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 ☺.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Miranda Banding Camp! - Day 1

After an incredible Sunday on Rangitoto Island, it was back to school for me and the other 799,000 students around the country. But unlike most of them, after a long and dreary Friday afternoon I crammed into a car with 3 other young birders (yes, there are more of us) and our driver, and we headed north. It was wader season!

The beginning of spring heralded the arrival of the Shining and Long-tailed cuckoos, the Buller's Shearwaters, and most importantly for us, the Bar-tailed Godwits and the host of assorted waders that came with them. Around 90,000 'Barwits' arrive in NZ every year, with around 6,000 arriving in Miranda, at the Firth of Thames. So why was I totally disregarding exams, homework, sleep, and an attempt at a social life in exchange for a few birds? Us crazies were heading north to Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre for the YBNZ (Young Birders New Zealand) Youth Banding Camp, headed up by the amazing Ian Southey and others, and subsidised by Fruzio and OSNZ (Ornithological Society). We were going to band birds! This involves capturing them in a fine net known as a mist net, putting a metal numbered band on them and taking measurements. The band meant if the bird was ever trapped again, or found dead, someone would be able to track how far this bird had gone.

I hauled myself out of the car seven pieces of pizza later, and slowly the blood began to return to my legs. We dropped our bags in our dorm (Dotterel Dormitory) and entered the main room of the Centre, where I was confronted by a sea of new faces. A birding newbie like myself, I had never seen such a large gathering of 'bird-nerds', and, slightly bewildered, I introduced myself and was able to put some faces to names. I tried to eat dinner, but that cheap Ngaruawahia pizza didn't want to be forgotten, so I didn't even manage seconds. After dinner, George H, Michael B-S and I headed outside to 'scout out the area for crakes', and when we got back - lo and behold - the dishes were all done! Our gaggle of birders milled collectively into the 'Wrybill Room' where I gazed longingly at all the amazing bird books contained within, until someone started speaking and I gave them my undivided attention. So undivided, in fact, that I can't even remember what they said, so I will move on.

More socialising was followed by bed (not necessarily sleep - thanks Joe!), and we mentally prepared ourselves for a brutal 5am start.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Rangitoto Island and Bird of The Year

Last day of the holidays and I was hard at work studying... just kidding! I was out of bed at 5:00, grabbed my birding bag and jumped in the car. Dad drove the whole family north to Auckland, where the sun finally made an appearance behind the dark grey clouds. We navigated to Quay St, found a 'nearby' carpark and touched the ground again at 7:15. According to Google Maps, it was a 5 minute walk to our ferry terminal, where we would catch our ferry at 7:30 to Rangitoto Island.

Unfortunately, Google Maps was wrong. A walk that we thought was a mere 200 metres turned into a frantic 1.5km run, as we dragged with us our bags and younger brothers. 7:29 and we finally arrived at our terminal, where the man in charge took a startled look at our hastily printed tickets and let us through. As soon as we boarded, the engines kicked into gear and we chugged northeast, to our eventual destination.

30 minutes and hundreds of terns and gannets later, we arrived in Islington Bay, whereupon I began my search for my target species - the Shore Plover. This beautiful wader was once common around New Zealand, but the numbers had dropped rapidly since European colonisation, and now the only place to see them without heading to the Chathams was right here on Rangitoto and its sister island Motutapu. 

A Black Backed Gull at the wharf

I got off the ferry, binoculars concealing my eyes, and bumbled around the bay in search of the Shore Plover, before I was dragged onto a track by my parents. Despite my initial protests, the track proved to be beautiful, and I totally put aside my birding aspirations for a moment to appreciate the rugged volcanic landscape.
The beautiful and rugged volcanic landscape

I did say I put aside my rampant twitchiness for only a moment. The "tiekekeke tiekekekekeke tiekekeke dadadada" of a North Island Saddleback jerked me out of my non-birding stupor and my binoculars soon attached themselves to my eyeballs. In desperation, I turned to my left and was met with blackness. My lens caps were on! By the time I had figured out what was going on, so had the bird, and it was gone.

We continued along the coast as I counted Variable Oystercatchers, and at one point caught up with four NZ Dotterels who had captured an old military base and were doing quite a good job of defending it. Guessing from their excited behaviour and breeding plumage that they were nesting, so we moved on. Only to find that Dad had misread the map taken the scenic route and we had to turn around to find the path.

A rather angry NZ Dotterel - this was his island!

Eventually, we reached Rangitoto Wharf, seeing and hearing Saddleback, Tui, Fantails and Grey Warblers, as well as some shorebirds, but there was a conspicuous absence of Shore Plover... We ate lunch part A on the shore and begun to head inland on the Summit Track. As well as the familiar bush birds we saw a few skinks and some lovely plants. But if you really cared about those then you wouldn't be reading this blog so I will fast forward to the summit.

A fat, lazy pair of Brown Quail were half-heartedly nibbling bread at the top of the steps, while Whiteheads buzzed in the distance. At the very top, we posed for photos with supposedly stunning Auckland behind us. The sun had burnt away any traces of cloud, and we were treated to a million-dollar view behind us. A few bits of cracker were used to entice Chaffinches and Silvereyes nearer for a halfway decent photo, and then I struck out for a brisk walk around the crater, pausing to grab some pictures of some more Brown Quail and watching the whiteheads flit around me.

An interesting contrast - Auckland seemed half a world away

Bread! (and some quail)

The killer view from the top of the volcano

A male Chaffinch looking to nick some cracker...

After some time, we decided to head back down to the bay, so we began the arduous trek downhill, this time on the more direct route. I lead the charge and saw many more Saddlebacks and Whiteheads. About half an hour down, I heard the drawn out, bubbly chatter of a Red-Crowned Parakeet - first lifer! (New bird) I managed to get some amazing views for a few seconds, but before I could get my camera out, it and its mate had disappeared into the forest.

As the day got hotter, the number of active birds began to drop, however the view down onto Motutapu was more and more gorgeous, so I wasn't complaining. We had been walking for about 2 hours and were drawing closer to sea level. As we passed the historic houses and gardens I mentally switched into full birding mode, as I knew this could be my last chance to see a Shore Plover (as the small population on the island could easily go locally extinct). Distractions including other people and a pressing need to urinate were totally ignored as I reached Islington Bay and edged around the coast.

Caspian Terns were croaking on the beach with both mainland species of oystercatcher and some pukekos. I flushed a Brown Quail that set my heart racing, but there were still as many Shore Plovers as there were moa, so I was getting worried. Only 30 minutes until the ferry left...

I abandoned the mangroves and moved to the northern side of the causeway, where a REEF HERON crouched only a few metres away! If I had more time, you would have read my post about walking for two hours to try and see a 'Reefie' in Raglan only a couple of days previous. This was fantastic, but wasn't as rare as the bird I was chasing, so I scanned the rocks around the beach until...

A Reef Heron - I felt bad for the lack of attention he got with the Shore Plovers behind him!

SHORE PLOVER! Two tiny, black faced dotterels popped up onto the rocks next to me, and flew down onto the beach, right next to the reef heron! My camera was filling up rapidly with all of these mediocre shots, and the birds ran almost up to my feet! Once they were finished with their little display, they were gone, and the reef heron left after them. I was literally dancing for joy, ignoring the baffled Swedish tourists watching me...

The star of the show!

When the ferry left, I was on it, still buzzing from this incredible encounter, and even the dead austerity of Auckland Central failed to interrupt my fantastic mood. Even school the next day was bordering on enjoyable in light of recent events...

A note:
I fully intended to publish this post before the long weekend, and steer your vote for Forest and Bird's Bird of the Year towards the Shore Plover, seeing as I am campaign manager for Shore Plover and everything... Maybe I will win the 'worst campaign manager' award.

3 species in 1 shot! Shore Plover, Reef Heron and Variable Oystercatchers.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Scaup, Seagulls and Sulphur

Finally, the holidays! No use wasting time, so I am spending the wet weekend in Taupo and Rotorua, spending time with the family and some friends from overseas, and some light birding with a chap from Paris. 

Seven-thirty saw me rushing around, stuffing my field guide, binoculars and raincoat into my cheap fabric 'birding bag', jumping onto eBird and frantically finding the best "hotspots". We squished into the van and started heading south, as I pointed out the common birds like Tui, Fantails and Spur-Winged Plovers (after the usual explanation that our plovers were not actually plovers!).

Stop number one on my mental birding map was the Aratiatia Dam, where we watched the dam open and I counted the scaup and shags sitting along the top. Once the raging waters had subsided we moved on to a few touristy spots, but as this is a birding blog we will fast-forward this crazy narrative.

At long last, we arrived in Taupo,  where we put our bags in our slum motel and braved the mad weather to go and look at the birds at the waterfront. Hundreds of waterfowl were bobbing in the rain, and we saw Black Swans, Australasian Coots, and the ubiquitous NZ Scaup.

The next day, a few of us went out on a boat trip on the lake, despite the howling wind and drizzle. Again, coots, scaup, swans and mallards were common and widespread, and a highlight of the cruise was watching the skipper feed the ducks out of the window... on the second tier! The ducks kept pace with the boat, and among the pure mallards and grubby hybrids, I managed to spy a few rare Grey Ducks! This was a big deal for me, as these were some of the purest Grey Ducks I'd seen, with green speculums (specula?), grey bills and clearly striped faces. As we approached the land again, I heard the 'zzzsh' of Whiteheads (the bird not the pimple!) in the bush, as well as some of the more common bush birds. By the time we got back, I had also added my first Dabchick of the trip to the list, giving me a total of 15 species in 2 hours. Not fantastic, but the views were stunning, so I got off the boat in a good mood. 

The skipper feeding a Mallard out the window - quite spectacular!

Checking for Grey Ducks on the lake

Later in the day, we headed north-east to Rotorua, stopping at some of the best geothermal spots. Again, this isn't Lonely Planet, so I won't bore you with the details, but long story short we arrived in a marginally less seedy motel that night and settled in. Early (well, early for the holidays) next morning Martin and I ended up in the aptly named Sulphur Bay.

The beautiful Sulphur Bay

Let me get this straight. We did not ignore the warning signs. We did not go to a restricted part of the bay to look at gulls, and we most certainly did not trespass on restricted land. Somehow we were still able to rack up a good few species, including Greylag and Canada Geese, 4 Dunnocks (special for us northerners), all 3 gull species and of course, hundreds of scaup. After a look at the thermal area that gives Sulphur Bay its name (from a safe distance of course ;) ), we headed home, detouring at Rainbow Springs.

Bird of the trip - the charismatic Scaup. I wish there were a few more of these closer to home!

Boom. My holiday. No lifers, but it was great fun. Hope yours were as good!