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 ☺.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017


My last exam was finally over on Thursday 23rd, and I was well and truly on holiday! By Friday afternoon, I was packing my bag with binoculars, scope and field guide. My parents drove three of us young birders up to Miranda Shorebird Centre, pausing at Whangamarino Wetland on the way just to check for bittern. No luck, but we were undeterred. After some 'shortcuts' from Dad, we arrived at the Centre, where we were greeted by a friendly Keith and shown our dorms.

Now, I have just written a really long 3-part post on Miranda from about this time last month, so I won't repeat everything. This is just the highlights... I also must admit these are not my photos - I wish! They were taken by the other two YB's - Adi and Joe.

Saturday morning we walked up to the shellbanks and stilt pools, where we got to try out the new hides (Stilt and Wrybill hides). Along with the common ducks etc we saw a few New Zealand Dotterel, a single Banded Dotterel (our only one for the trip) and a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Now, Keith had promised us free accomodation if we found a new bird for New Zealand, so we desperately tried to turn some of the dotterels into Kentish Plovers and some of the godwits into Marbled Godwits, but to no avail. At the main (Godwit) hide, we saw a beautiful juvenile 'Sharpie', and a Curlew Sandpiper along with the innumerable Bar-tailed Godwits and Red Knot. White-fronted Tern were common along with Black-billed Gulls. What can only be described as 'oodles' of Pacific Golden-Plovers were also present, the most I had ever seen at one time. Of course, we learnt that if only we had been a little earlier we would have seen a Cattle Egret in beautiful breeding plumage - that would have been a new bird for my NZ list...

White-faced Heron with an eel

One of the upsides of birding in New Zealand is the sheer number of pelagic or ocean-going birds. However that one came back to bite us when Joe spotted a dark seabird sitting on the ocean in the distance. I opened my guide, only to find that the bird could be any of the following:

  • Grey-faced Petrel
  • Black Petrel
  • Flesh-footed Shearwater
  • Wedge-tailed Shearwater
  • Sooty Shearwater
  • Short-tailed Shearwater
That is New Zealand for you! With no chance of ID'ing it, we kept watching the distant ocean until Joe (again!) saw two Skua harrying some unfortunate terns, which with the help of some other birders we identified as Arctic Skua (or Parasitic Jaegar). Number 112 on my year list!

I had the awesome privilege of being able to show some Texan birders some of our extra-special birds such as NZ Dotterels and Wrybill, and it struck me as odd how we had such different reasons for coming. We were both birding, but Martin was on the lookout for Wrybill - a common bird here - and here I was getting excited about the solitary Curlew Sandpiper we had! When they described their common shorebirds in Texas, they more or less named some of the rarest waders in NZ, none of which I had seen. Anyway, they gave us a lift back to the Centre, where we parted ways - they only had a day and a half in NZ!

Me in front and Joe behind - counting Pacific Golden-Plovers

One of the PGP's in question

In the afternoon, we walked up to Kaiaua where we saw.... lots of White-fronted Terns. We were hoping for the ironically named 'Common Tern' or 'Arctic Tern', but no luck. We had fish and chips and headed back.

White-fronted Terns

A greedy juvenile Black-backed Gull

Variable Oystercatcher and NZ Dotterel

The next morning we got to the hides earlier to catch the Cattle Egret, but it again eluded us. The only bird of note that I haven't mentioned earlier was a Brown Teal off on the shellbank. Our time here was over, and the holidays had started out with a hiss and a roar.

Welcome Swallow by the hide

Monday, 27 November 2017

Australasian Bittern at Lake Rotokauri!

Technically, I was studying on Wednesday morning. Indeed, I ticked many of the boxes. I was up early, ate a decent breakfast, picked up a book.... and jumped into the car.... (If you are reading this, Mr Thomson, sorry)

7:30 and I arrived Lake Rotokauri Reserve, spotting scope over my shoulder and binoculars around my neck. The sun crept into the flawless azure sky, and the common passerine birds were in full swing. Before I even got out of the car I heard Silver-eyes, Greenfinches, and Song Thrushes, along with other abundant suburban birds. For a solid 5 minutes I just stood there, picking out the individual songs and honing my ear-birding skills (who knows, I might go blind one day!). As I ambled along the track I fantasised about flushing a Japanese Snipe from the nearby raupō, or watching a Little Egret fly overhead (Yes, birders have boring fantasies). I was brutally dragged back to the real world by the booming of a male Australasian Bittern! I say booming, but these birds sound exactly like someone blowing air over the top of a glass bottle very loudly. Totally unmistakeable! I couldn't believe it at first - these birds were a 'year lister' for me and I was only a few minutes from Hamilton city centre! I thought that this bird must have been a fluke, but almost immediately after the first another bird answered from the other side of the lake! 2 bitterns in 20 minutes! Hoping I would see one, I edged my way around the track to the lake itself, where I deployed my scope and went into full nerd mode, ticking the Black Swans and Canada Geese dotted around the lake along with the trio of Pied, Little Pied and Black Shags. I also scanned the lake edges for dabchick, but no luck. Mallards were of course present, however no Grey Ducks. I played a Spotless Crake call and soon heard the prrrrrrrr of a nearby bird answering. Another wetland bird!

There is a bittern somewhere in this picture...

The lake itself

Then, another bittern began booming to my left, and I balanced precariously on the very top of the bench trying to see it. No luck, but every time I stepped down from the bench, ready to give up, it began again. After a good 20 minutes of yo-yo-ing I ignored the bittern and began to walk around the lake. Much to my disappointment I couldn't walk all the way around the lake, so I backtracked and went the other way, the bittern taunting me all the way. In the satellite ponds around the main lake I saw White-faced Herons, and Spotted Doves around the houses and gardens, reminding me just how urban this area is. Siamang Gibbons from the nearby Hamilton Zoo briefly caught me off guard, hooting and howling, before I realised what they were. As the day warmed up, Skylarks began their almost endless summer song, while a Shining Cuckoo whistled from a huge oak tree. It was around 10am now, and I headed back, on my way to the lakeside bench. On my way I heard 4 distinct bittern calls from very different points around the lake, bringing my bittern count up to at least 4. And then, as I snuck along the boardwalk, I startled a bittern sitting on the path! It took off frantically, crashing into the nearby rushes, while my heartbeat slowed to sensible levels. Naturally I was ecstatic, as I hadn't seen a bittern in over a year, and certainly didn't expect to see one. Only a few minutes later, another bittern took off from the boardwalk, this one much bigger and greyer. This was crazy!

The only other bittern I have seen, at the Ohautira Wetlands near Raglan.

Nothing amazing after that excitement, and I still didn't get a photo of a bittern, but nothing could get me down after the awesome privilege of two bitterns in a few minutes...

Monday, 13 November 2017

Miranda Banding Camp! - Day 3

My dreams were rudely interrupted by another 5am start, followed by a mad dash to the first vehicle. As I was still almost entirely asleep, this was a race I lost, but eventually I was able to clamber into a car and we drove to the Miranda Orchard once again. Mist nets were up again, and banding started pretty soon after I arrived. Once again, I was struck by the realisation that New Zealand's avifauna must be almost entirely composed of Silvereyes, as somehow these were the only birds I got to band. Luck of the draw I suppose, but it was a bitter pill to watch others band Sacred Kingfishers, Goldfinches, House Sparrows, Blackbirds, Thrushes, a Fantail and a Starling. Regardless, it was a fantastic morning for everyone, and we banded a total of 48 birds that day. I had the privilege of extracting a Fantail from the net, which was simply amazing. Excluding the tail, these are NZ's smallest birds, and to me this bird felt impossibly light and fragile. Again, all birds were extracted without a problem, and we celebrated another great banding session with another amazing lunch.

After lunch, we were given the option of more banding, or birding. As Michael assured me he knew a great spot for terns, I went with the birding option, and George, Michael and I headed to Ray's Rest with the incredible Paul, all the while dreaming of rare birds. Michael got doubly excited when he realised it was low tide, which "is the best time for terns". Like a fool, I believed him.

We saw a total of 3 terns, all Caspian Terns. This was after a 4km walk in the sun, and the price we paid for this infinitesimal victory was 'birder's burn' on our necks due to our ubiquitous binocular straps. Cheers Michael. We then walked on to the main hide, where we saw many more terns, although sadly only Caspian and White-Fronted Terns. No Arctics, Commons or Antarctics for us. We birded around the stilt ponds for a few hours, again seeing the Curlew Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Sharp-Tailed Sandpiper and Brown Teal among the more common birds. Despite earlier disappointment, this was a great time for birding, and we eventually returned to the Shorebird Centre exhausted, as the others regaled us with tales of banding success that afternoon...

After dinner was when the real excitement began. As the sun set, we strung mist nets over the fetid, stinking Stilt Pools, in preparation for Godwits, Knot and Pied Stilts. Adrian, the 'boss bander' of the weekend, staked out with a thermal imaging scope (so jealous 😀 ) while the procedure was explained to us. One or two lucky individuals would be selected to go with Adrian to retrieve the birds, and take them to the banding station we had set up between the two big vehicles. Then another person would have the honour of banding, while the rest of us would watch with envy. The first bird silly enough to fly at night was a Bar-Tailed Godwit, which we banded, measured, weighed and released again. Red Knots began coming in as well, plus a Pied Stilt and a few Wrybill. When it was my turn to band, I reached into the box, praying that whatever was in there didn't have teeth. My hand wrapped around a soft and smooth Godwit, and I drew it out of the box. The first thing that struck me was its leg, kicking to get away. The second thing was the oddly soft, rubbery bill and amazingly smooth feathers. I held the bird in amazement, and the infinitely gentle face contrasted with the seemingly limitless fury of the bird. Eventually it settled down, and I gingerly begun to put the band on, took my measurement and carried the bird out to the mudflats. There I released it, and left, never to see that bird again. But, if anyone ever sees ZUZ again, PLEASE let me know!

I then lay down in the damp grass for a kip, wrapped in my jacket, and got up when it was time to pack up the net. Got into bed at 1am, and for once got up at a sensible hour the next morning, at about 8am. We finally left at around 2pm.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Miranda Banding Camp! - Day 2

The sharp ones among you may have noticed the amount of time that has passed since Day 1... Maybe you are thinking the smart thing to do would be to post day 2 the day after day 1... I blame school.

Anyway, Saturday dawned bright and painfully early, as the wake up call for our dawn was 4:45! I say I woke up, but what I really mean is that I was moving. My brain only caught up with my body a few hours later. So we wolfed down our brekkie like a flock of caffeine-fuelled gulls, and grabbed our various bird-nerd odds and ends, including notebooks and (of course!) binoculars. I'm surprised no-one slept with them on. I jumped in one of the vehicles and we drove to the Miranda orchard, a site of much bird-banding over the past few years, mostly due to the Miranda Field Course. When I got there people had already set up the mist nets, and us newbie banders were shown the ropes by the amazing Michelle Bradshaw, a (the?) Bird Banding Officer for the Department of Conservation. Using 3D printed plastic legs we practised putting bands on birds of different sizes, learning about different types of band, the equipment used, how to take bill and wing measurements, and how to 'read' a bird's wing moult. After an hour or so, I felt ready to work with a real bird, and before long a rather unhappy Silvereye was placed in a cloth bag in front of me. More and more birds were coming in, and at one point a flock of around 20 Silvereyes managed to get stuck in a net. We had to call for reinforcements, and almost the whole team came to this one net to extract and bag these birds. While I only got to band Silvereyes, 'the team' managed to catch, extract, process and release Sacred Kingfishers, Song Thrushes, Eurasian Blackbirds, House Sparrows and Goldfinches. Not only that, but Indian Peafowl, Spotted Doves and Shining Cuckoos were all present near the orchard, so we could do a little birding as well. At around 11:30, we got hungry, packed up the nets and headed back for lunch.

After a delicious lunch, we were told that we had some 'downtime' and that we should all get some rest... yeah right! We all went birding instead.

We were driven out to the hides by the amazing supervisors, and set up the scopes for some serious birding. Acronyms were thrown out like stones, as we spotted PGP's (Pacific Golden Plovers), VOC's (Variable OysterCatchers), SIPO's (South Island Pied Oystercatchers), BBG's and RBG's (Red and Black Billed Gulls) as well as Royal Spoonbills, and lots and lots of Bar-tailed Godwits and Red Knot. The total was climbing rapidly, with a stunning Kotuku or White Heron standing practically right next to the path! We continued counting and ticking and checking and counting again, going over the flock of birds with a fine-tooth comb until... "CURLEW SANDPIPER!" Oscar called out from the other end of the hide. This would be a 'lifer' for me, so I raced over to where Oscar was and just stopped myself from kicking him off his own scope for a look. Selfish, I know, but I'll admit 'other people' was well at the bottom of my emotionally charged list of priorities. I composed myself, and Oscar found the bird again and stepped aside to let me use his scope (cheers Oscar!). Frantically I pushed my eye up against the eyepiece, and desperately scanned the Red Knots for an out-of-place bird. It seemed that some divine force had decided to strike me 'bird-blind' and so my panic grew exponentially, as the flock started to get restless. Again, I steadied my nerves and took a fresh look... and there it was, in the middle of the scope! As soon as I managed to splutter out "I see it!" , the entire flock took off again, and I was never to see that bird again. Boom. Bird 191. Elated, I moved back to my previous haunt, and with renewed eyes I continued my searching. Gillian, one of the supervisors, had taken pity on us and brought some delicious filled rolls (God bless her!), of which I duly wolfed down, so I was fully distracted when the big event happened.

The Kotuku

Wrybill on the shellbanks

Pacific Golden Plover in foreground, Red Knots in background

"SHORE PLOVER!" George yelled, using Ian's superior scope. What? I thought George must have made some mistake, as only 6 days ago I had made a trip especially to Rangitoto Island to see these birds. I couldn't believe it, and neither could George! The whole crew took turns to view this incredible bird (which you can read a bit about here), and I was there smug... not a lifer for me! Regardless, this was an incredible rare bird, as there are only around 175 left in the world! This makes them one of the rarest in New Zealand, so George was justifiably ecstatic, as were we all. So there it was. As the sun went down, the light died on the rarest bird I have ever seen. It would not be seen again at Miranda. Ephemeral, just like the population itself.

Needless to say, we got to bed quite a bit earlier that night. Another 5am start tomorrow.