So who is this weirdo?

Hi! My name is Liam and I am a beginner birder living in Glen Massey. I first became interested in birds after a 6-month missions trip to Papua New Guinea in 2016, and my interest grew from there! I am now a member of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand and Young Birders New Zealand (OSNZ and YBNZ respectively ). So now, I'm starting this blog so I can share my birding adventures with anyone who will listen ☺.

Saturday 8 February 2020

Invisible falcons

The clock is ticking on my freedom - only a few weeks left before I start uni. Shoshanah and I decided to make the most of it - we drove south to the very edge of the Waikato region, to Mapara Scenic Reserve. This is a known hotspot for North Island Kokako, but due to our sluggishness we missed the dawn by an hour and a half, so we didn't rate our chances. Our objective was to pick up two lifers for Shoshanah - the Yellow-crowned Parakeet, and the New Zealand Falcon. While these might not be particularly uncommon birds NZ-wide, they were both a long way from us and so a special trip was required.

After a slightly-tense ten minutes of Google Maps not working and us not being able to find the reserve, we parked my birding machine and walked over the mossy swing bridge. The lack of artificial noise was more than compensated for by the chorus of Whiteheads, Tomtits and North Island Robins, as well as about four Long-tailed Cuckoos - just getting ready for their migration to the tropics. We trekked up the hill, straining our ears for the thin, reedy screech of a falcon or the machine-gun chatter of a parakeet. What greeted us, however, were the tear-jerking, mournfully beautiful strains of a Kokako's song! This was a lifer for Shosh, and a new bird for my year list, so we were over the moon. We also had some really close encounters with a few Tomtits and Robins - a handsome male tomtit was only two metres from my face! No falcons or kakariki though, so we moved on to the breathtaking Pureora Forest Park. 

Venturing off the beaten track, the gravel road to Pureora Forest Lodge was almost too much for my little nana car to manage. Almost. Creepily, we didn't see a soul amongst the many tents and SUV's - but we told ourselves that they must all be out on the same hike. We walked the Waipapa Loop Walk, a nice gentle path through some scrub, second growth, and mighty tawa and rimu forest. We had barely gone twenty steps before we heard the chatter of a Yellow-Crowned Parakeet - we watched a pair duck and dive over our heads and disappear into the undergrowth. Seconds later, an unexpected Fernbird clicked nearby - we got so close to this indescribably cute 'swamp sparrow'. Kereru flapped clumsily overhead, and we had a flock of Kaka pass through the canopy - but no falcon. As we headed back to the ghost campsite, we reminded ourselves that the single dip on falcon was more than offset by our massive successes elsewhere - but a challenge has been set. See you next time, Mr Karearea.

Saturday 18 January 2020

Ka kite!

A watery sun dawned on our last day in the Cook Islands. Dad dropped Shoshanah and I off at Takitumu Conservation Area, a carefully trapped and monitored site where we had the chance to nail a few endemic species. Ian, our guide, led us up through a few orchards where some feral Eastern Rosellas called on either side and a pair of Pacific Golden-Plovers kept a close eye on us. As we entered the treeline, the constant cacophony of mynas was gradually replaced with a merciful silence, followed by the harsh scratchy calls of the Rarotonga Monarch! Once down to as few as 25 birds, numbers are up to almost 500 individuals and we saw one or two from a distance, and got closer views later on. A loud, grating, strangely familiar sound met our ears after that - the scream of the Long-Tailed Cuckoo! We were certainly not expecting this bird - to the best of my knowledge, the time of year is wrong! But we heard at least 3, and even saw one fly over. Interspersed with the screams came a deeper, more ominous "ooo" which could only belong to the Cook Islands Fruit-Dove! Another tick! We also heard the melodic calls of Rarotonga Starlings in the canopy - our last bird of the trip.

Spending the afternoon on uber-touristy activities, the total trip list remained on 19 species. While a walk up my road might yield more in terms of numbers, this trip gave us an incredible opportunity to see some really special tropical birds and make some amazing memories. Full species list is below.

Common Myna
White Tern
Red Junglefowl
Brown Noddy
Reef Heron (Eastern Reef-Egret)
Pacific Imperial-Pigeon
Pacific Golden-Plover
Wandering Tattler
White-tailed Tropicbird
Great Frigatebird
Red-tailed Tropicbird
Red-footed Booby
Herald Petrel
Tropical Shearwater
Lesser Frigatebird
Rarotonga Monarch
Cook Islands Fruit-Dove
Long-tailed Cuckoo

Rarotonga Starling

A Pacific Golden-Plover in the orchard
A female Rarotonga Monarch

Finally! A photo of a White Tern

The view from the top of the hill at Takitumu

A blurry male Monarch

Thursday 16 January 2020

Heading offshore

The morning began down at the tiny harbour, where Shoshanah and I introduced ourselves to the crew from Akura fishing charters. We had managed to get places as spectators aboard the boat, taking seven keen fisherpeople as well as ourselves (who still thought tuna came from tins). The rain of the previous day had passed, leaving dark clouds and choppy seas. Staving off seasickness, our eyes were drawn to the water and we quickly ticked off Brown Noddy and White Tern working in a mixed feeding flock on either side of the boat. As we chugged further out, my eyes became glued to the horizon to ward off encroaching nausea, and we soon had cause to be excited. "Red-Footed Booby!" I called out as a small group flew alongside is and over the boat. While those who were here to fish became ever more frustrated by the absence of bites, I was enthralled as a dark-morph Herald Petrel cruised past the back of the boat. Lifer! It wheeled among the noddies for a while, then disappeared - replaced by another later on. Funnily enough, water and Sealegs were far inferior motion sickness remedies compared to seeing new birds. The queasiness went right away! A brief flash of white caught my eye - a Tropical Shearwater! An hour or so later, when all was quiet, another one flew past only metres from our faces, providing jaw-dropping views of another new bird! Despite the two lifers, we yearned for solid ground again. Oddly (or not), the lunch provided was left entirely untouched by all on board.. 

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Lots of rain...

This morning I woke up - not to the sound of my alarm telling me to get out of bed and see some birds, but to the pouring tropical rain and howling winds I had been dreading. My disappointment lasted a whole minute before I was back asleep. An hour later, all was quiet again and we set off despite the ominous clouds. We got Dad to drop us off on a road between two mountains and elected to walk back. Hoping for Cook Islands Fruit-Doves and Rarotonga Monarchs, only Pacific Imperial-Pigeons broke the myna monotony. Oh well.

Like the tourists we were, we joined a lagoon cruise and over one of the motu (islets) flew a single Red-Footed Booby - our first for the trip. Another bird down! Funnily enough, this was the only new bird for the trip - our early morning was fruit(dove)-less. The tour also allowed us to see our first white-phase Reef Heron, as well as tattlers, noddies and terns.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing, hiding from the rain inside, playing board games or watching the phosphorescent waves crash offshore.

Wandering Tattler

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Salt, sand and sweat

The morning began with a walk along the coastline, with Great Frigatebirds soaring above us. Unlike the plethora of terns and noddies, these gigantic birds seem to simply float - no flapping, no wing movements at all, kites on invisible tethers. We were soon distracted, however, by a couple of Wandering Tattlers on the boulders with the now-familiar accompaniment of Reef Herons.

Back at the house for breakfast, we shunned resting and relaxing in favour of a bike ride around the island. Thirty kilometres might not be much, but combine a serious lack of prior exercise with thirty degrees in the burning sun, and you had a recipe for a real slog. The joyous agony of cycling was broken by an impromptu swim at Black Rock in the northwest corner (getting a closer look at some White-tailed Tropicbirds) and having our first Red-Tailed Tropicbird drift past us only metres away at Avarua. By late afternoon we were utterly spent, with no more birding plans for the day.

Once we had cooled off and cleaned up, it wasn't long before we started to make our plans for the next day's birds…

A Great Frigatebird

Monday 13 January 2020

First day in the Cooks

I woke from a sleep troubled by crabs on the bedroom floor, mynas calling outside and siblings calling inside. Remembering where I was, I grabbed my binoculars, shook Shoshanah awake and we walked outside. Our semiconsciousness was soon driven away by the beautiful White Terns flying and calling overhead - similarly to other terns, the illusion of elegance was soon shattered by the incredible banal and grating calls. The Brown Noddies that joined them remained wisely silent. Lured onwards by the crash of the surf, we stumbled over coral and rocks to arrive at the sea. A Reef Heron gave us the cold shoulder while we strained our eyes looking out to sea, unintelligible grunts punctuated by remarks of "should have brought the scope". Our wandering feet far from satisfied, we walked back inland and soon picked up a veritable convoy of misplaced dogs. They insisted on snapping at any Red Junglefowl that came our way, while we waved our fervent apologies to the cars that had to give way to our canine tagalongs. Other than a Pacific Imperial-Pigeon sitting inconspicuously in a coconut tree, no further birds were found despite our diligent scanning of the orchards and plantations. Our spirits undampened, we headed back for breakfast.

Amidst the general first-day sightseeing, Shosh and I managed to fit in a solid seawatch in Avarua yielding… no seabirds. On the bright side, we pinned down a Wandering Tattler (split from its similar Grey-tailed cousin by the flight call) out on the rocks, and a White-tailed Tropicbird riding the thermals inland. To my frustration, a possible Herald Petrel disappeared before I could clinch the ID.

The rest of the day was spent snorkeling and relaxing in one of the most beautiful places I had ever visited, as we dreamt up our next few days on the island. Despite managing a measly 9 species, two-thirds were new birds for me and they were all stunning. Except for the mynas.

A Pacific Imperial-Pigeon checking us out from a coconut tree


I write this from my cramped aeroplane seat, dreaming of the birds that might have been.

After many months of eager anticipation, the day had come. My family, girlfriend and I were off to the gorgeous Cook Islands for a whole week! Alongside the swimming, hiking and general touristing, we had been busy drooling over Rarotonga's unique birdlife. Upon our arrival at the airport, however, we were met with an unwelcome surprise - our flight had been cancelled! Fortunately, Jetstar put us up in one of the flashest hotels I'd ever stayed in (not saying much!) and we were due to fly out the next day. As soon as I had finished coming to terms with our truncated holiday, I begun to plan. Our luxurious accommodation was only twenty minutes walk from Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant - a real hotspot for the area, and offering some tempting year-listers. And so the next morning, our bellies full from the breakfast buffet (courtesy of Uncle Jetstar), we waddled to Puketutu Island and the surrounding canals and ponds.

It was a hot morning spent birding, mostly quite pleasant but punctuated by the periodic wafts of raw sewage. Birders are weird. Despite running out of time to sift through wader flocks, the canal yielded a single Brown Teal and a female Scaup, along with some nice Grey Duck and Royal Spoonbills. We wound up on around 40 species for the day, not bad considering that we only had time for the ponds!

After we had trudged back to the hotel, we headed (back) to the airport and took off - for real this time!

A Little Pied Shag keeping its distance

A pretty pure Grey Duck next to a Mallard

A Brown Teal between two Mallards

Female Scaup

A nervous Variable Oystercatcher