Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Day two - little shears and pie crust

Up a little later on account of our awesome night out kiwi spotting, and a beautiful day began.  Sunshine and light winds as we headed south towards Marsden Cove for our pelagic.  We met our boat and skipper Steve and got a quick orientation before chugging slowly out in to the calm waters of the bay.  We cruised along the shoreline of the Whangarei Heads before spotting a couple of white-fronted terns, fluttering shearwaters and little penguins.  Steve slowed the boat and came around, and what!? – those aren’t fluttering shearwaters!  We had three little shearwaters right there nearby, feeding away, and right close to the shore.  Normally a super tricky species to get good views of, these birds just put on a show!  Awesome start!
We had really good views, spotted the little penguins a few times, and then decided to carry on.  We passed through a really large flock of fluttering shearwaters, getting excellent views of them as well, and incredibly no little shearwaters with them.  Amazing.  We carried on out and started to get into deeper water, gradually shelving out to the 100m mark, with more little shearwaters as we went.  We carried on a bit and with great views of the Hen and Chicken Islands and the adjacent coastline, put out the sea anchor and started to chum.
The winds were really light, and even after almost ten minutes there was one flesh-footed shearwater by the boat…hmmm. Almost too good!  But gradually the birds started to arrive.  A few little shearwaters passed, more flesh-footed shearwaters started to arrive, and numbers of white-faced storm-petrels started to put in an appearance over the slick, with fairy prions also coming in.  Ok, this is more like it.  We looked at every Cook’s type petrel that was coming past and then one just looked different.  It seemed slightly different in size, jizz, and as it swept around short in the bill – Pycroft’s petrel!  Everyone got on to the bird, and although not great views, it was seen by everyone.  The numbers of birds continued to steadily increase, and they kept us busy examining every Cookilaria.  Then, something strange happened, considering it was still the middle of the day – the number of Cook’s petrels really slowed, and most of the birds seemed to be Pycroft’s.  We’ve seen this sort of thing happen before at Whitianga, but late in the day.  This was still middle of the day, and suddenly, most of the birds were Pycroft’s, and great views of them.  We had a white-capped albatross come past and then come in a little later, as well as a Northern giant petrel – later on there were two of them!
We continued to chum, but nothing new was coming in, but certainly still some good numbers of birds coming past.  So, we decided to head further out.  We only went a short distance, but decided to start to chum again.  A few more little shearwaters, the white-faced storm-petrels started to come in, as well as the flesh-footed shears, and then – Grey-faced petrel!!  Yes, another of the targets, with a briefly but good fly by.  It was followed by several more over the next 45 minutes, so great views in all.  And then a NZ storm-petrel decided to put in an appearance!  Boom!  Great views, although brief, but only to be followed by perhaps 4-5 more of them, giving awesome views and making a number of nice close passes of the boat!  Then suddenly a strange Cookilaria – what’s that!?  Mottled petrel!!!  Another great bird, but not one that was expected.  A bit longer, a few more Cook’s, but mainly Pycroft’s and the wind was getting up and making it a little bumpy.  So we decided to head back in, but as we turned the boat to head home a black petrel dropped into our wake!  Score – the last of the ‘probables’ had turned up, making it really the time to head back.
We stopped in to have a cuppa in the shelter of some of the islands, listening to saddleback, bellbird, and spotting the odd NZ pigeon and red-crowned parakeet fly by.  Beautiful.  Back closer to shore we had another little penguin, before some oystercatchers, a fly-by reef egret, and dock.  To our accommodation, a lovely dinner and a few celebratory drinks, and bed!
Whangarei Heads, a pretty spectacular bit of country

Islands of a fowl nature, the Hen and Chickens...

Day One - Kiwi cocktail

The first day of a tour is always fraught with a mix of excitement, nerves, terror…well maybe not terror…. And when you pull back the curtain first thing in the morning and see big rain drops hitting the window pane, perhaps with a mix of hail in there, yeah that’s terror!  But that’s the weather in Auckland, you just can’t judge what it’s going to do in the next hour.
So, we all met down by the van, everyone looking chipper and ready for a great adventure together.  The small amount of luggage that was stowed in the rear compartment of the van had me slightly worried that perhaps we were missing half the group, but actually everyone was there, everyone was travelling light, so off we went.  We had a quick chat in the van first, introductions, plan for the day, all that sort of thing, and then off we headed.  First stop was a across the city, and to a spectacular gannet colony.  There were spots of rain on the way, and it really didn’t look good.  But we got there, jumped out and walked to the viewpoint and the sun came out.  On the way we had views of silvereye, grey gerygone, tui, and lots of blackbirds, song thrush, and the introduced but beautiful Eastern rosella.  We had spectacular views of the gannets nesting, with small chicks just visible occasionally below the adults.  There were also nesting white-fronted terns, their chicks small and fluffy enjoying the sun after the rain.
We enjoyed the views, the birds, watching out to sea as a big surf rolled in, the odd pied cormorant flying past.  A few variable oystercatchers on the beach, and kelp and red-billed gulls rounded things out.  Back in the van not a moment too soon as it started to bucket down!  Phew!  Off to a nearby bakery, first training run, and pretty good time, with three pies in the first lunch…. These guys are going to embrace the kiwi pie I feel!
Across some rolling landscape with a mixture of native and introduced vegetation, and on to a nearby estuary.  Within a few moments we had beautiful views of a hovering feeding fairy tern – the target bird – and then some nice views of a range of other species including NZ dotterel, white-faced heron, masked lapwing, paradise shelduck, black-winged stilt, and a glimpse of a buff-banded rail.  Several more nice close flight views of fairy tern, then we headed to another location nearby, another fairy tern, so roughly 10% of the NZ breeding population…not a good thing!  We picked up ruddy turnstone, a few more bar-tailed godwit, and a lot more NZ dotterel and variable oystercatchers.
Northwards and a stop at a small lake brought incredible views of at least four nesting Australasian little grebes, several pairs of NZ grebes, a pair of NZ scaup, several Pacific black duck, and a couple of Australasian shoveler!  Not a bad haul on waterbirds, plus a bunch of pukeko (purple swamphen), masked lapwing, a couple of black swan and more black-winged stilts.  Excellent!
We checked in to our accommodation in Kerikeri, did a little grocery shopping, and then to dinner.  After dinner we headed out for what we hoped would be the star of the show, and we were not disappointed!  Five Northern brown kiwi, one within a few minutes of parking the van, and then two birds that absolutely gave themselves up!  A male bird which fed and mooched through the grass for about 10 minutes right in front of us, until we left it be.  Only to find what was probably its female 30m away right in the open.  We watched her with her massive bill for about 10 minutes as she fed and pottered about right in the open, fully showing off every angle!  There were loads of birds calling, both male and female, and we then had beautiful views of a morepork just a few metres away, sitting right out in the open – there had been a lot of calling activity and this one gave great views.  It was all capped off with the fifth kiwi that showed well, and then crawled into the shrubbery and gave an absolutely honking series of calls, a female that was giving it heck!  Amazing!
Dreams of kiwi and morepork tonight, and the pillow never felt so good!
Day total – Seen = 51 + 2 heard (ring-necked pheasant and fantail); new for the trip = 51; total for the trip to date = 51
An incredible landscape

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Day twenty-one - Homeward bound

The morning was crisp and clear, no fog like the previous day.  It was still getting light as we rolled out of the Motel and headed towards Christchurch.  We made a quick stop for fuel and coffee, before getting on the road again.
It was a stunning morning and the epic shape of Mount Cook (Aoraki) loomed over Lake Pukaki.  We were lucky enough to see it again, standing proud and clear with almost no cloud at all in the sky.  We carried on towards Fairlie, a little wisp of fog here and there, spotting song thrushes, and other common things as we went.  Nothing of note seen, until the shape of the Fairlie Bakehouse rose in front of us!  We grabbed some lunch, and probably THE best pie in the World! ‘Salmon and Bacon’ pies from the Fairlie Bakehouse have to take the gold medal, wow, what a pie…. More pie crumbs on the floor of the van!
We carried on through some smaller towns, reaching SH1 again, a road we had become quite familiar with in many parts of the country.  On the outskirts of Christchurch we ducked west, finding the hills of Cashmere and dropping James there.  Then to the Christchurch Airport for David, Rick and Dotty, and then on to the Hotel for Pierre and Anne Marie & Connie and Larry.
Hard to believe our three weeks were over.  We had covered much of the country in our time together, compiled a list of 155 species – two heard only (long-tailed cuckoo and great spotted kiwi), a lot of pies, a lot of glasses of sauvignon blanc, some great beers, and a lot of laughs along the way.

Bird of the day– ‘Salmon and Bacon’ pie…

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Day twenty - Mackenzie

It was cool as we got up and loaded the van, then headed inland.  As we neared Omarama we could see low cloud ahead of us, and then we entered some pretty thick fog.  The fog persisted as we drove, but it was pretty clear that this was going to burn off and turn into a stunning day.  And that is exactly what happened.
We made our first stop in the fog, a place with waterbirds.  Before long we had a number of great-crested grebe chicks of varying ages in the scope, and then a couple of adults.  Two of the adults took a dislike to each other and really set into each other raising up out of the water and trying to attack each other. We also got good close views of New Zealand scaup, Australasian coot, and a few more black-billed gulls.
WE then moved on, grabbing some lunch, and then heading to a site that sometimes has black stilt.  This time just a few pied stilts, but some good views of some of the finches, and spectacular scenery as the fog had cleared.  Mt Cook (Aoraki) was sitting proudly amongst other giant mountains for all to see.  We headed to another spot, this time on the look-out for chukar.  All eyes were scanning, but nothing spotted.  We parked up and went for a bit of a walk, and managed to find a small covey of at least six birds.  They were pretty difficult to see at first, with just a couple of birds visible, feeding in the tops of small shrubs, but then a few of them moved up onto a rocky ridgeline and were much easier to see.  Excellent!  We kept eyes peeled for falcon, and also on the ground for skinks and other critters of interest.  One skink was seen and a few butterflies.
We then headed off and to another lake, where we pulled up and right there was a pair of black stilt!  Lunch out and enjoying the views of black stilt, we also had views of other waterfowl, and a couple of black-fronted terns hawked over the lake nearby also. A pretty stunning spot to enjoy our last lunch together out birding.  We soaked in the sun, enjoyed views of the stilts still further, and the photographers headed in for closer looks and some photos.
We then headed to a scenic stop, where we looked out across Lake Pukaki towards Mt Cook (Aoraki), wow, what a stunning view, and made even more special with the weather we were having!  And the fact we had seen it so well from both sides, both from the west a few days ago, and now from the east.  We took some photos, played tourist, and then carried on.  Our goal this time was Baillon’s crake, which we spent some time searching for, but not a peep.  There was a lot of good looking territory, and there just had to be birds there, but nothing showed.  So, we had to admit defeat and headed on to our accommodation.  We checked in and then headed to dinner.  Our last supper together, time to chat about favourite birds, favourite things during the trip, and to realise what an amazing trip we had had together.

Bird of the day– Black stilt x7, great-crested grebe x1
Stunning day in the Mackenzie

Views abound

Black stilts nailed

There it is!

Mount Cook looking stunning

The gang

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Day nineteen - back to the Mainland

Up, breakfasted, and out the door to head down to the ferry.  We dropped bags into bins, grabbed our tickets and waited on the dock.  Visibility into the water below was really good, and there were lots of fish around. But the highlight was a pretty decent 6ft broad-nosed sevengill shark that cruised below us twice.  What a cool thing!  We boarded the ferry and then headed out across the Strait.  The weather had definitely dropped and the swell was pretty light and winds light also.  We had a few sooty shearwaters, a couple of white-capped albatross, and some Foveaux shags waved good-bye, but that was about it.
We pulled in to Bluff, got the van repacked and then headed into Invercargill to an estuary area.  We scanned the abundant waterfowl, looking for anything that stuck out – namely chestnut-breasted shelduck – but could locate anything.  The tide was a long way out, so a huge amount of habitat to search. There were a lot of shoveler, teal, mallard and other things about, so it was nice to spend some time scanning the birds.
We then headed northwards, basically spending a good few hours motoring our way north. We grabbed lunch along the way, eating it in a sunny spot in a small layby, and enjoying the scenery.  About mid-afternoon we called into our first birding spot, an area where we hoped to see yellow-eyed penguin.  We walked a little along the coast, and there standing proudly in front of a bush was an adult yellow-eyed penguin.  It looked like it was in pretty chubby condition, and seemed to be in pre-moult status, so was probably set to spend the next few weeks on shore looking miserable as it changed into its new plumage.  Catastrophic moult of penguins does not look like fun!
We spent some time watching it, and the Otago shags flying past, enjoying the abundant NZ fur seals, and then decided to head further northwards.  We dropped into a site for great looks at both spotted and Otago shags, and had excellent looks at both species, the Otago shag today being new for the trip.  There were a few white-fronted terns about, but not a lot else.  So, after a bit of time watching the shags, it was time to head to the accommodation and check in.  A fabulous dinner at ‘The Last Post’ in Oamaru, and an early night.  Another great day!

Bird of the day– Yellow-eyed penguin x5, Otago shag x3
Leaving Stewart Island