. We found our way back to the vehicles and began the long, wet, dark, drive back to town. Ken voiced his opinion that the whole evening was a snipe hunt. The Fernbird was unanimous choice for bird of the day.
We began the day with a duck hunt, driving into the Manganuiateao River valley on increasingly narrow, wandering, cliff hanging roads past pastures where the sheep develop short legs on the uphill side. At a number of stops, we scanned for ducks, and finally, on our way back out, at an overlook high above a scenic bend in the river, we found a family of BLUE DUCKS, a pair and four young, feeding along a gravel bar. With the scopes, we all had a good look at them.
The weather turned rainy, and we headed south via scenic route 4 to Wanganui. South of the city we went over to the coast at Koitiata on the Turakina River estuary, mainly to look for Black-fronted Dotterel, a recent colonizer from Australia. It was very windy and raining at times when we reached the estuary. The tide was high, and the surf was booming and roaring across the outer bank. We wondered if we would be able to get out to Kapiti Island tomorrow. Here we could barely stand up to see the few birds around, but we did add AUSTRALASIAN SHOVELER to the trip list. After looking over the only area we could reach with the van we drove back to a picnic area. Betty and Marjorie hunkered down to start lunch while the rest of us sloshed out through the rain-soaked dunes and marsh to the estuary, crossing one muddy area by tightrope walking some driftwood logs. A few Pied Stilts came in but no Dotterels. Heading back, Ken, Bill and Ross had crossed the logs, and I was teetering half way across when Ross yelled "There goes one!" It flew across to the waters edge behind me, and I didn't see it. I managed to reverse, and we went back to the shore but could not find it.
Back at the parking area we found Ken, who had stayed behind, gloating because a BLACK-FRONTED DOTTEREL had flown in and waded about in a large puddle near the van while I was out on the shore. (He loves it when he sees a bird before I do.) We sheltered out of the wind behind the rest room building and ate lunch, and then Ross and I slogged back out to look for the stupid bird again. We tried to bypass the big balancing act mudhole and instead got our feet wet to mid-calf level. The tide had turned, and there were oystercatchers, stilts, mallards, gulls and godwits but no dotterels. Then we saw Bill waving us back to the van. The bird had come to the puddle again, and I finally got to see the silly thing. It's a gorgeous little plover with a wide V-shaped black chest band, a red eye and a bright red beak. Obviously it is attracted to big white vans with black and orange markings.
We drove southward on the flat coastal plains, in and out of heavy showers, crossing rivers that were becoming very swollen and roily. We settled into our motel in Paraparaumu beach and went out in the rain to dinner at the Briar Patch, a down-under style Cajun restaurant where we ate blackened grouper and Mississippi mud cake. The wind had died down, and it seemed to be clearing as we came out. There was a nice sunset and a good view of Kapiti Island five miles offshore. Bird of the day votes were split evenly between Blue Duck and Black-fronted Dotterel.
There were patches of blue sky this morning, and we had an unusual boat trip out to Kapiti Island. After having our packs and the "Chilly Bin" containing our lunches inspected for rats, we boarded our cruiser via a drop down metal gangplank -- while it was sitting on its boat trailer in the marina parking lot. Then a huge tractor towed the boat across the beach and backed it into the water. When the vessel was out beyond the breakers the captain revved up the motors, backed off the trailer ("Houston-we have separation"), turned around and roared off to Kapiti. This is a big island, 10 KM long, rising steeply to a 1500 ft peak. It was a Maori stronghold and later a whaling ship base. There was little clearing for agricultural use, and much of the island is heavily wooded. It's been a protected preserve since 1897, permits are required for landing, and there's a maximum of 50 visitors allowed daily. Predator removal continues: 22,500 Australian Possums (which destroy both vegetation and nests) have been trapped in recent years, and the island was declared rat free in January 1999. Although we would not see them on a day visit, this is the stronghold for Little Spotted Kiwi, with an estimated 1500 birds here. Native forest birds have thrived, and several species have been translocated here.
Our boat pulled close to a rocky beach and dropped the gangplank for us. We hiked up a track to an open air visitor center where the island manager gave us a short introductory talk while we were distracted by clusters of New Zealand Pigeons and a pipit on the lawn, WEKA wandering in and out of the bushes, Grey Warblers singing in the bushes, and a very inquisitive pair of Kaka walking around our feet. Only a small portion of the island is open to visitors, but from the visitor center a number of trails head off into the forest and up the peak. Betty and Marjorie opted to stay with the lunch, guarding it from Wekas, since these large, heavy billed rails are notorious for getting into food packs and unattended gear. In a light rain, the rest of use headed up into the woods, where Tuis and Bellbirds were in full voice. Whiteheads and Saddlebacks could be heard but were hard to see. New Zealand Robins were easily seen. There were several flocks of Red-Crowned Parakeets in the canopy. We clambered up a very steep, wet, muddy trail. Ross thought he could find a tree where the 1995 trip group had flushed out a Morepork but things looked different four years later. Eventually we noted that we had climbed above the "bird line". The forest birds stay in lower elevations. There are a few Kokako in the upper regions but it's a big island, and this is not the place to look for them. We slipped and slid back down to the visitor center. Eating lunch was difficult. In spite of the "Do not feed the birds" sign, the delinquent pair of Kaka swoop down as soon as any food appears. They land on your shoulder, walk down your arm and take a bite out of your sandwich. These are big parrots, with ferocious bills and this can be a bit disconcerting.
We went off on a protracted search for a Long-billed Cuckoo, which had been calling all morning in back of the manager's residence but we couldn't locate it. A pretty little Tomtit put on a show for us. We walked along the rocky beach, full of tangled driftwood, past a small nesting colony of Black-backed gulls. Our boat arrived about 2:30 and headed back to shore, where the tractor and trailer awaited in the surf. We rammed right up into the trailer and were towed out onto the beach. Kapiti was a backup site on the itinerary. It's a scenic and interesting island and provides close up looks at Weka, Kaka and pigeons, but most of the birds here can be seen more easily on Tiritiri Matangi.
Now we had an hour drive to the ferry dock in Wellington, a very pretty city climbing up the hills around on a large bay. We turned in the rental van, hoping to get a larger one on the other side, checked our baggage through and boarded the huge multideck ferry for a three hour crossing to Picton on the South Island. Of course we went up on the top deck and birded, finding a SPOTTED SHAG before we left the dock. Out in Cook Strait we began to pick up seabirds. There were hundreds of Sooty Shearwaters and a few Fluttering Shearwaters. Then small flocks of little FAIRY PRIONS appeared. Cape Pigeons followed the ship. And finally three SHY MOLLYMAWKS (Albatross) were sighted. Even from our vantage point high on the vessel they looked big.
It was getting dark as the ferry approached the entrance to Marlborough sound, gulls replaced the pelagic birds, and we went below to have dinner. At the dock in Picton, Sam Edwards from the Te Pangu Lodge was waiting for us with the Felix, a beautiful fast catamaran he constructed himself. He took us back up the Tory Arm of the sound to the lodge where we met our hosts, Sue and Walter Edwards, and had tea before the fireplace in the main house before retiring to our rooms in the guest wing.
When I peeked out our window this morning to see what the weather was doing there was a Tui in the yellow hibiscus right by the door. It was a lovely sunny morning. While breakfasting we watched ferries go through the Tory Arm past this beautiful lodge, and then we boarded the Felix for some birding. Sam took us out Queen Charlotte Sound past the bay where Captain Cook claimed the South Island for England. Near the Cape Jackson Lighthouse there's an interesting tidal rip with smooth water suddenly changing to waves. Hundreds of birds were feeding here: Fairy Prions, Fluttering and Flesh-footed Shearwaters, Black-backed Gulls, Gannets and a few Common Diving Petrels. It was an amazing sight, and we were able to get quite close. We then cruised over to the White Rocks, home of the world's rarest cormorant, where we saw a colony of about 50 KING (Rough-faced) SHAGS. They are found only in Queen Charlotte Sound, and the total population is no more than 400-500 birds.
Sam took us to the ferry dock in Picton where we picked up a rental van, which was happily a seat longer than the previous one but still a bit crowded. We patronized a fish and chips stand and ate lunch on the lawn in the park overlooking the beautiful bay full of sailboats. The usual gang of obnoxious gulls appeared, and there were two Black-billed Gulls among the Red-bills giving us a good chance to compare them to the dark-billed juvenile Red-bills. We noted that the most aggressive guys, busy trying to chase everybody else back from the food source, usually failed to get the tidbits tossed out.
We now had an interesting scenic drive south. We passed vineyards, deer farms (Red Deer raised for meat seemed to be more numerous on the South Island) and sheep pastures and crossing a range of dry, rather barren hills, we had our first sight of snow-capped mountains. South of Blenheim, Rt. 1 reaches the coast and runs for many miles past black sand beaches, rocky headlands and kelp beds in beautiful blue-green water. We stopped several times to look at New Zealand Fur Seals and saw the usual gulls, Variable Oystercatchers, Pied Stilts and on one beach, running about in plain sight, easy to see, a Black-fronted Dotterel. On a cliff at one of the seal rock viewpoints there was a close-by Spotted Shag nest with three almost fledged youngsters. These birds are as pretty as cormorants get but Ken refuses to consider any cormorant attractive.
Kaikoura is one of those special places where one can walk on an ocean beach while looking at snow-covered mountains. We checked into the Alpine View motel, on the beach, and then drove up to the old cemetery on the bluff above the town where we failed to find a Cirl Bunting but did turn up a GREENFINCH and a few REDPOLL. Dinner was at the White Morph, a waterfront restaurant taking its name from the white phase of the Southern Giant Petrel. King Shag got most of the bird of the day votes.
Yesterday, Ken had spotted a promising stream just down the road, and then he met an Aussie who was fly fishing in the surf by the motel, so he opted to stay behind and fish while the rest of us headed out to sea. Kaikoura is best known for whale watching trips but these tend to ignore the seabirds. However, in recent years Maori interests have obtained an exclusive franchise for the whale trips, and other operators have turned to different ventures. Ocean Wings is now doing fine pelagic trips out to the edge of the Kaikoura trench which here lies only a mile or two offshore. Dennis Buurman, our guide and boatman, is a former fisherman who knows the ocean birds well.
A short way out we found a large raft of HUTTON'S SHEARWATERS. Amazingly, these seabirds, which closely resemble Fluttering Shearwaters, nest in a few large colonies high in the Seaward Kaikoura Mountains, the snow-capped range rising behind the town. Soon we picked up a big dark petrel with a black tipped bill, a WESTLAND PETREL. Dennis began to chum with shark livers, and this brought in a bunch of Westland Petrels and a noisy raucous horde of Cape Pigeons, which are great fun to watch. A little further out the chum attracted several Shy Mollymawks (Salvin's subspecies), and then came one of the big guys, a WANDERING ALBATROSS, which settled down by the towed chum basket, folding its gigantic wings in slow motion. The wings are so long they cannot lie flat. They stand up above the bird's back. It was soon followed by more of them and a number of SOUTHERN GIANT PETRELS. The Giant Petrels, mostly young ones, all dark, were almost as big as the Albatross. A WHITE-CHINNED PETREL and a GREY-FACED PETREL turned up giving us a chance to compare the dark petrel species. One White-capped subspecies of Shy Mollymawk was seen, and a few Sooty Shearwaters, Flesh-footed shearwaters and Fairy Prions joined the fun.
Things got very exciting. At one point we had four Wandering Albatross, two Shy Mollymawks and five Giant Petrels simultaneously on the water right by the boat with the smaller stuff mixed in. There were serious squabbles over the chum. The Albatross did not like the Giant Petrels at all and would aggressively peck at any near them. One especially tame Wanderer kept coming very close to the boat, begging for chum, and would almost take shark liver directly from Dennis' hand. If there is a birding experience more awesome than having one of these magnificent, huge birds sitting about five feet away, looking at you with their beautiful big dark eyes, I haven't found it yet. Finally, we pulled in the chum and headed back to shore, stopping one more time for hot chocolate and cookies, while the Cape Pigeons, gulls and Westland Petrels got the last of the chum. One of the Cape Pigeons displayed remarkable aggressiveness, driving off gulls and petrels. The rest of them just grabbed what they could.
We picked up a computer printout of the bird list for the morning at the Ocean Wings downtown office, patronized the grocery store and had lunch out on the point of the peninsula where low tide had exposed an expanse of oddly ridged and lumpy rocks occupied by various shags, oystercatchers and a huge bull seal, sitting upright with his head thrown back, basking in the sun. Late in the afternoon we drove up the road toward the Mt. Lyford ski area, through the usual sheep/cattle pasture countryside, hoping to spot a Cirl Bunting. There were lots of introduced finches about, but no buntings. But Ross' sharp eyes spotted a LITTLE OWL perched in a dead tree near the road. Back in town, Ross and Bill got out at the cemetery to look for buntings again while I stayed with Betty to help look for Ken. This was a mistake: he was easy to find (waiting at the motel -- caught no fish). Meanwhile Bill and Ross got a quick look at a CIRL BUNTING, the least successful of the introduced Eurasian finches. In all her birding in N.Z. Betty hasn't seen one so we spent some time hunting for it but it had disappeared. We dined at the White Morph again with votes for bird of the day going to Wandering Albatross, to all the seabirds collectively, and to the Little Owl.
We birded the cemetery again before breakfast and saw all the other finches but no Cirl Buntings. We gave it another try on the way out of town but still no luck. We drove about 20 Km south along the beautiful rocky coast and then headed inland on a winding uphill road through the usual scenic green hills where sheep dogs were out working flocks. At a small lake, St. Anne's Lagoon, we had a tea break and finally got a GREY (Pacific Black) DUCK pure enough to count, along with the first CANADA GEESE of the trip and a few Cape Barren Geese, presumed to be released by a local farmer and not countable.
At the Hurunui River there were lots of Black-billed Gulls and our first BLACK-FRONTED TERNS. We continued our long drive through the hills on the north edge of the Canterbury Plains, turning inland at Rangiora and heading west toward the mountains. After we crossed the spectacular Waimakariri River valley (the river was very high and muddy), and began to climb toward Porter's Pass, snow became visible in the canyons. At a small lake near the pass we saw Banded Dotterel and Pied Oystercatchers. The scenery (big bare mountains, strange black limestone outcroppings, masses of blooming broome interspersed with native Matagouri, stands of native podocarp beeches in canyons) became obscured by deteriorating weather; it got very windy and rainy. At Lake Pearson we could barely keep the spotting scopes upright but we hunkered into the spiny clumps of Matagouri bushes, glad that we had our winter coats along, and managed to find several AUSTRALASIAN (Great) CRESTED GREBE and some Canada Geese bobbing about a wind swept bay.
Smaller Lake Sarah is reputed to have a good Marsh Crake population. While Ken morosely contemplated the posted trout fishing regulations we played crake calls not expecting much in the windy rainy weather and we were correct. No crakes. I bet if I brought Ken back here in decent weather I could sit out in the marsh all day and find a crake while he fished. In spite of continuing rain the alpine scenery became more spectacular as we continued up the wide, stony, braided Waimakariri River, reminiscent of Alaskan and Canadian rivers. Past Bealey we drove through nice beech forest and across the river to Arthur's Pass Village. Most of us were inside the National Park visitor center making inquiries about birding for Kiwis and Falcons, when Betty called us out to see KEAS. The big alpine parrots were making a lot of noise, flying about in the trees just back of the building, flashing their red underwings.
We went back down to the river bridge and a trail. The park personnel said a 15 minute hike through the forest led to a grassy meadow where a pair of New Zealand Falcons are in residence. We hiked in light drizzle for about 30 minutes and found no meadow or falcons. Tomtits were everywhere but we couldn't find Rifleman or Brown Creepers which were also supposed to be there. It was getting late, and we retreated to the Bealey Motel which has an interesting history. This is the fifth lodging establishment at this location -- they go back to early days of settlement and have a propensity for burning down. The motel units perch on a hillside above the river valley, and like most of our accommodations they were large rooms with a sitting area and a fully equipped kitchenette. The deck offered a splendid view of the braided river and the surrounding mountains, largely obscured by fog and rain. We turned on our electric heaters and trudged through the not-quite-sleet to the lodge/bistro at the top of the hill. Some years ago the proprietor here startled the country with news that some tourists had seen and photographed a live Moa. This was widely believed, and copies of the newspaper articles and the Moa photograph -- a rather fuzzy one which resembles the best known Bigfoot photo -- were posted in the lodge. Well, there really is a large Moa near the driveway entrance. It's a bit immobile, however. We had dinner and watched the TV weather forecasts which were not overly optimistic.
About 9:30 we went back to Arthur's pass where Great Spotted Kiwis have several territories right in the village. The park people assured us that a pair lives in the patch of woods by the police station and can often be heard calling. It wasn't raining really hard now but the wind had reached gale force. We played Kiwi tapes but all we could hear was wind roaring through the trees. Betty walked a few yards away and reported that she couldn't hear the tapes. We gave up and went back home to bed.
We awoke in cold dark rooms. The electricity had gone out during the night. Fortunately, as in all the South Island motels our beds had warm down comforters. It was only raining a little, and Ross, Bill and I went back up the road to the trail at the bridge. Ross and I took the upper trail around a loop, which was the wrong way because when we met up with Bill, who had used the lower loop, he reported having a good look at two Riflemen. From the bridge we could see a grassy meadow a long way upstream and we scanned the area with the telescope, but no raptors were flying. Back at the lodge the electricity was still off, so we had a cold breakfast with no coffee. In spite of the drizzle about a dozen Chaffinch were foraging about on the lawn just back of the dining room. There were patches of almost sunshine at times as we headed back down the road, and at one point there was a lovely morning rainbow across the valley framing one of the river bridges.
We retraced yesterday's route and down in the foothills stopped to get some tourist photos of sheep and mountains, blocking the path of a roadside mower, who was glad to take a break and visit. He told us that Queenstown had 36 inches of rain the day before, and there was serious flooding. Fortunately we weren't going there. We finally got some "take-away" coffee at a tea shop in Springfield and then followed the "Inland Scenic Route" (Rte. 72-77) southeast along the upper edge of the Canterbury Plains, through many miles of sheep and red deer pastures bordered by trimmed hedges and pine tree windbreaks. The rain seemed to be staying up in the mountains, but the Rakaia and Rangiata rivers were running high, undoubtedly drowning out lots of gull, tern, stilt and Wrybill nests. We headed inland on Rt. 79 and west of Fairlie, at Burke's pass, dropped into totally different terrain, the Mackenzie Country. This naturally treeless, tussock grass basin resembles eastern Wyoming. The roadsides however, are bordered by drifts of blooming Lupine which early settlers introduced.
At Tekapo, where the lake is bright turquoise colored, even on a cloudy day, from mineral suspensions we had a quick look at a famous statue of a sheep dog and a pretty little stone church on the lakeshore. A nice Grey Duck was wandering about near a lupine patch. We adjourned to the home of Betty's sister and brother-in-law, retired Mackenzie Country ranchers and conservation activists, for lunch and good conversation. On our way out of town we drove up to the Mt. John Observatory, where Chukor are a possibility. All we saw were Skylarks and a good view of the lake. Mt. Cook was over there somewhere, completely hidden by rain clouds. Canals connect a string of lakes here with power plants at each drop of water level. At the Lake Pukaki viewpoint Mt. Cook was still invisible, and it was beginning to rain.
At Twizel we wandered about looking for Glen Lyon Road which goes out to a reliable Black Stilt pond. Twizel is a government issue town built to house hydroelectric construction and operation workers, and the streets literally run in circles. After making a complete circle of the town on Mackenzie drive we made Ross ask for directions and we eventually found Glen Lyon Road intersecting one circle over. We zoomed out into the country along a full to the banks stream and soon came to a low water bridge, the dip down kind, which was deeply under roaring water. We didn't dare drive through it. Back in town at the Dept. of Conservation office we got directions for an alternate route, which turned out to be a way we had tried earlier, deciding then that it was the wrong way. Eventually we found our way onto canal roads (the canals were the same turquoise color as the lakes), bypassed the flooded stream and ignoring Ken's grumbles about driving all day to see one bird, we found our way to a pond below the canal road, the nesting territory of a pure BLACK STILT, and there it was, the world's rarest wader, with its mate, a black/pied stilt hybrid with the pattern shown on page 233 of Hayman, Marchant & Prater Shorebirds, third row, first column. Black Stilts (less than a hundred in the wild) are depredated by predators and hydroelectric developments and also by extensive hybridization with Pied Stilts. We didn't need to get out in the rain to see this one but most of us did anyway, setting up the scope for a close look.
Having found our bird of the day we tried for another, listening and looking for Marsh Crakes and bitterns in the river bottom marshes along the Ohau River southeast of town. No luck. We adjourned back to the large and modern Mackenzie Lodge, which was full of tour groups. Song Thrushes and Blackbirds wandered about on the lawns below our window. The clouds had lifted a bit, and some snow capped Mountains could be seen. We learned that the other Nature Quest group, the British bunch led by Mark Hanger, had spent eleven hours on the road today coming from the west coast. Roads were washed out in Haast Pass southwest of here, and they had to go all the way back north, almost to Greymouth, and come across via Arthur's pass.
It was raining in the morning. The hotel dining room was crowded with tourists going off in buses to look at the clouds covering Mt. Cook. We went back down to the marshes armed with fresh instructions from Mark who had seen Marsh Crake here recently. Water was very high in the area, and it kept raining. We found a bunch of Scaup ducks and Mallards, the usual thrushes and finches but no rails or bitterns. After about an hour we gave up and headed for Dunedin via Rte. 8 and 83, driving in light rain through this normally arid country, past a series of lakes, dams and hydroelectric plants. Most of the water was still the strange turquoise color. Past the little town of Kurow we abruptly left the Mackenzie country and were back in green sheep pasture farmland again. We reached the coast at Oamaru (which has a nesting colony of Blue Penguins right in town) and continued south sometimes along the ocean and sometimes a bit inland. It felt like we were going north. The further south we got the more my usually reliable sense of direction failed. I presumed I was now sensing the south magnetic pole but my brain was interpreting to be north.
We crossed a very hilly area on the north side of Otago harbor and came down into Dunedin, another very pretty city, and worked our way through downtown to the docks. The Otago Harbor Cruise out to Taiaroa head is a tourist operation but it's a good way to see the seabird colonies along with the interesting scenic harbor. We only caught one major bird error in the guide's commentary (as we passed a white-throated phase Little Shag he said the white is acquired as it ages). It was raining when we boarded the boat but it had stopped by the time we left the dock. There were lots of shags in the inner harbor, Little, Spotted and our first STEWART ISLAND (Bronze) SHAGS, both the bronze and pied color phases. Big white FERAL GEESE were along the shore in several places. Countability is an individual decision but these are probably as established and truly feral as they get. Out near the end of the harbor we docked to pick up people doing only the outer part of the cruise, Betty among them. She had taken the van out to this point.
Taiaroa Head, at the far end of the harbor has nesting colonies of seven bird species. ROYAL ALBATROSS is the main attraction. Several could be seen on nests on the grassy slopes below the lighthouse. One stood up nicely against the skyline, and several flew quite close to the boat. Spotted Shags nest in small groups on ledges in overhangs, and there's a large colony of Stewart Island Shags on an open slope. Their nests are built-up pillars. Either the colony has shrunk in size or they abandon old nests after a time. About half of the area was old unused nests. We had seen Blue Penguins on the water as we came out. They have nest holes in several locations, and there are also many nest holes of Sooty Shearwaters. There are hundreds of Red-billed Gulls nesting in grassy areas with smaller clusters of Black-backed Gulls here and there. There are Fur Seals on the rocks all around the head. The cruise boat takes ample time, gets in close and gives a good look at everything. We disembarked at the outer harbor dock and drove up to the Albatross Visitor Center on the back side of Taiaroa head. Here you get close views of the Royals as they fly behind the head, outside the large viewing windows in the lounge and gift shop. There is also a stupendous view of the harbor.
To see Yellow-eyed Penguins you have several choices. Victory beach and other public areas can be reached by a mile or more tramp through loose sand. The Penguin Place runs a tourist operation to a managed colony with close up views of burrows. We chose to pay for admission to a farm road that runs across private land adjacent to Taiaroa Head and ends at Penguin beach where the birds can be seen in an undisturbed natural setting. When we arrived at the view point above this spectacular wide crescent of sand bordered by rocky cliffs and steep sand dunes there were four YELLOW-EYED PENGUINS already standing on the beach, and a fifth had reached an upper beach shelf. We watched several more swim in with the surf, then stand up and waddle across the sand. One of the new arrivals was attacked vigorously by a nesting oystercatcher, but it finally made its way up the shelf and began to climb laboriously up a steep sandy slope, slipping back a good deal. Presumably its burrow was up there somewhere. Some of the others started to climb up a grassier area at the far end of the beach, but most of them were still standing around when we left.
We drove back to the city on the winding road along the east shore of the harbor. Bar-tailed Godwits, Pied Stilts, Pied and Variable Oystercatchers and White-faced Herons were on the tidal flats. Our hotel featured a courtyard full of blooming rhododendrons, and our original Nature Quest Van, with a new gear box, its nice library and ample luggage space, had finally caught up with us. Having seen the rarest of cormorants and the rarest of waders we could now add bird of the day, Yellow-eyed Penguin, the rarest of penguins, to the trip list.
The morning newspaper had an optimistic weather forecast: fine, sunny, no rain expected anywhere for the next five days, but the flooded rivers continued to be a problem. Southwest of Dunedin, at Balclutha, which calls itself "Big River Town" we crossed the way too big Clutha River, full to the top of its levees. Driving through the countryside, we thought there were fewer Magpies about. Welcome Swallows, which were ubiquitous on the North Island, were scarce. Harriers, Pukeko, Spur-winged Plovers and Paradise Shelducks continued to be common roadside birding ticks but the relative scarcity of open country passerines is noticeable everywhere in New Zealand when driving through farming areas. You may go for miles before you see a bird (usually a Starling) perched on a wire.
We passed through the small town of Clinton and continued on to Gore (no political comment intended). Gore proclaims itself the Brown Trout capital of the world and has a huge fiberglass specimen in the city park to prove it, but the flooded Mataura River indicated that fishing conditions currently were less than optimum. We had a morning tea break at a nice wetland surrounded by sheep pastures. There are approximately 50 million sheep in New Zealand, and by now we thought we had seen at least 15 million of them. The usual ducks were present but we couldn't flush out a bittern or a crake. At Lumsden the Oreti River appeared to be down a bit, and mountains covered with fresh snow began to come in view. In the mountain foothills Rt. 94 passes through an interesting preserve where red tussock grass, the original vegetation of this area, forms reddish brown mounds, 2 or 3 feet high. A big tussock will be several hundred years old.
The Mararoa River was very high and had been across the road earlier. We wondered if there was a Wrybill nest left in New Zealand. The beautiful Fiordland Mountains were now in front of us rising up behind the lake at Te Anau. This pretty little resort town had eight inches of snow a few days earlier, but it had all disappeared. The DOC wildlife center has a display of native birds including few captive Takahe. The area where they were rediscovered is in the mountains across the lake. We got groceries, collected E-mail, and Ken hopefully got a one day fishing license. They told him he could fish off the marina dock except it was underwater.
Heading out of town, onward and upward past Te Anau Downs where we would stay the next two nights, the scenery and the weather got better and better. It was mostly sunny, but there were clouds down to the tops of some of the mountains, and it was hard to tell where snow ended and clouds began. The mountains are not all that high -- 5000 to 6500 feet -- but tree line is low, and they seem higher. There's a Canadian Rockies aspect which is hard to reconcile with the presence of parrots, tree ferns and the palm-like Dracophyllum plants. We entered the Eglinton River valley, catching a glimpse of a Cattle Egret in the last cow pasture. The recent storms had left their marks. Tree branches were down everywhere, some still on the roads and in two areas the narrow winding road had just been reopened after blockage by massive slides of talus and mud.
We stopped for lunch at Knob's flat in the beech forest along the river and found great birding. BROWN CREEPERS were easily located. These little Pachycephalids, are nothing like the North American Brown Creeper, and PIPIPI, the Maori name, is more appropriate. YELLOWHEADS were located high in the canopy along with a bunch of Yellow-Crowned Parakeets. There were Tomtits and New Zealand Robins all over but we couldn't find a Rifleman. We came back to the van to find Ken quietly gloating. Betty had heard a Rifleman and showed it to Ken who had actually looked at the little thing; it's probably the smallest bird on the life list he doesn't keep. I gulped down my sandwich and dragged Ross and Bill back to help me find a Rifleman since I cannot hear them. I finally got a look at the tiny tailless bird, high up, and I never did see its green back. As I came back through the woods, an exceptionally curious N.Z. Robin, a juvenile, followed me. I decided to overcome my scruples about startling protected native birds and I proceeded to take five flash photos of it which did not seem to bother it in the slightest.
Since the weather was unusually good for this part of the country we decided to go on up to Homer tunnel. The scenery got more spectacular. Water comes down the sheer mountains in hundreds of tiny little falls plus some bigger ones. After crossing a divide and passing a lookout over an enormous gorge we descended to the Hollyford River, which looked fishable but rather barren. At the river bridge some grain had been dumped on the road, and a couple Keas were picking at it. We continued up into a huge alpine cirque to the parking area at the south entrance to Homer Tunnel, where we found more Keas sitting on the roof of a Nature Quest Bus. Mark and the British group were up the trail looking at ROCK WRENS (South Island Wren). These, and Riflemen, are the two surviving species of family Acanthisittidae. The Rock Wrens, two of them, were flitting about in a boulder field, frequently perching briefly on top of rocks. Ross was delighted to find them so easily. They don't venture out readily in rainy weather, and in 1997 the trip missed them entirely because snow was still heavy at Homer Tunnel, and no stopping was allowed due to avalanche danger. This year an early warm spell had removed all the snow at the tunnel altitude. The Keas were being obnoxious, and guards were needed to protect the vehicles. One managed to take a nip at the window seal on our van. This was my fault: I was photographing it and failed to shoo it off in time.
We headed back downhill to the lodge on the lake at Te Anau Downs where we had very nice rooms with a wonderful view of the mountains across the lake. The British group were also staying here. I think we forgot to vote on bird of day because it was too hard to choose.
This was a day of mind boggling scenery highlighted by a few good birds. The only places I've been which rival Fiordland are the Canadian Rockies and Glacier National Park. Fiordland is unique with its Southern Beech forests and the presence of the Pacific Ocean on the west side. Today we would ascend to alpine heights (about 3000 feet altitude here), go down to sea level and then back up again. It was a beautiful sunny morning, and we dropped Ken off in the flats along the Eglinton River, which had dropped to fishable levels. We kept an eye skyward since this valley was probably our last real hope for finding a falcon.
The Homer tunnel through the mountains is an engineering marvel, but It's also very claustrophobic with rough hewn walls, reflectors but no lights, a ceiling height that just lets a bus through and a roadbed barely wide enough for two vehicles to meet. On the other side the road drops rapidly down to Milford Sound with spectacular views of road loops below, and the mountains rising up on all sides. At the cruise docks, the view of Mitre Peak across the sound is one of the most famous in New Zealand. The recent storms had damaged the underwater observations tubes so we had to make do with a standard on top cruise. We killed time waiting for the boat, wandering about and watching small planes come into the landing field. They approach along the sound far below the level of the tops of the surrounding peaks. Betty says it is quite an adventure to fly in here. A walkway leading over to a nearby waterfall passes a wonderful wet rock face which is covered by multitudes of tiny ferns, lichens and mosses. Betty pointed out tiny sundew plants and beautiful little fingernail size orchids.
It was a gorgeous day for a touristy cruise down the sound. Ross says there are about five sunny days per year here, and we got one of them. The area gets six to nine meters of rain annually. There are two large permanent waterfalls coming down into the sound, a number of smaller permanent ones and intermittent ones which will dry up during the summer. A few days earlier, just after the rains, hundreds of temporary falls would have been visible. It was not windy, and the vessel, a big three level cruise boat, was able to pull in close to a cove near the passage out into the Tasman Sea, where a pair of FIORDLAND CRESTED PENGUINS were out on the rocks near their nest hole. We also had a close look at the rock covered with basking seals.
Back at the dock the place was full of tour buses and crowds of people, but we found a back road and a deserted spot for our lunch picnic, on the deepwater harbor where a small commercial fishing fleet anchors. After the tour buses heading for the 1:30 cruise were downhill we started back up again, doing photo stops along the way and hiking to see the Chasm, a deep eroded slot canyon. We looked at Rock Wrens and Keas again at the tunnel. Betty says their echoing Keeeeeeeaah call is the essence of the southern mountains. Blue Ducks are often seen in the rivers below the tunnel, especially around the Monkey creek bridge, and we looked for them both days but didn't find any here on this trip.
At Lake Gunn we followed a trail into the Beech forest and finally got a good look at two Riflemen, climbing creeper-like along tree branches as they are supposed to do. At the designated rendezvous bridge we found Ken dozing by the roadside. He had caught no fish, but he thought he might have had one strike. A bit further on we came upon Mark's bus with everybody out, binoculars pointed skyward. We piled out and found they had spotted a NEW ZEALAND FALCON. We arrived just in time to get our glasses on the small dark falcon soaring high above. Not the best of views but this was the first time one of Ross' trips had seen one.
It was a sunny morning and another spectacular sunrise with the snowy mountains across the lake exhibiting brilliant pink colors. Backtracking our route to Lumsden, we found the Oreti River had dropped considerably in the past two days. Sandbars had reappeared, and we estimated that there were two to three thousand Black-billed Gulls downriver from the bridge, possibly gathering to re-nest. A small group of them near the bridge were standing in shallows, feeding by picking stuff out of the water flowing rapidly by. A pair of Pied Oystercatchers and a Little Shag were on the sandbar, and of course a Chaffinch was singing in every bush.
We headed south on Rt. 6 and eventually dropped into flat coastal plains crossed by power lines running from the Twizel hydroelectric area to supply the huge Bauxite/Aluminum Smelter on the coast south of Invercargill. This plant experienced an early Y2K type computer problem. On Dec. 30, 1996 the computers shut it down thinking that the 365th day was the end of the year, and the following day was a holiday. Having a few hours to spend before our flight to Stewart Island we visited the Southlands Museum in Invercargill. They have a display of live Tuataras, the primitive lizards which have been around since the Mesozoic and still survive on a few offshore island preserves (and on the 5 cent N.Z. coin). Only one, the oldest, Henry, whose estimated date of birth is 1870, was out in view. He's about a foot long with another nine inches or so of tail. The museum allows photographs but no flash which was not a problem because Henry remained absolutely immobile for a long exposure. Looking very closely, I determined that he was alive. I could detect a faint breathing motion in his throat. Marjorie actually saw him blink!
The museum has some other interesting exhibits, Maori artifacts, a natural history room with specimens of extinct birds (Huia, Laughing Owl and Piopio) and a fine special display about the New Zealand subantarctic islands. This includes an excellent audiovisual presentation, "The Roaring Fifties Experience", which leaves one roaring to sign up for an eco-cruise to the Auckland, Snares, Campbell, Bounty and Antipodes Islands to see the incredible colonies of seabirds. Near the museum, in full bloom, were the largest Rhododendron bushes I have ever seen. One was at least 15 feet in diameter and 15 feet high.
We crossed to Stewart Island (New Zealand's third largest island) the fast way - a twenty minute flight across Foveaux Strait in one of Southern Air's 10 seat planes. One passenger gets to ride up front and play co-pilot. We crossed the hook-shaped point of land at the southernmost tip of the South Island and could easily see the irregular shape of Stewart Island across the strait. Captain Cook sailed around three sides of it and then failing to find his starting point concluded that it was a peninsula. The Island airstrip is carved out of the brush on a hilltop and looked barely long enough but it was -- the plane stopped before it ran off into the woods. The "terminal", a van towing a luggage trailer came out to meet the plane and take everyone back into town. Oban, on Half Moon Bay, is the only settlement on the Island, and the only roads are in that general area. We settled into the South Seas Hotel, a wonderful oldfashioned establishment on the waterfront (which boasts of being the southernmost hotel in the world although I believe there are places in South America that dispute this).
We all took off on our own to explore the town (population 250) and environs. One of the newest buildings is a DOC visitor center where I picked up a trail map and examined a mounted specimen of a Kakapo. Codfish island, the major stronghold of these wonderful flightless parrots, lies off the northwest corner of Stewart Island and is off limits to anyone except conservation workers and the crew filming "Life of Birds". Betty, who has been everywhere and done everything, has seen a live Kakapo -- one being transported from one preserve to another. However, some years ago, helping to band young Black Robins in the Chathams, she looked up and found the single fertile female who saved the species, "Old Blue" herself, watching her. Oban is a delightfully birdy place. Yes, the Starlings and House Sparrows are here but Redpolls are all over, and the walking path I took up the hillside was teeming with Tuis and Bellbirds feeding on the Fuschias and other flowers. A noisy, argumentative bunch of Kaka hang around the hillside back of downtown, patronizing feeders on house decks. A pair of Variable Oystercatchers had a territory on the beach in front of the hotel, and sitting in the picture window second floor lounge before dinner we watched them chase off a third one that had dared to land on that patch of sand.
About 9 PM, which was still before sunset, we assembled on the dock along with Mark's Nature Quest group and set out in the "Volantis" for Philip Smith's justly renowned Kiwi watching excursion. As we headed across Paterson inlet we saw Blue Penguins in the water, and then a Yellow-eyed Penguin put on a great performance, "porpoising" alongside the boat, keeping abreast of us for quite a distance. Just as it was getting really dark we landed at a dock on a neck of land on the side opposite Ocean Beach. We were issued torches and instructions and then we proceeded in single file up a steep, rocky, muddy, slippery track through the woods, 18 people trying to stay upright and be quiet. We had passed the crest and were about half way down the far side when Philip spotted a SOUTH ISLAND BROWN KIWI (TOKOEKA) foraging in the woods about ten feet off the path. I was about fifth or sixth in line and it was directly opposite me so I had a good view of it. Philip kept a light on it and tried to quietly move the line forward but of course this didn't happen; everybody stopped and bunched up. But the bird obligingly continued probing the ground and moved back in closer to the end of the line, where Ken, hanging back as usual to give the real birders first chance, thought it was going to walk across his feet. Ross was back there too, with the video camera, and he got great footage (which is on his website, along with the porpoising penguin).
Down on the beach, we looked under seaweed at the insects and crustaceans that the Kiwis eat, and saw lots of Kiwi tracks and beak probe holes. We all turned out our lights and walked below the beach tide line while Philip searched for more Kiwis. We saw two more, both up on the grassy beach edge. One was in good view, the other scurrying off. Kiwis are seen on about 99% of these trips but Philip thought this was a substandard night because we didn't find any out in the open on the beach picking over the seaweed. He thought the two we saw had been fighting and may have scared others away. Also the recent rains had softened the forest floor making it easier for them to forage inland. We were all quite satisfied with the good look we had of the one in the woods. We got back to Oban after midnight, tired and elated.
This was a five albatross species day with a total of 19 pelagic birds including the gulls, penguins and shags.
Ulva Island, in Paterson inlet, just around the point from Oban, is a predator-free preserve with good populations of Weka, Kaka, Red-Crowned Parakeets, Pipipi and other forest birds. Since we had been very successful finding these birds we chose to spend the entire day at sea, again with Philip Smith on the Volantis. Ken opted to stay behind and tease the salt water fish from the rocky shores. It was a gorgeous clear day, and the snow-covered mountains of Fiordland were visible on the northwest horizon. We began the day with a close look at five Fiordland Crested Penguins lounging on the rocks along the left side of Half Moon Bay. We would also see Yellow-eyed and Blue Penguins during the day.
A short way out we passed a rock stack which is home for a small colony of BROWN SKUA. A bit of chum lured two of them close to the boat, showing off their conspicuous white wing patches. Out further we started chumming in earnest and soon were surrounded by Shy Mollymawks and Cape Pigeons. There were about 40 Mollymawks present when one of the great albatross finally appeared, a Royal. We kept moving and chumming at intervals until we reached a reef and rip area about seven miles out from Oban. Ross had been unable to get burley, but he patronized the general store, purchasing most of their stock of cod liver oil, which he now dumped overboard.
The oil and the chum brought in more hoards of Shy Mollymawks and Cape Pigeons, a few Sooty Shearwaters, some Common Diving Petrels and then an immature BULLER'S MOLLYMAWK, a beautiful big Wandering Albatross, and a bit later two BLACK-BROWED MOLLYMAWKS, again immatures. A White-chinned Petrel, a few Southern Giant Petrels and two NORTHERN GIANT PETRELS joined the fun. A strange looking, mottled albatross appeared. It turned out to be a Shy Albatross which was soiled with grease or oil. Ross spotted, at a distance, three MOTTLED PETRELS.
When the chum ran low Philip (who is a Fisherman by trade) pulled out a fierce fishing rod armed with five large treble hooks. He baited it with meat chunks, dropped it down 50 meters or so to the bottom and set the hook when somebody nibbled. The first two fish reeled in were bigeyed ugly yellow things (Jack Stewarts) which were cut up for more bait and chum. A number of Blue Cod were caught, often two or three at once and these were filleted out with the remains adding to the chum. When Philip was cleaning up the filleting table at the back of the boat the Shy Mollymawks kept soaring in very close behind the boat. Often there were five or six of them fighting for the same fish head. What a sight! If we count the Shys at each place we stopped to chum we saw about 200 of them this day. The same ones may have followed us, however.
Finally we began the long slow ride home, stopping at another small rocky island to see a colony of Stewart Island Shags. Ken had caught (and released) some fish off the rocks but he didn't know what they were. I walked up the church hill to take pictures and enjoy the abundant Tuis, Redpolls and Kaka. It was the wrong time of year to find "muttonbird" (young Sooty Shearwater) on the menu at the South Seas dining room but the general store had salted ones in stock. I decided not to try to take any home.
After dinner we watched the almost full moon rise out the bay, noting that it looks a bit different at 47 degrees south. About ten PM we walked up the street to check out reports that a Morepork often comes to a street light to feed on insects. It was chilly, and there were few insects and no owls about. The masses of albatross were birds of the day.
The airline terminal van arrived about 8:15 and transported us out to the airstrip where two planes were busy ferrying our group, Mark's group, and a few other travelers back to the mainland. Back in our van we headed out of Invercargill bound for the scenic route around the Catlin coast. In the flat country east of town we stopped at the extensive marsh areas around the Mataura River still hoping for a bittern. The river was down, and there were nice mud flats with the usual birds but no bittern. The link road (gravel) through the Catlin forest winds uphill through stands of big Rata and Rimu trees and plantations of pines with lots of blooming Broome.
At the Tautuku estuary there's a boardwalk into an extensive marsh. It's prime Fernbird habitat. Mark's group was there ahead of us and had seen them. The birds were calling in the marsh, but since we had such a wonderful close encounter with one the week before we didn't spend much time searching for them. We found a track down to Tautuku Beach, a lovely wide deserted crescent of sand with sea stacks at one end, and enjoyed our final picnic lunch of the trip. Back on paved road, from an overlook above the Catlin River estuary we spotted five beautifully plumed Royal Spoonbills feeding in the shallows accompanied by a single White-faced Heron.
At the Dunedin airport we said farewell to Betty, who was met by a brother and a sister. She went off to deliver the van to the Nature Quest headquarters in Dunedin, and we boarded a smallish plane for a 45 minute hop to Christchurch. We had a fine view of Mt Cook and two of the enormous braided rivers (Waitaki and Rakaia, I think) so typical of the South Island. At Christchurch we changed to a larger plane for an hour and a half flight into Auckland where we picked up a nice rental station wagon and got all the luggage in it somehow. The Imperial hotel was full of tour groups, and we got upgraded to suites. Ken and I had two bedrooms, bath, kitchen and living room with a fine harbor view which was a bit of a waste since we planned an early AM birding start, and we were only there about 9 hours.
We were on the road at 4:30 AM headed for Miranda, with a dawn stop at the Whangamarino Marsh near Meremere south of Auckland, for one last bittern and crake try. We put Spotless Crake on the trip list when Bill and Ross heard one on Tiritiri but nobody saw it, and I wasn't sure I could hear it. Fortune was smiling today. We stood about in the wet grass for a little while and then, WOW! a beautiful big AUSTRALASIAN BITTERN flew out, across an open expanse in plain sight. Then we played crake calls, a Spotless Crake stuck its head out, and then it slowly walked across in front of the reeds giving us a great look at this tiny dark rail, very like our North American Black Rail. Incidentally this was my life bird number 1000 (as current splits and lumps now stand).
We reached Miranda (after an unsuccessful search for coffee) as the tide was still coming in to find the usual multitude of godwits, knots and oystercatchers crowded around the pond and on the shell banks. Examining the clusters of small stuff around the edges Ross managed to pick out several RED-NECKED STINTS, a PECTORAL SANDPIPER and a TEREK SANDPIPER. As we continued to search for something different among the masses of godwits, Ken got bored and offered to go back to the Mangrove swamp and watch for a Banded Rail ("which leg is banded?" he wanted to know). We finally gave up trying for a Black-tailed Godwit, woke up Ken, and headed back to the city. We looked for Rooks both coming and going but again failed to spot any.
In Auckland we visited Puketutu Island in the Mangere sewage lagoons, which we had skipped the first rainy day in New Zealand, adding one more bird to the trip list, SPOTTED DOVE. Construction projects prevented access to the Royal Spoonbill roost here. Ken and I went off for a reunion with an old friend of mine from grad school days (I showed her a Variable Oystercatcher on the beach in front of her apartment). Eventually we all gathered at the airport to await the long flight home which would extend November 24 out to 48 hours. There was an opinionated discussion of Bird of the Trip. Ross chose the Stewart Island Kiwi, I assume because he got such a great video of it. Bill picked Blue Duck, because we did our homework on where to find it, went there, and worked hard to get it. Marjorie liked the little Yellow-eyed Penguin on the Otago beach, struggling up the sandy hill to reach its nest. Ken, (rather to my surprise) picked the tame little New Zealand Robins. I found I absolutely could not choose. How can I pick one outstanding bird from a list that included Little Spotted Kiwi, Stewart Island Kiwi, Kaka, Kea, Wandering Albatross (close up and personal), masses of albatross all at once, tame Robins on Tiritiri and in the Fiordland, Fernbird, Spotless Crake, Takahe, all those penguins and shags, etc. etc., all of them seen in memorable circumstances. Months later I find that seeing the kiwis and making eye contact with an albatross are the images that come to mind most frequently. What a trip it was!
My Thanks to my husband, Ken, and to Ross Silcock for proofreading and correcting all of this very lengthy trip report. Any typos and misspellings remaining are entirely my fault.
E = Endemic (here defined as breeding only in New Zealand, including the
offshore and subantarctic islands. Some of the seabirds migrate to other
areas of the Pacific)
N = Native
M = Migrant
I-A = Introduced from Australia
I-E = Introduced from Europe
I-NA = Introduced from North America
Common names and status are as given in Heather and Robertson, Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Order of listing and scientific names follows Clements fifth edition. A different common name used by Clements is in parenthesis.
Brown Kiwi E Apteryx australis mantelli Little Spotted Kiwi E Apteryx owenii (Tokoeka Stewart Island Kiwi E Apteryx australis lawryi Clements does not recognize the Stewart Island Kiwi as a seperate species) Fiordland Crested Penguin E Eudyptes pachyrhynchus (Fiordland Penguin) Yellow-eyed Penguin E Megadyptes antipodes Blue Penguin N Eudyptula minor (Blue Penguin) Australasian Crested Grebe N Podiceps cristatus (Great Crested Grebe) New Zealand Dabchick E Poliocephalus rufopectus(New Zealand Grebe) Wandering Albatross N Diomedea exulans Royal Albatross E Diomedea epomophora Black-browed Mollymawk N Thalassarche melanophris(Black-browed Albatross) Buller's Mollymawk E Thalassarche bulleri (Buller's Albatross) Shy Mollymawk N Thalassarche cauta (Shy Albatross) Northern Giant Petrel N Thalassarche halli (Hall's Giant Petrel) Southern Giant Petrel N Macronectes giganteus (Antarctic Giant Petrel) Cape Pigeon N Daption capense (Cape Petrel) Grey-faced Petrel N Pterodroma macroptera (Great-winged Petrel) Mottled Petrel E Pterodroma inexpectata Pycroft's/Cook's Petrel E Pterodroma pycrofti/cooki Fairy Prion N Pachyptila turtur White-chinned Petrel N Procellaria aequinoctialis Black Petrel E Procellaria parkinsoni (Parkinson's Petrel) Westland Petrel E Procellaria westlandica Flesh-footed Shearwater N Puffinus carneipes Buller's Shearwater E Puffinus bulleri Sooty Shearwater N Puffinus griseus Hutton's Shearwater E Puffinus huttoni Fluttering Shearwater E Puffinus gavia Common Diving Petrel N Pelecanoides urinatrix Australasian Gannet N Morus serrator (Australian Gannet) Little Black Shag N Phalacrocorax sulcirostris (Little Black Cormorant) Black Shag N Phalacrocorax carbo (Great Cormorant) Pied Shag N Phalacrocorax varius (Pied Cormorant) King Shag E Phalacrocorax carunculatus (Rough-faced Shag) Stewart Island Shag E Phalacrocorax chalconotus (Bronze Shag) Spotted Shag E Phalacrocorax punctatus Little Shag N Phalacrocorax melanoleucos (Little Pied Cormorant) White-faced Heron N Egretta novaehollandiae Reef Heron N Egretta sacra (Pacific Reef Heron) Cattle Egret M Bubulcus ibis Australasian Bittern N Botaurus poiciloptilus Royal Spoonbill N Platalea regia Black Swan I-A Cygnus atratus (Feral Goose) I-A Anser anser Not established ? Canada Goose I-NA Branta canadensis (Cape Barren Goose) I-A Cereopsis novaehollandiae Not established Paradise Shelduck E Tadorna variegata Blue Duck E Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos Grey Teal N Anas gracilis Brown Teal E Anas chlorotis Mallard I-E Anas platyrhynchos Grey Duck N Anas superciliosa (Pacific Black Duck) Australasian Shoveler N Anas rhynchotis (Australian Shoveler) New Zealand Scaup E Aythya novaeseelandia Australasian Harrier N Circus approximans (Swamp Harrier) New Zealand Falcon E Falco novaeseelandiae Wild Turkey I-NA Meleagris gallopavo California Quail I-NA Callipepla californica Brown Quail I-A Coturnix ypsilophora Pheasant I-E Phasianus colchicus (Ring-necked Pheasant) Peafowl I-Asia Pavo cristatus (Indian Peafowl) Weka E Gallirallus australis Banded Rail N Gallirallus philippensis (Buff-banded Rail) Spotless Crake N Porzana tabuensis Pukeko N Porphyrio porphyrio (Purple Swamphen) Takahe E Porphyrio mantelli Australian Coot N Fulica atra (Eurasian Coot) Pied Oystercatcher N Haematopus finschi (South Island Oystercatcher) Variable Oystercatcher E Haematopus unicolor Pied Stilt N Himantopus leucocephalus (White-headed Stilt) Black Stilt E Himantopus novaezelandiae Spur-winged Plover N Vanellus miles (Masked Lapwing) Pacific Golden Plover M Pluvialis fulva New Zealand Dotterel E Charadrius obscurus (Red-breasted Dotterel) Banded Dotterel E Charadrius bicinctus (Double-banded Dotterel) Black-fronted Dotterel N Elseyornis melanops Wrybill E Anarhynchus frontalis Bar-tailed Godwit M Limosa lapponica Terek Sandpiper M Xenus cinereus Ruddy Turnstone M Arenaria interpres Lesser Knot M Calidris canutus (Red Knot) Red-necked Stint M Calidris ruficollis Pectoral Sandpiper M Calidris melanotos Sharp-tailed Sandpiper M Calidris acuminata Brown Skua N Catharacta antarctica Pomarine Skua M Stercorarius pomarinus (Pomarine Jaeger) Black-backed Gull N Larus dominicanus (Kelp Gull) Red-billed Gull N Larus scopulinus Black-billed Gull E Larus bulleri Caspian Tern N Sterna caspia White-fronted Tern N Sterna striata Little Tern M Sterna albifrons Fairy Tern N Sterna nereis Black-fronted Tern E Sterna albostriata Rock Dove I-E Columba livia Spotted Dove I-Asia Streptopelia chinensis New Zealand Pigeon E Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae Kea E Nestor notabilis Kaka E Nestor meridionalis (New Zealand Kaka) Red-crowned Parakeet N Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae (Red-fronted Parakeet) Yellow-crowned Parakeet E Cyanoramphus auriceps (Yellow-fronted Parakeet) Eastern Rosella I-A Platycercus eximius Shining Cuckoo N Chrysococcyx lucidus (Shining Bronze Cuckoo) Long-tailed Cuckoo E Eudynamys taitensis (Long-tailed Koel) Little Owl I-E Athene noctua Morepork N Ninox novaeseelandiae Kingfisher N Todirhamphus sanctus Sacred Kingfisher) Rifleman E Acanthisitta chloris Rock Wren E Xenicus gilviventris (South Island Wren) Skylark I-E Alauda arvensis Welcome Swallow N Hirundo neoxena New Zealand Pipit N Anthus novaeseelandiae (Australasian Pipit) Dunnock I-E Prunella modularis Blackbird I-E Turdus merula (Eurasian Blackbird) Song Thrush I-E Turdus philomelos Fernbird E Megalurus punctatus Fantail N Rhipidura fuliginosa (Gray Fantail) Tomtit E Petroica macrocephala New Zealand Robin E Petroica australis Whitehead E Mohoua albicilla Yellowhead E Mohoua ochrocephala Pipipi (Brown Creeper) E Mohoua novaeseelandiae Grey Warbler E Gerygone igata (Gray Gerygone) Silvereye E Zosterops lateralis Stitchbird E Notiomystis cincta Bellbird E Anthornis melanura (New Zealand Bellbird) Tui E Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae Kokako E Callaeas cinerea Saddleback E Creadion carunculatus Australian Magpie I-A Gymnorhina tibicen (Australasian Magpie) Rook I-E Corvus frugilegus Myna I-Asia Acridotheres tristis (Common Myna) Starling I-E Sturnus vulgaris (European Starling) House Sparrow I-E Passer domesticus Chaffinch I-E Fringilla coelebs Greenfinch I-E Carduelis chloris (European Greenfinch) Redpoll I-E Carduelis flammea (Common Redpoll) Goldfinch I-E Cardeulis carduelis(European Goldfinch) Yellowhammer I-E Emberizia citronella Cirl Bunting I-E Emberizia cirlus
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