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

Friday, 1 March 2019

Day eighteen - petrels and penguins

Hard to believe summer is over, and it is already the start of March….  We were up, breakfasted and then down to the wharf to meet our skipper and boat, and chum master extraordinaire – Matt Jones.  The weather was holding for the moment and looked like it could be a good one.  We headed out into the bay, getting some nice views of the Foveaux shag on a rock, with both the bronze form and the pied form side by side.  We headed out and searched a spot, finding one, then two Fiordland crested penguins sitting out on the rocks.  They looked like they were all dressed in their new plumage, and ready to head back out to sea after their moult.  We then spotted a couple more further along in a small cave, and then a third appeared there, so five birds in total – a great start to the day.
Next, we headed across to some islands to search for yellow-eyed penguins.  These birds have been having a pretty tough time the last few years, with a large proportion of their chicks dying at sites around Stewart Island.  We searched and searched in places we have found the birds before, but to no avail. A lot of fur seals though, and their population seems to be doing well.  We then headed on a bit further, and found a couple of resident brown skuas. They came in to investigate and Matt threw them scraps of cod.  These birds have become quite adept at snagging bits of fish out of the air! Excellent views and then off out into the deep blue.
We headed out to a reef system a fair way off the island, and the wind and swell gradually picked up, so that by the time we were in our location we had a good2-3m regular swell, and every now and then a big 4-5m whopper would roll through. We started chumming in earnest, and as we already had about 50 albatross already following the bird numbers soon started to grow.  We mostly had white-capped albatross, but a few Salvin’s and Buller’s albatross were amongst them, and a few Southern Royals as well.  Over the next few hours we had a few Northern giant petrels come past, but we stared intently looking for smaller birds, and were rewarded.  We ended up seeing about 15 mottled petrels, coming through in singles, with the first 3-4 showing really well, coming quite close to the boat in really good light!  Excellent!  We also had probably similar numbers of Cook’s petrels, also showing well, a single white-chinned petrel, and at least two grey-backed storm petrels and two white-faced storm petrels.  One of the grey-backed gave really good views.  But possibly the star of the show was a Campbell albatross that came right in to the boat, and spent probably at least an hour with us, giving really nice views.  We also had a few common diving petrels during the course of the day, nothing close, and of course hundreds of sooty shearwaters.  These were of course checked for short-tailed, but nothing stuck out.
After a few good hours of chumming, and some pretty good motion, it was time to head slowly back in to calmer waters.  Everyone had done really well and there was no sign of any green gills. So we headed in to check some spots for yellow-eyed penguins.  We did manage to get a fleeting glimpse of one in the water in one bay, but it did a disappearing act on us, and we just couldn’t see any others on land.  We rechecked some islands and then right at the last minute, there was one sitting on a rock with its back to us, sunning itself. We got pretty nice views of the bird standing proudly, sad to think this could become more and more difficult in coming years!
We decided it was getting pretty close to beer o’clock and so back towards Half Moon Bay it was.  But what a great day with some really good birds seen, and excellent views of everything! Another great day on the water!

Bird of the day– Campbell albatross x4, Fiordland crested penguin x1, mottle petrel x1, yellow-eyed penguin x2

Leaving Half Moon Bay

Chum-master Matt Jones ready for action

The morning penguin search

Hmmm...a slight miscalculation I think!

Successful at last a yellow-eyed penguin in our sights

Day seventeen - Stewart Island

A good night’s sleep with rock wren under the belt, and we loaded the van, and headed east.  We basically just headed straight for Bluff, taking the more scenic coastal route.  A few drops of rain, but mainly fine, and the weather and sea conditions looked a lot better than anticipated from the forecast. Nice one!
We arrived at the Ferry Terminal and unloaded the gear from the van into the bins provided.  Parked the van in the secure area, and checked in.  Looked like the ferry was going to be pretty full, but we snagged the seats on the outside as we got on.  Leaving the terminal we spotted a couple of little pied cormorants, and a spotted shag, and then out into the open water where a steady stream of sooty shearwaters started to come past.  There was probably about 1m swell and a light SW wind, so things were moving, but there wasn’t an abundance of birds.  Sooty shearwaters were the main contender, with a few white-capped albatross coming past as well.  Several common diving petrels were seen in the mid-Strait as well.  Getting closer to the island we passed a rock with a number of Foveaux shags roosting on it, with both the dark or bronze morph and the pied morph present.
A bit further in towards Half Moon Bay and we started to pick up a few Buller’s albatross, new for the trip, and some nice views in the end.  The ferry docked and we grabbed our bags and headed up to the South Sea Hotel, checked in, and then had our lunch outside looking out onto the bay. A couple of Buller’s albatross still cruised out over the water, hoping a fishing boat would come in and throw scraps.
After lunch we headed down to the wharf again and jumped onto our water taxi to head out to Ulva.  On the way we checked a couple of spots, hoping to find a late moulting Fiordland crested penguin.  Bingo, there was one in a small cave, peering out at us.  Shiny new crest visible, although it was a little tucked away. Everyone got a look at it, thankfully showing enough of itself to recognisable as a penguin.
We carried on around to Ulva, landed on the island and headed on in to the forest. It was alive with bird calls and we headed off to see what we could find.  Within a few steps we soon had a South Island saddleback nice and close, showing really well.  A bit further down and calls from red-crowned parakeets soon gave way to nice close views. We suddenly got information that there were two female kiwi fighting out on one of the trails, but it was a bit of a hike away.  So, we headed that way, not too quickly, but no messing around.  We got to the source of the information along the way – Matt Jones who guides for Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ and Ulva’s Guided Walks – and he gave us a bit more detail.  So, we carried on towards the area.  As it turned out we couldn’t find any sign of the kiwi…except for a poop!  We slowly walked back the way we had come, scanning and picking up other birds.  Another pair of saddleback showed really well, a small squabbling group of rifleman, tomtit, some brown creeper, lots and lots of robin, more red-crowned parakeets going crazy and chasing each other, and then a group of yellowhead that showed incredibly well.  Awesome!
We carried on out to Sydney Cove, wandered along the beach and enjoyed the views, before heading back into the forest and to the wharf.  A last saddleback fed right in front of us, showing itself off for the photographers.  Perfect. As we met our water taxi at 1700, a couple of little penguins fed just offshore, and we headed back towards the main wharf at Oban.  We checked a couple of spots for Fiordland crested penguin, but no luck, but a couple of close white-tailed deer feeding on a grassy slope were a bit of a surprise!
Back at Oban we had a break, drinks before dinner, and then a lovely dinner in the restaurant.  Just before 2200 we met with Ange our kiwi guide for the evening.  We drove up to a location just out of town, got out of the vehicles and despite the slight drizzle, we all had a good feeling.  We wandered up to the spot, and the drizzle seemed to dry up, and before long we had two kiwi in the light – a juvenile and a pretty small chick of the year chasing each other.  We ended up watching them both for some time, after they had finished their pursuits.  They were feeding vigorously and great to just spend time watching them in the light. We wandered some more, hearing a long-tailed cuckoo calling loudly, then found a large adult male and watched it for a bit.  We then retraced our steps, enjoying more views of the chick, before hearing a pair duetting and probably the adult male we had seen earlier call back. Awesome!  On the way back to the cars we had a large female show herself to just a few in the front of the group.  What an awesome way to spend the evening…

Bird of the day– Southern brown kiwi x8

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Day sixteen - wrens in the rain

It was breezy as we packed the van, and shortly after leaving Wanaka it started to spot with rain, then light rain, and then as we got closer to Queenstown it was really raining quite hard.  This was not looking good!  We had some lovely atmospheric views of Queenstown and surrounds as we wound our way down the Crown Range Road, with rainbows and big rain filled clouds.  We encountered a little traffic as we got closer to Queenstown, and then stopped for coffee and fuel.
As we headed along the shores of Lake Wakatipu it really was raining pretty hard, and the skies were looking pretty black.  Oh boy!  We pushed on, making a few quick stops along the way, then grabbed some lunch in Te Anau, and onwards towards Milford Sound.  Our big focus for the day was rock wren – a sometimes tricky species at the best of times.  Let alone when the sky is letting loose and the wind is blowing.  We had our lunch in the van, donned our warm stuff and wet weather gear and headed out.  We got into position and the rain was pretty steady, it really was not looking good. Why would a bird that has more sense than us, come out of the shelter beneath the rocks to dance around in the wind and rain!  It wasn’t long and the first victims started to fall, heading back to the van for shelter. But the bird was still not seen. We waited, and waited, the stalwarts starting to look a little damp around the edges.  It was cool, the wind didn’t help, but every now and then the rain would ease off a little.
All of a sudden during one of these periods a distinct sound was heard, that of rock wren, the first definitive clue these birds hadn’t gone for vacation in Fiji! The stalwarts gathered, peering up the slope towards where the sound had come from, and another couple of peeps from the bird.  Rick’s sharp eyes detected movement, and there about 70m up the boulder slope was a bird, then two birds, bobbing characteristically on the top of boulders. We yelled at the others in the van who had seen the movement of the stalwarts, and they came running in time to see both birds well.  The birds stayed visible for a couple of minutes, coming closer and standing prominently on the tops of the rocks for all to see.  They gradually disappeared, a few peeps being heard, and then it was as if nothing had happened.  The boulder field looked empty again and the spots of rain started to fall again…
We decided that we had seen about as much as we were likely to see, it had only been 1.25 hours wait, and to be honest with the weather the way it was we had been incredibly lucky!  We headed back to the van, seeing a kea fly high over head, and then headed off towards Milford Sound.  As we headed down to the coast the weather got better anf the rain stopped.  Mitre Peak was sticking its head through a bit, with some atmospheric cloud around, and of course with the rains there were literally hundreds of waterfalls.  Spectacular!
After a scenic stop, we headed back towards Te Anau.  A couple of scenic photo stops, a few stops to check for blue duck (alas none today) and then a short forest walk.  The forest was still dripping, the mosses and ferns swollen with rain, but the skies overhead were clearing and the sun peeping through.  And there were birds!  Rifleman seemed to be everywhere, nice and low down and great views had by all of multiple birds.  Tomtits and several robins were around and the latter bouncing off people’s feet! We had a little flock of yellow-crowned parakeets feeding in the mossy branches of the beech trees overhead – perhaps 6-8 birds.  And then a flock of about 15 brown creeper came in to check us out, with fantails, tomtits, several more rifleman, and bellbirds mobbing and chattering.  About as birdy as the forest could be!
From there it was back to Te Anau, checking into the accommodation and then off for a great dinner.  Hoorah for rock wren!

Bird of the day– Rock wren x8
Rainbow over Queenstown

The search begins

Water water waterfalls

Moody light and mountains

Mosses mosses and more mosses

iPhone South Island robin

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Day fifteen - FALCON!!!!

Up a little later after our kiwi encounter – even though it hadn’t been a late one. The mountains were clear of cloud and it looked like it was going to be a stunning day.  We packed the van and headed to a little forest walk, where we saw a few things like tomtit, grey gerygone, etc.  The views were spectacular, but the glacier was a little on the shrivelled side!  The rate at which it is receding up the valley is truly frightening.
We headed back to the van, and drove towards Fox Glacier.  All eyes were on the lookout for our real target bird of the day – falcon.  Although we still have a couple of excellent days ahead where falcon is a possibility, leaving it to the last day is a little nerve-wracking!  There were a lot of great looking snags for a falcon to be sitting on and looking out for prey, but New Zealand pigeons seemed to be using them, and were often distracting as a flying shape was seen…. Keep looking guys!
We grabbed some lunch in Fox and stowed it in the cooler and then a few minutes down the road, BINGO!  The call went up for falcon and there in a dead tree beside the road was the familiar shape of a falcon.  It looked big, probably a female, and a young one at that.  As we stopped the van and jumped out the bird flew, chasing a sparrow or some small passerine.  But the chase seemed half hearted and she broke away and disappeared into the back of a large conifer.  Damn! But we quickly realised we could drive a little and get a different and closer angle, and so in doing that we got really great views of the bird perched.  We had the scopes on her and watched her for quite some time, before she flew to a different tree, where we again were able to scope her.  Very very cool – and it is not every day you are able to get scope views of a killer bird like this!
We then headed off, grabbed coffee, enjoyed the sunshine and some stunning views of the mountains – Tasman and Cook (Aoraki) both clearly visible.  Heading on further south along the coast we made a little stop to enjoy some Hector’s dolphins frolicking in the surf, and then a lunch stop, enjoying more beautiful scenery and sunshine.  Life was good!
Heading on further we passed Haast township and up into the hills from there, where the scenery became even more impressive.  We took another walk in the forest, finding a very cool harvestman crawling across the path, and lots of mosses and filmy ferns hanging from the beech trees. We found tomtit, grey gerygone, and then heard yellowhead further down the path.  Before long we had some in view, and they weren’t at the top of the beech trees which was nice of them.  They were almost at eye level and about 8-10 individuals put on a really good show.  Awesome little gems of the forest that they are.  We enjoyed them for some time and then set about searching for rifleman. The calls were everywhere, but they were playing hard to get.  But, finally we had a couple in view and had really nice prolonged views.  Let’s hope their cousins play nicely with us tomorrow!
We then head onwards to Wanaka, making some scenic stops along the way.  It sure is a beautiful part of the World.  We checked in to our accommodation and then headed to an early dinner.  Superb meal on the lake shore and then an early night.  It looks like rain tomorrow, and we have a rendezvous planned with a bobbing wren!

Bird of the day– Falcon x6, yellowhead x2

Going, going, gone...Franz Josef Glacier slips away into the valley

Falcon iPhone shot hand held through the get the picture

Blue skies, stunning scenery

Monday, 25 February 2019

Day fourteen - ROWI

We had a little lie in after kiwi hunting last night, and then, shock horror!  We had a cooked breakfast and relaxing start to the day!  The skies seemed to be looking a lot more positive, and as we made our way up and over Arthur’s Pass it certainly looked clearer.  We made a stop and found three kea, including a known bird that was rehabilitated after losing an eye.  Unfortunately, some tourists had left a banana and capsicum (!?) for them, so we picked this up and put it in a bag in the van to put in the trash.
We got some photos, enjoyed the scenery and the antics of the kea, and then carried on towards the West Coast.  We wanted to make a bee-line for the landslide that had closed the road for a couple of days, but was now open.  It was between Hari Hari and Whataroa, and we wanted to get it behind us so that Franz Josef and our night with Okarito kiwi was set in concrete.
We stopped quickly at a sewage ponds, where there were a lot of waterfowl – a good collection of scaup, shoveler, grey teal and mallard, with the odd Pacific black duck. Nothing out of the ordinary though. We then grabbed some lunches, refuelled and headed on a little further to a beautiful little spot with a lake and some nice forest.  We went for a walk first, managing to find a couple of weka, tomtit, and our first brown creeper.  Nice views of all, so a decent little spot.  And lunch in the sunshine with spectacular scenery was pretty enjoyable.
We carried on south, checking each and every snag and tree top for falcon.  Eyes were peeled, and not for the lack of trying did we fail.  The landslide was cleared enough to allow traffic through, one lane at a time, and sure was a pretty big one.  A huge amount of rock, mud and debris had been cleared thanks to the local contractors, and work was still underway.  We then carried on out to Okarito, meeting with Toby from Okarito Kiwi Tours, who gave us a run down on the approach for the evening’s kiwi trip.  All very exciting!
We then made a stop for fernbird, but despite hearing them, didn’t manage to see one. So we carried on in to Franz and checked in to our accommodation.  An hour or so to rest up, then a beaut dinner of Asian styles which was really good, and then back out to Okarito.  We met with our guide Mike and went through an intensive training regime, which most of us passed.  As it slowly got darker we moved into place, knowing exactly what to expect.  We knew our kiwi was pretty close, and every now and then could hear him cracking a twig or rustling through a fern.  After about 50 minutes, with some moving up and down with precision, we could hear him coming out towards us.  A pause, and then Mike slowly put the light on and there was an Okarito kiwi (Rowi) literally 4m in front of us all!  He paused, and then moved off along and across in front of us, before re-entering the bush.  A few moments later he let rip with about 15 calls – from just a few steps away from us – AWESOME!  We left him to his night, and headed off.  A massive thanks to Mike for a great bit of work getting us all in to the right position and showing us one very special bird!

Bird of the day– Okarito kiwi x8 (perhaps?!)
A rare bird makes an appearance

Kea playing up for the camera

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Day thirteen - stilts

Rain, rain and rain…it hardly stopped all night.  It was still raining as we loaded the van, but as we headed south it seemed to be coming through in waves, perhaps we would push through it!  As we headed down along the coast, some of the roadwork stops gave us the opportunity to spot some dusky dolphins out close to shore. We made a quick stop at a small lake, lots of waterfowl around and also managed to get nice views of redpoll.  Heading on further south we stopped in at an estuary, where the tides was well in.  We searched the shoreline and found a few pied stilts, pied oystercatchers, etc and looking out further there were a few black-fronted terns, gulls, etc.  We relaxed as the tide started to recede and all of a sudden Pierre had a black stilt in the scope!  Excellent.  As the tide was dropping the bird started feeding out from where it must have been roosting, and we all got a good look at this critically endangered bird.  We spent a little more time looking at the stilt and watching godwit accumulate as the tide dropped, obviously coming from a high tide roost further up the estuary.
The weather was holding for us, but as we started to head inland we had more waves of rain come through.  The mountains were certainly not visible as we came to a small place to eat our lunch. The temperature was certainly cooler than we had experienced to date, and with warm layers and wind proof jackets on we munched on our sandwiches.
After lunch we continued inland, keeping a sharp eye for falcon.  We made a few scenic stops in between the showers, and as we got closer to Arthur’s Pass the rain actually eased off, although it was pretty windy in places.  We headed up through the village to a lookout site, where it was really windy.  A scan of the rivers and local hillsides revealed nothing of interest, so we headed back down and went for a short walk in the forest.  A kea did a nice fly-by before we entered the forest.  Beautiful beech forest surrounded us, as we wandered a trail. With the cool condition’s things were a little quiet, but we managed to get looks at South Island robin, tomtit, a glimpse of a rifleman, several fantails and grey gerygones, and bellbird. The forest was full of mosses and was our first introduction into the South Island beech forest, so nice to see some new plants as well.
We then headed back down, through the village and to our accommodation.  We checked in, admiring the spectacular views, and then had an early dinner.  After dinner we headed out in the hope of at least hearing a great-spotted kiwi.  We parked up, waited for it to get a little darker, the rain was holding off.  We headed to a spot, and of course it started to drizzle – and it was cold.  We waited as it grew steadily darker.  After a while the drizzle stopped, and we could see Orion and the Southern Cross.  And then a female started to call, perhaps about 100m away.  She called perhaps 20 times, and we waited, hoping a male would respond.  But after a bit with no response, we decided to head back to the van.  Excellent to have at least heard this very difficult to find bird!

Bird of the day– Kea x4, black stilt x4
The Waimakariri valley

The gang

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Day twelve - baby albatross!

Up early, yep early!  It was dark outside, and still dark as we got on to the boat at South Bay.  Gazza was up early and we were out on the water before the sun was up.  With an impending front approaching, it was wise to get out and get a pelagic under our belt before it could ruin our plans.  So we headed out, found a fishing boat pulling in its catch and checked out a few of the albatross around it.  White-capped, Salvin’s and a few New Zealand wandering right there!  Very nice.
We then headed out further, the light was increasing and although the sun was not yet above the horizon we could easily see the birds following us.  Cape petrels, a New Zealand wandering albatross or two, and some Northern giant petrels as well.  We made it to our planned location and set the chum into the water.  Pretty soon the birds were gathering, and the Cape petrels were squabbling!  We had a good number of birds around, with both Westland and white-chinned petrel side by side for good comparisons, a few Buller’s shearwaters flitted past, as did some Hutton’s of course at more distance, but pretty darn close for them, and we also had a flesh-footed and a sooty drift past over the time we spent chumming.  We also had both Northern and Southern Royals, good numbers of New Zealand wandering, and a few each of white-capped and Salvin’s albatross.  But we also were visited by a very special bird – an absolute minter juvenile wandering albatross that looked like it had just flown from the nest.  There was even a wisp of down still on its neck!!! Amazing!  It hung around a little while, and then after not being fed by any adults, or allowed to get to the chum, it decided food had to be somewhere else. What a beautiful bird!
We spent a good bit of time chumming, but it was soon time to head back in.  We had certainly beaten the weather, with pretty nice conditions, and the Kaikoura ranges completely visible and uncloaked by cloud.  Back at South Bay be loaded up and headed back to the Albatross Encounter base, having a quick look around, grab a coffee, and then back to the Motel for a bit. James headed out on a dolphin watch, getting some pretty nice views of dusky, Hector’s and short-beaked common dolphins, and the rest of us took a break to do things at the accommodation.
Later in the morning we headed out exploring the local area, looking for shorebirds and cirl buntings.  We found some banded dotterel and also a female cirl, as well as a few other things of interest.  Then had a nice sit down lunch at the Albatross Encounter CafĂ©, before most headed out on a Whale Watch trip.  Sounds like pretty great views of a couple of sperm whale, so everyone had a great day. The weather deteriorated after that, with light rain and then by the time we finished up dinner it was absolutely hosing it down!  Let’s see what tomorrow brings!

Bird of the day– Cape petrel x3, Wandering albatross x2, Salvin’s albatross x2, Southern Royal albatross x1
Up before the sun has its advantages

Nice and close to the birds

The front approaches, but beautiful scenery

Day eleven - shagging about

The morning dawned a little breezy, but as we headed to the Picton marina and our boat, the wind seemed to drop and the skies look a little brighter. Excellent!  We jumped aboard our boat with skipper Andy and headed off into the Sound.  We cruised out towards to outer sounds, looking for wildlife, and our first planned spot for King shag looked a little empty, until we got the right angle and could see a single bird perched up there!  Andy brought the boat in quietly and slowly, and the bird sat happily as we got great views and photographs.  Nice views of a very range restricted and rare bird under the belt always feels good.  We then headed on further out, checking out some feeding groups of fluttering shearwaters and spotted shags.  Nice to see them actively feeding and doing their thing.  We carried on out, and before long came to a location we have seen King shags roosting at before, and we were in luck again with at least 32 birds present, including a number of juvenile birds in their browner plumages. We were able to again get great views of these, and some nice photographs, before leaving them in peace and heading on with our mornings’ plans.
Next up was a landing on one of the predator free islands here in Queen Charlotte Sound.  The waters were nice and calm, so Andy brought the boat in nicely and we disembarked and headed into the forest.  Weka were on the beach to greet us, but they were not the main target, so off we went. We gathered in a location that had been good to us in the past and waited, and waited, and waited.  Orange-fronted parakeets are definitely not an easy species, and despite the relatively still conditions, ideal for listening for calls, there wasn’t a parakeet to be heard.  We watched and waited, with the sharp eyes of James and Rick being the only ones to latch on to a parakeet that briefly stopped into a bush in front of the group.  The parakeet seemed to vanish into thin air – well the forest at least – and unfortunately for the rest of the group was not seen again.  Very frustrating, but well done to them for spotting the prize.
Our time was up and we needed to get back onto the boat, checking out a bay on the way to see if we could spot a Hector’s dolphin.  Unfortunately, they must have been in the same place as the orange-fronted parakeet (!!) as they were not evident either, and so we headed back down the Sound towards Picton.  Nothing new on the way back, but a great morning in a beautiful part of the country.
We loaded back into the van and headed off, stopping at a bakery in Blenheim to get some lunch and then eating it in the sunshine in the vineyards.  We kept eyes to the sky in the hope of perhaps seeing the long staying black kite, but nothing seen except a number of harriers. We then headed southwards, calling in at some sewage ponds.  Lots of Royal spoonbill and waterfowl, a dunnock for all the group to see, and then three juvenile cirl buntings.  We carried on, stopping next at a large wetland area, and there were a lot of gulls and over 50 black-fronted terns.  Stunning little birds, they were in a variety of plumages, mostly adults already moulted into non-breeding, but a few with a little more black still on the head, and also a few juveniles which is definitely nice to see with this endangered species.
Next stop was a small lake, more waterfowl, and then all of a sudden the targeted hoary-headed grebe was right there in front of us – literally 15m from us! Really nice views of this tidy little bird with its white bill tip.  Carrying on down the coast distant Hutton’s shearwaters were spotted, and then a small pod of around 8 Hector’s dolphins just in the murky water near the shore – nice to get these beautiful little endemic dolphins after not finding them this morning.  Carrying on we had several Northern giant petrels close to the shore, fur seals in their hundreds, and unfortunately cloud!  The cloud was building as we headed into Kaikoura, searching for little owl for a brief bit before checking in to our accommodation.  A lovely dinner of blue cod and chips on the BBQ tables at the accommodation allowed a quick dinner and chance to get out to look for little owl.  This time success as we found a bird perched on a branch, staying there for everyone to get great views and a few photographs!  An excellent end to a great day!

Bird of the day– King shag x6, orange-fronted parakeet x2

Our first King shag

The pickup

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Day ten - crossing the Strait

A bit of a sleep in!  What a treat! We were off southwards, our last night on the North Island.  Heading south we stopped in at a lake to see what we could find.  Lots of waterfowl out over the lake and a few cormorants as well. But nothing stuck out as unusual, so it was on to the next spot.
A bit further down the coast we stopped for coffee and then to a sewage ponds – what would a birding trip be with out at least one sewage pond!  Again, a good selection of waterfowl, including a few male shoveler that still had traces of breeding plumage, and our last dabchick (New Zealand grebe), probably for the trip.  Scaup were good to see again, and lots of grey teal.
Onwards and we called into a nice little wetland area, where we had some time up our sleeve, and a few waterfowl.  So we enjoyed the sun and spent an hour at leisure wandering around.  The dabchick at the sewage ponds hadn’t been our last, there were a few more here as well.  Which was nice.
We then grabbed some lunch and headed south, stopping at a little way south where we had nice views of the coast and a pretty decent flock of white-fronted terns. We checked the terns to see if we could find anything different, but a good mix of various aged white-fronted terns. A few juveniles amongst which was nice to see.
After lunch we drove through to the Ferry Terminal where we cued for the ferry, looking out into the harbour.  We boarded, found a place on the ferry as we departed, seeing a few fluttering shearwaters as we cruised through the enclosed waters.  More white-fronted terns, red-billed gulls, etc.  As we came out into open water it was apparent the winds were pretty high, but from the north.  So, we scanned, and started to pick up more fluttering shearwaters, and then a good number of flesh-footed shearwaters as well.  One or two sooty shearwaters as well, and then our first albatross of the trip – distant, but recognisable as white-capped albatross. We did see a couple more over the time in the strait, but hard to ID at the distance they were – certainly white-capped or Salvin’s…more to come!
We also had a couple of common diving petrels fly with us, good to see after the very brief one we had seen on the Hauraki Gulf.  As we entered the Tory Channel we got a little more shelter, with a few gannets and red-billed gulls.  We got a few more spotted shags along the way, and then a brief Parasitic jaeger, before we docked.  We headed into Picton, but a slight hiccup has us in Blenheim, and dinner at a great restaurant before a well earnt sleep.

Bird of the day– White-fronted tern x4, common diving petrel x1, spotted shag x2, white-capped albatross x1
Good bye North Island (in the distance through the gap), hello South Island

Day nine - early bittern

Up early again, and out the door just after sunrise as we headed for a bird we had not seen at two of the three possible spots…Australasian bittern.  We arrived at the location, and got into ‘sneaky’ mode. The wetland was full of ducks, a few black swans and other things.  Scanning bits of the edge through vegetation allowed small parts of the wetland to be searched, hopefully without any bittern that were present seeing us.  And bingo, within a few minutes we had one, skulking along in the open.  The scope was on it quickly and everyone got a look, but it must have seen us at least a bit as it headed back into the vegetation a short way, but then stood there still visible for everyone to get a nice long look.  Excellent – not an easy bird, and certainly one that is tricky everywhere that it exists.  We watched it for a bit longer as it preened, searching for any others around the wetland, but no more were found.
We spent some time checking through the waterfowl, and the bittern slowly moved into the vegetation and out of sight.  So we headed back to the van and made the decision to head to a forest patch, to give it another go for long-tailed cuckoo and falcon.  We arrived and stood overlooking a lookout area. There was a bit of wind and it was much cooler than back in Napier.  We spotted a couple of harriers, but they didn’t elicit a response from any falcon. We hadn’t heard any cuckoos, so headed down and did a short walk, spotting a few robin, grey warbler, and the odd rifleman along the way.  A nice walk, but the wind was making it a little hard to hear things and it wasn’t terribly birdy – certainly our targets were not evident.
We headed back towards Hastings and made a quick stop for lunch and then a great spot for pipit.  We sat eating lunch, hoping for one to appear and a few moments later there was one right beside the van! Perfect, excellent views of this smart little bird.  We spent some time enjoying the scenery, the pipit and our lunches, and then off to the south we headed.  We made a couple of quick stops along the way, heading to the Manawatu Estuary.  The tide was well out, but we scanned and could see bar-tailed godwits, knot, pied oystercatcher and banded dotterel, and also a couple of wrybill.  There were a couple of white-fronted terns as well, with a few other bits and bobs, and then we headed to the accommodations, checked in and had a rest before dinner.  An excellent dinner with some lovely food at a nearby restaurant, before a good night’s sleep.

Bird of the day– Australasian bittern x8
Sunny skies and great views

Pipits sure are hard to find around here...