Thursday 14 March 2013

An awesome tour!

Well some of you might have thought I'd vanished off the face of the Earth!  Where were all the rest of my blogs from the Jan/Feb tour with Josep and Jordi?  Good question!  The tour was awesome, but it was also hectic!  Most days we were on the road by 6-6:30am and not finishing in the field till 6:30-7pm, sometimes later, with dinner, a quick download of some photos and bed.

As we were travelling I managed to write the following about the next few days after leaving Stewart Island, but will be much briefer with the outline following on...


So from Stewart Island we headed straight up to Te Anau, quickly stopping at Miles Better Pies for some lunch and then heading up into the Eglinton Valley towards Milford Sound.  The key target was rock wren and with clear skies but a threat of rain the next day, we wanted to get it under the belt.  Well, for a start the Homer Tunnel trail was closed.  I guess due to the warm conditions and considerable snow melt the rocks all above the Homer cirque are very unstable and so the track is closed due to rock fall danger…bummer!  So we decided to head on to another site to try our luck for rock wren.

We spent at least three and a half hours, getting a couple of very brief glimpses of rock wren, and although they were clearly present they just did not want to show themselves.  At one point we could hear what may well have been a female calling from a nest intermittently in a pile of rocks, and then nearby had much more strident calling (possibly the male), which generally results in a bird on top of a rock somewhere bobbing about.  But no, the birds remained well hidden, and unfortunately no video or photos of these guys.

As we headed back to Te Anau a brief stop revealed a stoning pair of blue duck that came and investigated us and fed to within just a few metres.  So at least the cameras got some food in the end.  It was a late arrival back into Te Anau, but a very nice dinner at Kepler’s to end the day!

Next day it was up very early and back out to Homer Tunnel.  On the way we stopped at a couple of lookouts and had nice views of brown creeper feeding chicks, tomtits, etc.  Then we refound the blue duck pair who were still present and showing even better with better light, and some really nice feeding behaviours.  We got the full gamut from diving, upending, dabbling, foot paddling, and even eating the seeds from grasses lining the riverbank.  Very cool.

Then at Homer Tunnel we had a bunch of kea play fighting which was fun to watch.  At one stage four birds were involved jumping in the air and rolling around on the ground seemingly in mock battle.  They were of course distracted by campervans and owners and ended up in their ‘real’ natural habitat, on the bonnet of a car or campervan, so provided plenty of fun and video/photos.  We spent several hours looking for rock wren from the carpark, but no luck so headed across to Milford Sound where the boys went for a sight-seeing trip on the beautiful Fiord.  They unfortunately didn’t see any Fiordland crested penguins, but got some nice scenery.

Then as we headed back towards Te Anau we checked out a few spots getting stonking views of rifleman and South Island robin, with some nice video and photo opportunities.  An awesome dinner of crayfish and salads topped off the day!

The next day we were up early, but the rain was up before us!  For the first time on the trip we had rain…and it pretty much rained all day.  But we had a big drive ahead of us, and although it would have been nice to have stopped and birded on the way, we luckily already had most things under our belts anyway.  We did make a couple of quick stops in between showers, and checked out Jackson Bay (no Fiordland crested penguins) as well as checking out some awesome white-bait fritters from Curly Tree Whitebait just north of Haast.

We arrived into Franz Josef with it still raining, checked into the accommodation, and then about 6pm the rain stopped and it started to fineup.  We headed into town for a take away pizza and then headed out to Okarito to meet up with Ian Cooper from Okarito Kiwi Tours.  It was fine out there and looking pretty good…and it was!  We had stunning views of both the male and female of a pair, with really close views of the female and then close and prolonged views of the male.  Awesome!

Next day was fine and sunny and we headed back to Fox Glacier to try and find some falcon.  We had only just left Franz Josef and a falcon flew past, and although we stopped we saw it flying off over the forest.  So near Fox Glacier we managed to find a pair, which sat in the top of a large emergent rimu tree.  Unfortunately they were a little distant, and although we got some security video, we needed better views!


So after heading up the West Coast we caught up with the escapee pair of Cape Barren geese at Hokitika sewage ponds, a couple of weka on the way up and over Arthur's Pass, and then stopped at another spot for some more authentic Cape Barren geese, getting some pretty nice footage.

It was Kaikoura for the next couple of days with a bunch of trips out with the guys at Albatross Encounter, and even a bit of Dolphin swimming for Josep and Jordi.  They got to swim with around 700 dusky dolphins which would have been pretty awesome...almost as awesome as the huge seafood meal at the White Morph restaurant!  The weather was almost too nice off Kaikoura, with some pretty light winds, but as usual we had a good line up of seabirds, and one of the trips we even had stunning views of a pod of killer whales which were heading north along the coast...very cool!

Then on to Picton where we did a trip out onto the beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound.  Of course the target was King shag, and we had a good group of them roosting on a headland, with both adults and immature birds.  We did a landing on Blumine Island where they have done several releases of orange-fronted parakeet over the last 18 months or so.  This is a bird I have searched for in the Hawdon Valley i think at least 4 times AND FAILED!  So I was not too optimistic when we headed up from the beach.  But within about 2 minutes we found a bird and then had some stunning views of it and another bird over the next half hour or so.  Even managed video and photos, so very very happy.  Needed photos for the book!

The ferry crossing to the North Island that afternoon was fairly quiet, but we spent the evening at Zealandia (formerly known as Karori Sanctuary) looking for little spotted kiwi.  We had excellent views of at least two different individuals, and heard a bunch more, so pretty happy with that.  Next day headed northwards through Waikanae stopping in at some local ponds and wetland areas and getting some great photo opportunities with cormorants and waterfowl.  Nice sunny weather and some relaxed time shooting lots of different subjects.  Late that afternoon we chased down a few things at Manawatu Estuary including great views of wrybill, banded dotterel, and although low tide we caught up with most of what we needed to see.  The next morning we managed common tern and white-winged black tern for the list, but not good photo opps.  Heading further north that day we scoured the Turangi area for blue duck but to no avail, spending a bit more time looking for forest birds, fernbird, and waterfowl, inc very nice close dabchick.  The fernbird was so close you could hear it clicking softly and stayed perched in a low bush right in front of us for more than five mints - unheard of!  Of course my camera was in the car, but Josep must have gotten some stunning video.

Next morning up early, searching for bittern, but no luck, and then on through to Taupo and out to the east coast...home time in Hawkes Bay.  We basically headed straight to a forest area to search for NZ falcon, something we still needed good footage of.  We managed to see most of the small forest birds well on the way around the trails, and despite being right in the thick of a pair of falcons' territory, there was not a peep from them.  I spent some time scouring the branches and trees in the area and managed to spot one of the pair roosting and we were able to get within 20m of it whilst it perched for five minutes or more, stretched, yawned and then flew off!  Again I reckon the video should be stunning and I managed a couple of hurried shots.  We continued on with more of the forest species, getting excellent whitehead, a few rifleman, both male and female tomtit and some excellent close robins.  Then down in to Napier and some time with waterfowl and managed to find the plumed whistling ducks in Taradale.  Then it was time for a huge BBQ seafood dinner which I whipped up on the BBQ for the guys and my family.  Scallops, fresh local paua and mussels, shrimps, lamb chops and salads!  Fantastic!  Of course a few glasses of wine as well!

Next morning up early and off to track down a bittern...and we found three!  Excellent views of three bittern feeding in the open some of the time, and moving through vegetation on the edge of a pond.  None were close, but with a bit of zoom I think the results will be pretty good for a species that can be pretty tricky...especially when much of the country is in the grips of a drought!  Then on to Cape Kidnappers where we had a beaut morning with clear slue sky conditions and some excellent video and photo opportunities.  There were a lot of chicks still present with a strange breeding season in which birds laid late, and then a lot of desertion of eggs, followed by a lot of relaying.  So when we were there a few chicks were about to fledge, but most were still a month or more off fledging.  But plenty of action which was the main thing.  Then a few quick stops around Napier, before on to Taupo where we had a relatively early night...with more seafood for dinner! ;)

Next morning we encountered our only other drizzle for the trip, with a light drizzle over Pureora.  Although we had at least six long-tailed cuckoo calling right around us we saw a couple fly, but just couldn't nail one to a perch long enough to get the video onto it.  With the drizzle and all other target species in the can already, we decided to cut our losses and headed to Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park.  We filmed around the park much of the afternoon, and then after speaking with the operators were lucky enough to get the opportunity to film and photograph 'Tasman' the female great-spotted kiwi.  She was a feisty wee bird, but it was awesome to see her so close and get the opportunity to get some photos.  Very cool.  Late afternoon at Miranda, and we headed to the Shorebird Centre to have fish and chips for dinner, with a relatively early night.

Early morning up and down to the Stilt Pond to try and find the shore plover that had been around for a while - success - and some stunning calm conditions for photography of sharp-tailed sandpipers on the Stilt Pond, plus wrybill and a bunch of other waders.  Flocks of wrybill and red knot and bar-tailed godwit wheeling around as the tide got close to high tide, with them seeking out their high tide roosts.  Then it was a quick trip across the Coromandel Peninsula to head out on our afternoon pelagic from Whitianga.  With a good breeze, but relatively calm seas it was looking good.  But we struggled to attract many birds at all, and it was only right towards the end when we had a group of about 5-6 Pycroft's rafting on the water nearby that we really nailed that species...phew!  We did have most of the other usual species though, with flesh-footed, fluttering, and Buller's shearwater, white-faced storm-petrel, Cook's and black petrel, etc.  So in the end a good trip.

Next morning back across the Coromandel and then a massive drive up through Auckland, up the East Coast to Kerikeri.  Here we stayed with Detlef and Carol Davies and they were able to show us a pair of morepork roosting in their backyard in the late afternoon - a very welcome addition finally to the list!  After dinner we headed out with them and got great of views of at least 6+ Northern brown kiwi.  We spent a few hours walking around trying to get some video, and I think in the end we succeeded.  Next morning it was time to head south and a bit of a drive before heading to some spots along the coast closer to Warkworth.  Our main target was fairy tern, and we nailed a spot with at least 7 birds, including both adults moulting out of breeding plumage and juvenile birds from this season.  Incredible to think we were watching probably about a fifth of the total population of this species at this one spot!  Managed some stunning photos and video, although the light was a little harsh being early afternoon.  We then headed to another area to find brown teal, get some nice footage of pukeko (yep!) and a few other common things, before heading in to Warkworth for the night.  Next day was up and out to Tiritiri Matangi, again with stunning weather and we pretty much had most things on the walk up to the Bunkhouse as usual.  Checking in to the Bunkhouse some of us had a little rest (phew!) and then the afternoon was spent tracking down takahe (lovely family interactions with chicks and juvs), kokako, saddleback, etc.  We had nice views of more brown teal, and excellent spotless crake, and then after an awesome BBQ dinner (if I do say so myself) we headed out for little spotted kiwi.  By the time we got back to the Bunkhouse around 11:30pm we had four tuatara and excellent close prolonged views of two kiwi.  It wasn't enough for me though, and I headed back out on my own managing another two kiwi and more importantly got a few photos...finally a useable photo of this species (more for the book!).  One of the kiwi was right beside the Bunkhouse, despite many searches around there over the years, this was the first time I had actually found one right there...very welcome.

Next morning we spent time wandering the trails getting more film and photos and then caught a water taxi back to the mainland, heading off back up to the north of Warkworth to see if we could better our fairy tern opportunity...and we did, this time not so many birds, but much much better softer light.  Some stunning video and photos, of the terns and oystercatchers, NZ dotterels, etc.

The next morning was a pelagic out of Sandspit with Brett on Assassin.  And as usual we had fantastic sightings of the key birds, including New Zealand storm-petrel within a few minutes of stopping the boat.  We also got lots of grey ternlet around Maori Rocks, but were rater surprised to not pick up anything unusual during the course of a very good day.  All the boxes ticked though!

And then it was the end...the following morning I dropped the guys at the International Airport and headed home.  We had had four weeks on the road together and seen some incredible birds along the way.  I think we had unprecedented photo and video opportunites of most species and I got a new lifer - orange-fronted parakeet - now that doesn't happen often on a tour in NZ!  We di7166 kilometers (+ nautical miles by ferry, plane, and charter boat), saw 154 species during the trip, nearly a TB of video taken, around 25,000 photos (by Brent, so not including those taken by Jordi), and more crayfish and seafood dinners than is healthy!  Jordi and Josep were great company, and it was a real privilege to be able to show them around New Zealand!

Josep, me and Jordi

Beaut male blue duck up close and personal

Stunning reflections in the calm Fiordland air

Kea playing

Salvin's albatrosses really are one of my favorites, here off Kaikoura

White-chinned whipping past the boat

Salvin's in flight

Killer whales hijacked one of our BIRDING trips off Kaikoura! ;)

Couple of NZ wandering albatross do battle...mind the eyes!

Seems everyone was battling, two Northern giant petrels go at it

NZ wandering albatross coming in to chase off others from the chum

Spotted shags

LIFER! Orange-fronted parakeet on Blumine!

Little black shag drying itself in the sun

White-fronted terns near Wellington

Josep at work

Little black cormorant with a small eel

Falcon roosting

Awesome white variable oystercatcher at Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park

Tasman the female great-spotted kiwi

Sharp-tailed sandpiper with beaut reflection at the Stilt Pond, Miranda

Wrybill in flight

Two Pycroft's petrels coming at us

Fairy tern with a white-fronted tern in the background showing how small these birds really are

Fairy tern line-up

Female bellbird and female stitchbird

Takahe in the grass on Tiritiri Matangi

Juvenile kokako taking a look

Beautiful light and a beautiful fairy tern

Black petrel zips past on the Hauraki Gulf

Star of the day as usual, New Zealand storm-petrel

Buller's shearwater, surely one of the most beautiful shearwaters

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