Sunday 27 February 2011

It’s White Island, but not as we know it

So we awoke to a relatively windless White Island this morning, that was like we knew it from last time when we were here and got ashore.  There was a little swell, but it all looked manageable...that was until the wind suddenly started to rise and gradually increased to a point where things really weren't going to work.  A small southerly swell was rolling right into the landing site on the island, and with the wind increasing it looked less and less likely we would be able to get ashore as the wind built to a steady 15+ knots.  We did a couple of circuits of the island in beautiful light, and managed to get some nice shots.

In the end the operators arrived from Whakatane to help take us ashore (driving right through the middle of a flock of bathing gannets just offshore from the island – not good form guys!) and we decided it just wasn’t going to be possible to get our guys ashore safely.  So we did another pass of the island, and then headed out and around Volkner Rocks.  Managed a distant view of a grey ternlet on the rocks, before then heading off towards the Mercury Islands.

I did a lecture in the late morning on gannets, and then we had beautiful cruising conditions as we headed north-west towards the tip of the Coromandel Peninsula.  The wind gradually seemed to drop, and with only a little swell it was very pleasant on the bow.  A few birds around, with Buller’s, flesh-footed and a single little shearwater, Black, grey-faced, Cook’s and at least one Pycroft’s petrel and some absolutely stunning flying fish.  I made it my mission to try and get some decent shots of flying fish this afternoon...and I think I succeeded!  Got some really great shots – possibly some of the best of the month onboard, so very happy.  Also a couple of rays right on the surface feeding (possibly some sort of devil ray?) and later one leaping from the water twice...why not a third time as I had things lined up and ready to shoot!  Also a leaping ocean sunfish – absolutely bizarre and very distant photos, and a massive black shape in the water that may have been a manta.  No cetaceans...I guess we had had it yesterday with a large pod of common dolphins that came in and rode the bulbous bow for about 20-30 minutes as we left Gisborne.  Got some great shots (took about 1200 in all!) just hanging the camera out over the side and shooting without being able to see.

We are now heading in towards Auckland where it all finishes as I write this.

Common dolphins riding the bulbous bow

Common dolphins leaping

Beautiful clear water and common dolphins

White Island with two of the gannet colonies visible

White Island puffing away

A small flying fish (uncropped)

Grey-faced petrel in flight

Uncropped flying favourite of the afternoon

Flying fish angling away

Just cutting the surface

Beautiful light

Thursday 24 February 2011

Thinking of Christchurch

Well it is a very sad time for Christchurch and the people of New Zealand. This is just to let people know all is ok with my family and I. Many are not so lucky and our thoughts are with them. Thanks for the emails and contact to find out if we are ok, all much appreciated.

Monday 21 February 2011


So today we had an awesome time in Kaikoura...a place I love!  We anchored just off South Bay early this morning, and the sun was streaming in through the port holes.  Up and off to shore in the Xplorer and I led the first birders on an Albatross Encounter trip.  Gary was the skipper, and so I really didn’t need to be there, but of course wanted to!

So we headed out into a lumpy sea, there was no wind but a good 2-3m residual swell.  Before too long we got onto a local fishing boat processing some of its catch and so the birds were coming pretty easy.  To start with we had at least 10 wandering albatross, a single Buller’s albatross (probably the Northern subspecies), Salvin’s and white-capped albatross, and later a single Northern Royal albatross – five species of albatross, and most of them up close.  Once we stopped and put the chum out for them we literally had most of them within arms length.  There were also a lot of Cape petrels squabbling over the food, but keeping out of the way of the bigger birds, and lots of white-chinned petrels, a few Westland petrels, and several species of shearwater.  Everything was wheeling around the boat and with perfect light for photography the shutters onboard were being punished!  A strange white-chinned petrel with small white ‘spectacles’ had Gary and myself excited, but alas not enough for a real spectacled petrel!

We spent about 2 hours with the birds, adjusting the angle of the boat to maximise light direction etc., and with just a light breeze everyone coped with the swell very well.  The birds were still wheeling around the boat, often within touching distance, but we decided to head inshore to check out a few other sites.  So we said good-bye to the albatrosses and headed towards Barney’s Rock.  Close to the rock we could see the dolphin swimming boats with their swimmers in the water, so we avoided them, but got great views of spotted shags, red-billed gulls, and NZ fur seals all over the rocks.  A couple of little blue penguins were also around and we got relatively close to them, and then a small number of dusky dolphins decided to breakaway from the swimmers and come around us.  So we had stunning views of them as well!

We then headed along the coast towards home, but with streams of spotted shags coming past we decided to follow them and found a big feeding flock of them just off the beach.  We spent a little time with them, and then found a flock of the local endemic Hutton’s shearwater feeding with some white-fronted terns.  Perfect!  Excellent photo opportunities of them both, before heading back to the harbour.

I headed back to the Dolphin/Albatross Encounter base and had lunch with Alex, a good mate who works for them, before spending some time photo editing and catching up on some emails, etc.  In looking at my photos I came across a white-chinned petrel that had a piece of nylon fishig line about 4-5cm sticking out of the corner of its mouth.  A sad reminder that this species is one of the worst affected by long-line fishing.  This line looked more like that from a recreational fisher, but obviously indicated an embedded hook within the bird.

I headed out with Gary and another group later this afternoon, with less birds, but picked up an additional Campbell albatross, and had gorgeous light.  So well worth it.  We are now bumping our way north towards Wellington.  The last couple of days since Fiordland have been great, with a nice day on Stewart and Ulva Island and then yesterday in Dunedin.  Spotted shags in their hundreds feeding around the ship alongside the port were the photographic highlights for me.

Wandering albatross in close

One of my favourite images of the day, a Salvin's albatross

'Bespectacled' white-chinned petrel

And a little closer

Northern Royal albatross

White-chinned petrel with nylon fishing line hanging out of the corner of its bill

Buller's albatross landing

Hutton's shearwater in flight

Beautiful wandering albatross portrait
And from earlier - Stewart Island and Dunedin...

Tomtit on Stewart Island

NZ fur seal porpoising beside the ship

Spotted shag beside the ship in Otago Harbour

Doing the duck dive

Duck dive Part II

White-capped albatross in flight

Thursday 17 February 2011

Spectacular, Spectacular!

So as everyone knows, Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery.  Well especially when the sun shines...and especially when it does so for 4 four days!  We have had an absolutely awesome few days in Dusky, Doubtful and Milford Sounds, with some pretty spectacular weather.  Not to mention some great wildlife.

Heading up the coast towards Milford the other day we had some excellent encounters with mottled petrels, six species of albatross, Westland and white-chinned petrels, and just south of Milford Sound three different grey-backed storm-petrels.  Within the Fiords we had encounters with bottle-nosed dolphins, NZ fur seals and managed a few Fiordland crested penguins around the place as well.

Our turnover day was in Milford Sound, with disembarkation in the morning of the 15th Feb, and then embarkation by a new group of passengers mid-afternoon on the same day.  A few hours to tidy up paperwork, get some work done, and then it was all go again.  On the way out of Milford and heading down the coast a little way on 15 Feb, we had a single soft-plumaged petrel right beside the ship, which gave fantastic views.  We have then spent the last two days within Doubtful and Dusky Sound, sampling the beautiful scenery and again catching up with the local wildlife, before today heading southwards from Fiordland.  Our main target was to get to Stewart Island for a full day there tomorrow, but with fantastic conditions we decided to swing by the Solanders to take a look.  These small volcanic islands have nesting Buller’s albatross, as well as a small Australasian gannet colony, and of course a bunch of other species such as mottled petrels, prions, etc.  On the way massive flocks of sooty shearwaters were a real spectacle with Southern Royal, NZ wandering, Salvin’s, white-capped, and Buller’s albatross as well.  A good number of mottled and Cook’s petrels, with a smattering of white-chinned petrels were also seen.  We circumnavigated the Solanders a couple of times, and had great views of the albatross breeding up amongst the tussocks and forested slopes of the islands.  As we then headed north-east towards Stewart Island the sunshine continued, with the sea state being unbelievably calm for this part of the world.  Albatrosses continued and we even had a couple of Northern and a single Southern giant petrel.  BUT, the biggest surprise was the number of grey-backed storm-petrels!  We had at least 7 birds to the north-east of the island, with a couple earlier in the day before getting to the islands.  The main concentration was around S 46 deg 35.804’; E 167 deg 02.683’.  This was roughly 7-8 nautical miles north-east of the island, and makes me seriously wonder if they are breeding on the Solanders?  No reason why they couldn’t be up in the tussocks there.

So we are now pretty close to Stewart Island, and sounds like we will be tucked up in Patterson Inlet pretty shortly, with a great day on Ulva and in Oban tomorrow.  Can’t wait!

More photos to come, but this is one from today...

White-capped albatross off the Solander Islands in stunning light

Additional photos...

'Double rainbow!' - if you've seen the utube vid you'll laugh - at Stirling Falls in Milford Sound

Milford Sound on a glorious day

Mitre Peak backlit in the afternoon

Reflecting on life...

A smooth Thompson Sound

Beech and falls

Bull kelp

Acheron Passage in Dusky Sound

From Cascade Cove looking towards Long Island

Looking back towards Cascade Cove

Looking into Bowen Channel from Anchor Island in Dusky Sound

Sooty shearwaters littering the horizon

The Solanders (Little Solander on the right)

Buller's albatross over the ship

Saturday 12 February 2011

Fiordland bound...

Well we have just had a great day on Stewart Island.  Had the morning ashore on Ulva Island and saw everything we hoped to see including great views of yellowhead.  Even adults feeding recently fledged juveniles!  Of course there were loads of parakeets (both red-crowned and yellow-crowned), kaka, weka, saddleback, robin, and even glimpsed and heard a few rifleman.  So a great morning.  Then had the afternoon on the main island, doing a bus tour of the nearly 13km of road on the island!

We are just about to head off and up towards Dusky, Doubtful, and Milford Sounds, so will be up that way for the next five days.  During that time I won't have any internet access, so will post again when back in civilisation.

Until then, adiĆ³s!

Phone box Stewart Island style!

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Zealandia (Karori Sanctuary)...rediscovery of the huia?

Well a good day in Wellington...overcast and cool this morning which was a big change for us.  We had a city tour in the morning, checking out a few of the local sights, as well as Te Papa.  Went and had a look at the colossal squid, which to be honest was a little underwhelming in size, but pretty cool to see nonetheless.

Then caught up with my good mate Nick Allan for lunch at the pretty trendy (but excellent lunch spot and food) Caffe L'affare.  Then back to the ship and off to Zealandia which used to formerly be known as the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.  The sun was gradually creeping through, and we had an excellent couple of hours walking the tracks in search of some of the bird species.  In a relatively short time we managed to notch up saddleback, stitchbird, kaka, red-crowned parakeet, North Island robin, brown teal, tui, bellbird, fantail, grey warbler, and silvereye, as well as four species of shag, NZ scaup, and even a couple of tuatara sunning themselves.  Not too shabby.  For a moment I thought I had rediscovered a population of huia, but alas they were stuffed and behind glass!  Oh well, guess one extinct species (New Zealand storm-petrel) will have to do for now...


Go East (Coast) young man!

So this morning I looked out my window, and there was Cape Kidnappers.  To be honest I was not expecting that, and what’s more there were common dolphins leaping from the water...not a bad way to start the day!  Even better there was a clear blue sky and then a glassy sea with almost 10cm of swell (if that).  We were heading south down the east coast of the North Island, along a piece of coast renowned for being isolated and off the beaten track.

With the lack of wind and calm conditions I was surprised to see a few birds starting to float past the ship – flesh-footed and Buller’s shearwaters, and then within a short time the first albatrosses of the trip started to appear.  White-capped and Salvin’s albatrosses, then a Northern Royal albatross, a Buller’s albatross, and finally the biggest of them all a Wandering albatross.  Where were these birds coming from?  With almost no wind they were a real surprise.  But at the end of the day who cares where they were coming from, they were here for us to enjoy!

A little later at least two, possibly three ocean sunfish were seen very close to the ship (just south of 40° South), then more albatross, even cutting right in front of the bow with beautiful reflections on the water, even a flying fish, and then another small pod of common dolphins.  This time coming in from the landward side of the ship, perfectly lit and visible beneath the surface as they came in towards the bow.  The photographers were ecstatic, and with perfect light and smooth conditions you could see them below the surface before they lept from the water, allowing stunning photos!  We continued to see some excellent birds over the course of the morning, with the odd Cook’s petrel, white-faced storm-petrel, and even a black-winged petrel.

After lunch the birds continued.  Mid-afternoon I gave an overview of the conservation initiatives that have occurred in New Zealand to save the weird and wonderful wildlife that New Zealand has become known for.  Many of these conservation initiatives have been used in other parts of the world to save endangered species from their introduced enemies.

The rest of the afternoon was then spent relaxing and watching more albatross and other seabird species drift past the ship, or enjoying a cup of tea and some quiet time, before the recap and then dinner.  Apparently there were even more common dolphins beside the ship at dinner, but I managed to miss them...this ship does seem to be a cetacean magnet!  However, the day belonged to the albatross – five species, and fantastic views of them all!

Buller's albatross skims the calm surface beside the ship

Ocean sunfish

Short-beaked common dolphin leaps from the water

Leaping forth - showing its scars

This one had really been in the wars - note the very ragged dorsal fin

New Zealand wandering albatross also skims the surface with its wing

The same bird against the sky