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, 22 May 2018

Migrating South!

It's a long one this time! I initially tried to split this up by days but it was taking too long. Hope you don't mind!

My journey began, as all good birding trips seem to, at 3am Monday morning. I threw on my warmest clothes, jumped in Dad’s tiny Ford Fiesta, and we were off. At 5 I arrived at Auckland airport, a balmy 12 degrees, and had a full hour to master the intricacies of the self-check-in kiosk, wheeling my optics-filled suitcase through the terminal. At 6 I was sitting on the runway, counting off the first birds of the trip. Spur-winged Plover. Check. Welcome Swallow. Check.

After a short delay, we left the tarmac in the predawn darkness. The dark clouds above me were foreboding, but I pushed such thoughts to the back of my mind and watched the watery sun break over the horizon. At 7:30 we landed safely in the labyrinthine Christchurch airport, and I had a solid 4 hours to puzzle over the complexities of the pelagic birds we were likely to see and expand my Canterbury list out to 5 species. Thankfully, the security guards didn’t seem to mind my airport birdwatching, and at 11:30 I was back in the air, marvelling at the braided rivers below me and the Southern Alps to my right. After 45 minutes or so, I was welcomed to Dunedin by Lloyd Esler, the head honcho as far as this camp was concerned, and settled down to wait for the other young birders to arrive. Once we had assembled, ornamented by all manner of binoculars and cameras, we piled into the vehicles and headed south.

We pulled in to Invercargill that afternoon and caught up with the other half of our birding squad, who described the Brown Creeper and Sooty Shearwaters they had seen that morning, to our obvious jealousy. As this was my first time birding in the South Island there was renewed magic in every bird, and the black phase New Zealand Fantails were especially special. We assembled at Lloyd’s house after dinner, admiring the veritable treasure trove of avian paraphernalia among the seal bones, space junk, and (oddly enough) the “Museum of prickly objects”. He gave us the rundown on how the trip was going to roll and handed out some bird booklets with a whole bunch of other freebies (Cheers Southland Tourism!). We climbed into our creaky bunk beds scarce able to sleep, dreaming of the birds we would see in the morning.

A small part of Lloyd's collection!

The next day was brisk (absolutely glacial) and breezy (think gale force winds), but our spirits weren’t dampened as these proved to be excellent conditions for the morning’s seawatch. At the Bluff ferry terminal, Buller’s, Salvin’s, and White-capped Mollymawks were nice and close in, my first look at such birds. Untold numbers of Sooty Shearwaters zipped past further offshore, while the odd Black-fronted Tern ‘bounced’ past. A welcome Foveaux Shag stayed for a while, before moving off, another new bird! At 9, we boarded the ferry, eyeing the churning sea, but we were reassured by the calm-looking staff. This turned out to be a poor way of predicting the conditions, however, as once we had powered out to sea the waves rose to five-metre swells, tossing our ferry around like a bit of driftwood. My only distractions were the magnificent mollymawks almost within arms reach, and a small pod of dolphins seemingly undeterred by the weather. It began to hail, and once I lost feeling in my fingers I paid devout attention to the horizon, and little else.

“WHITE-HEADED PETREL!” Someone called over the howling winds, and I staggered across the deck awash with seawater, throwing myself against the railing desperately trying to catch a glimpse of this bird. It was to no avail, however, and my failure to lock eyes onto this Pterodroma would haunt me for the rest of the trip (I’m still recovering!). Resigned to my bird-blindness, I returned to my seat and clung onto nearby objects in a futile attempt to remain upright, or at least stable. After an eternity we pulled into Oban, and I lurched onto the pier. The hail hadn’t relented, and as we dragged our belongings to our new lodgings we were predictably soaked. However, despite the less-than-ideal weather, once our stomachs had settled we brightened up again (except for those who didn’t get seasick - they were cheerful the entire time, lucky sods!), and it was easy to quickly fall in love with the idyllic town. Kaka screamed and whistled from the mighty pine trees, and more Foveaux and Spotted Shags perched on the offshore rocks. A gorgeous Buller’s Mollymawk was taking shelter below the pier, unshaken by our presence.

By far the most stunning of the mollymawks! This one was sitting just below the pier!

Once we had stored our luggage safely away in our very comfortable lodgings, we met up at the Lions International Pavilion (or, more simply, The Pavilion) where we would be based while we were on the island. After a quick conference and lunch, we all went out, either walking or driving, to Mamakau Reserve, where a predator-proof fence kept rats, mice and deer out of the point. No mustelids here though, and this success meant that we were accompanied by an array of fantastic bush birds, including Red-crowned Parakeet, New Zealand Bellbird and Kereru. Our guide for the afternoon educated us on the plethora of traps, poisons, and other defensive measures used to keep the reserve’s endemic wildlife safe, and told us how the reserve once had the highest Tokoeka density on the island (and therefore, in the world!). This got our hopes up, but it turned out that we were clearly too noisy a party to attract any Tokoeka. However it was a thoroughly enjoyable walk around, and we were taught about the dazzling array of flora and fauna in the area. Sadly, I was foolish enough to wear shorts as my jeans (bad move again!) got soaked during the pelagic, and so I was forced back to the pavilion to warm up.

Hail on the bowling green!

The rest of the crew made it back alive just before dinner, and after hot showers and dry clothes we all trooped out to Acker’s Point on a quest for Sooty Shearwaters and penguins. A single Little Penguin was shuffling up the beach when we went past, our first for the trip, as well as a sole Sooty Shearwater moaning from its burrow. Tired but enthusiastic, some of us plopped into bed while the more adventurous ones went kiwi-spotting. At this point, I was not one of those.

Wednesday was the biggest day as far as birding was concerned, and the weather was actually looking pretty mild. Excitedly, we boarded the Aurora suitably early and chugged out to Ulva Island where we divided into groups. As expected, Ulva was spectacular, with a multitude of rather special bush birds. Weka was my first, running along the golden sand at the pier. Another new bird! As we got into the bush, Brown Creeper were fairly numerous, as were (to my delight!) Mohua/Yellowhead. Parakeets were abundant, chattering excitedly in the canopy, however to my frustration, only Red-crowns could be successfully identified, and unlike other groups, we dipped out on Yellow-crowns. This defeat, however, was offset by our extraordinary number of victories, and we bagged South Island Robin and Saddleback pretty early on. The robins were amazingly friendly, coming so close my camera couldn’t focus! Weka were bold and fearless, one even picking the crumbs off my sleeve when I crouched down to take a photo! We all found great joy in feeding the weka by turning over rocks on the beach, and the weka were intelligent enough to rush over like hungry chickens and scoff the crabs trying to get away. Rifleman were unexpectedly rare, as my previous experience with them on Pirongia had led me to believe they were always abundant. We did get good views of a few, although they were moving far too fast for a clear photo. As we ambled down the track we reflected on the species seen so far and came to the conclusion that the only ones we had missed were YC Parakeet and Tokoeka. A rustling right by my feet led me to jest that it was the very kiwi we were after, and I naturally dismissed it as yet another weka. Something prompted me to check though, and when I crouched down I saw not the beady eye of a weka, but the striped grey behind of an enormous Tokoeka! That wasn’t all though, and for reasons unknown, the bird decided to lumber out in front of us and run down the gravel track for a good sixty seconds! I nabbed a few blurry photos and it was gone, never to be seen by us or any other group again. Magical.

Sunny Ulva Island

One of the inquisitive Weka

A South Island Saddleback

One of the charismatic South Island Robins

The Tokoeka! At last!

A Tomtit on the beach

One of the Mohua

Once we had finished up on Ulva, we all boarded the Aurora again and headed into the open ocean. With Matt Jones from Wrybill Tours as our knowledgeable guide, we had high hopes for this trip. Almost immediately we were surrounded by almost a hundred mollymawks, as well as the comically ugly Northern Giant Petrel. Graceful, delicate Cape Petrels begun to land near our boat, my first look at these birds. As we neared another small island, someone’s sharp eyes spied a black-and-white crested penguin - either Fiordland or Snares Crested! Photos confirmed it as a Snares Crested-Penguin to our excitement, and we ticked off the first UBR-able bird of the trip! A few Prions flew past, tantalisingly close, but we were unable to identify them and they remained mysterious. The odd Common Diving-Petrel whizzed past, looking like a “flying block of butter”, as David described them. Some breathtaking Southern Royal Albatrosses made a nice comparison to the smaller mollymawks and proved to be every bit as awe-inspiring as I had heard. Once we were almost out of sight of land, we started chumming, and the birds were very obliging. The mollymawks soon left us in stitches with their cacophony of honks and shrieks, and it seemed very hard to reconcile their graceful looks with their barbaric and frantic squabbling. Much like some people I suppose!

Up until now, the sea had been oddly calm, a far cry from yesterday’s churning and rolling. Of course, our luck couldn’t hold out for long, and soon the landlubbers among us (myself included) were hanging onto anything that didn’t move. We didn’t stop our quest for birds though, and our persistence was rewarded by a Procellaria flying right in close. Initially, it was declared to be a White-chinned Petrel, but closer examination revealed a rare Westland Petrel, the second record for an Aurora pelagic! We neared some of the famous (infamous!) Muttonbird Islands and added yet another penguin for the list…. Yellow-eyed Penguins were present around the islands, two prominent on the rocks. A new bird for me and many others, and absolutely stunning to look at! At this point, we turned back, to people’s disappointment or delight. Seasickness was now rife amongst us, and the islands were soon behind us as we powered back to Oban. However this didn’t keep us from looking for a few extra birds, and a surprise Hutton’s Shearwater or two kept things exciting. Some of us decided that we were done for the day, but I and a few others went kiwi-spotting yet again, without success. I wasn’t too bothered given my earlier sighting, but a few others were and went out again, seeing one very close up at the park.

Thursday was a chill day in multiple ways. The wild weather kept us layered up, while we refrained from any particularly crazy birding antics. In the morning we wandered out to Golden Bay, seeing nothing incredibly exciting bird-wise, but had a nice look at the seaweed and mollusc diversity, while in the afternoon myself and the other newbie birders were taught the intricacies of identification in the field, as well as note-taking. Michael then educated some of us on the art of lawn bowls, which to my surprise I actually enjoyed, and after dinner, we went to the gymnasium for a bit of running around. A group of us learnt how to play Squash off of Wikipedia, and we swiftly became adept (just kidding, I can’t play sports!). Ability aside, we had a lot of fun and climbed into bed exhausted and praying for some half-decent weather for the crossing tomorrow morning.

All of the blue skies from Wednesday had vanished without a trace, but to our delight (and apprehension) the ferry was still running. For some reason, a Cook’s Petrel was sheltering in a stack of pallets, and Ian carefully extracted the bird and sent it on its way. Once it was time, we nervously boarded the ferry and set off. Thankfully the swells weren’t as bad as I had been fearing, but throughout the crossing, I remained nauseous and fixed my eyes on the horizon to avoid an 'incident'. At one point a dark tern flew past, and to our agony was not properly identified, but it was likely to be an Antarctic or Arctic Tern. A few storm-petrels were strung off the back, and the candidates I managed to see magically turned into diving-petrels...oddly enough. Needless to say, I missed out on those ones.

After an only slightly traumatic trip I had my feet on dry land again, and our first stop was the Pak’n’Save in Invercargill where we loaded up on junk food and drink. We moved on to the currently miserable Pleasure Bay where the rarities that had been at the lagoon earlier that year (Whiskered Tern, Northern Shoveler, Chestnut-breasted Shelduck) had mysteriously evaporated, but we did see some nice Royal Spoonbills among the ducks.

Next, we journeyed to Borland Lodge near Fiordland National Park. We stopped off at a few spots on the way, turning up nothing out of the ordinary until we arrived in Blackmount. When we got out of the car, we listened to the briefing by one of the staff, before George frantically herded us into the vans again to see the Chestnut-breasted Shelduck he had seen just 200 metres down the road! I was one of the first to be shuttled to the bird, and got a few photos before… it flew. Another UBR-able rarity! It boggles the mind to think of the infinitesimal chance we had of seeing this one, yet we were fortunate enough to see one! The shelduck kept popping up in nearby fields, and everyone got a great look at it over the few days we were there. That night we went out down the road hunting for Little Owl. Despite some fairly convincing noises we could only lock in Morepork for the night which was a little disappointing, but only strengthened our resolve to return one day.

My blurry shelduck photo

The next morning we arose horrendously early, and the clouds had receded enough for the snow-clad mountains nearby to be visible. First stop was Te Anau, where we had a look for some Crested Grebes, but they remained elusive. Lots of Scaup and Canada Geese were present though, and the views were so stunning that we left Te Anau as happy as clams. We slowly gained altitude, stopping off at Mirror Lakes to look for Marsh Crake and reflect on our progress so far… Nothing much there though, so we moved on to Lake Gunn where my first Yellow-crowned Parakeet of the trip made its presence known (finally!) along with lots of Riflemen and robins. This was the trip where South Island Robin was cemented as my all-time favourite bird, as they were amazingly confiding and while trying to get a shot for Fruzio (one of our sponsors) one perched on the box of frozen berries! So photogenic! Anyway, once we had wrapped up our walk around the famous beech forest, we moved on to Monkey Creek, where the charismatic Kea strutted boldly around the carpark. These were a bird I had wanted to see for a long long time, and to have them so close was an incredible experience. At this point, Ian had gone over to a bridge and was searching the rushing water for Whio. He spotted a pair, followed by a third, and called us over. Eventually, I saw them too, and Blue Duck was added to the list! Then, to add to our excitement, the pair flew right upstream, and we managed to get to within a few metres of these rare birds.

One of the inquisitive Kea getting too close

Whio braving the rapids

Tension built as we neared the Homer Tunnel. Some would argue that this was the target bird for the entire trip, living in often inaccessible alpine areas and declining in number rapidly. Rock Wren were the big ones for today, despite their diminutive size, and we were all nervous and excited as we clambered up the rocks. We were briefed on what we were looking for and spread out among the scattered boulders. Dunnocks and squeaky boots added to the confusion, as we were listening for the slightest ‘pip’ from one of the wrens, and these elements made it a hundred times more difficult. For around half an hour we searched, but to no avail, and it was a disgruntled bunch of birders that got back into the vans. Rock Wren was a new bird for almost every young birder on the trip, and we were all pretty hopeful to start with. Oh well, all the more reason to come back!

After a few short stops, we arrived at the Milford Sound foreshore, where the first bird to greet our eyes was the regal White Heron… perched on top of a campervan! The obliging driver let us get some photos before he left, and the sight of the beautiful heron trying to keep its balance while he drove off was absolutely hilarious. The kotuku then flew onto yet another vehicle and contrasted nicely with the black Audi it was perched on. Again, we got to within a few metres leaving the heron amazingly calm and dignified right in front of us. Eventually, it was time to go and we headed back to Borland Lodge for dinner and sleep, our last night of the trip.

Trying to look majestic on a car roof!

Ok, ok, I couldn't stop taking photos!

Finally, a crisp, clear day… just as we left! A New Zealand Falcon saw us off, and we hit the long road to Rakatu Wetlands. The wetlands were really quite stunning, and some Grey Duck surprised us, hidden amongst the other more common waterfowl. After a little persuasion, three Fernbird showed themselves, but only allowed us fleeting glances as they hid in the bushes. No crakes though. We left Rakatu for dreary Lumsden, then Gore (my least favourite town in the whole world!), and we said our goodbyes as me and a few others had to go and catch an earlier flight. We weren’t quite done yet, though, and a quick visit to Kaka Point added my last ‘lifer’ of the trip - Otago Shag. I left Dunedin on an incredible 20 lifers, and all up it was a fantastic trip.

The stunning Raketu Wetlands

Can you spot the fernbird!?

My favourite bird of the trip has to be the obliging Tokoeka on Ulva, while there were also some nice surprises such as Snares Crested-Penguin, Westland Petrel, Hutton’s Shearwater and Chestnut-breasted Shelduck. Big dips were Rock Wren, Crested Grebe and, for me, White-headed Petrel. Huge thanks must go to the trip organisers, the adults who put up with us for a week, and of course Lloyd Esler. I should also thank the other keen young birders who helped make the trip so enjoyable, and Fruzio and Waikato OSNZ for sponsoring me! I definitely couldn’t have made it without the financial help they gave, and I am very grateful to them for that.