Monday 31 October 2011

Shorebirds in the morning, seabirds in the afternoon

Up after a restful night of no snoring, and headed down to the hide and shellbanks at Miranda.  The tide was coming in, and the gull-billed terns and whimbrel seemed were still in the same place.  When we got to the hide, the sharp-tailed sands were also still there, and as the tide came in the numbers of bar-tailed godwit and red knot started to increase.  We didn’t end up with anything new except for a ruddy turnstone, but it was pretty spectacular watching the godwit and knot wheeling round and resettling on the shellbanks.

As the crowds gathered (Miranda Shorebird Centre open day) we headed off and towards Whitianga.  We arrived in Whitianga, checked in, grabbed some lunch and then headed down to the marina to get on our boat.  We met with Ian and Andy and headed out, seeing reef egret on the way, as well as red-billed gulls at a nesting colony and pied shags in the pohutukawa trees nesting as well.

As we headed out we had a single parasitic jaeger on the water, that lifted off and headed towards the white-fronted terns feeding nearby, and then we started to see lots of common diving-petrels and a few white-faced storm-petrels and fluttering shearwaters.  As we reached our chumming location out beyond the Mercury Islands we had a distant Northern Royal albatross go past, and a little shearwater land nearby.

With the chum in the water the birds started to come in, with of course the flesh-footed shearwaters being the first to arrive.  They dominated the pack, but over the next few hours we had reasonable numbers of Buller’s shearwaters, a few black petrels, and then the Cook’s petrels started to come past.  Checking each one carefully, it wasn’t till later that we started to get recognisable Pycroft’s petrels, with darker heads.  We were pretty lucky to have several albatross around the boat as well, with at least 4 white-capped albatross, and 2 Buller’s and 2 Salvin’s.  A single Northern giant petrel put in an appearance but wouldn’t come in close, but we had good close views of several grey-faced petrels, at least a couple of sooty shearwaters and the highlight was a pass by a mottled petrel.  Possibly the same bird came back a few minutes later, but this time further out.  We also had a small mako shark checking out the chum on several occasions, and even try chasing a few birds around.

As the numbers of Pycroft’s increased we decided to head for home, on the way spotting a small pod of common dolphins, but they weren’t in a playful mood.  Back on dry land we headed for a local pizza and pasta joint before heading home with full bellies!

Bird of the day – Buller’s albatross x5, wrybill x1, mottled petrel x1
Day total – Seen = 66; new for the trip = 8; total for the trip to date = 113

Bar-tailed godwit and red knot in the Hudsonian godwit!


White-faced heron

Mottled petrel off Whitianga

Cook's petrel

White-capped albatross

Star of the day with regards to 'Bord of the day' - Buller's albatross

And again

Aberrantly plumaged flesh-footed shearwater - we called him Marvin

On the water

Grey-faced petrel swinging by

Pycroft's petrel

Mako shark cruising past

Even the black-backed gulls got a look in

Flesh-footed shearwater

Me looking sneaky...although one of the gang were sneaky and took this when I wasn't looking!

Sunday 30 October 2011


Well I realised why the overnight bags were so small...seems the men at least had failed to pack all their anti-snore medicine and devices!  It was like snoring in Dolby 5.1 surround sound in the guys!

Don’t know why, but seems every time I’ve woken up on Tiritiri Matangi lately it is raining...and this morning was no different.  We had a leisurely breakfast (probably because everyone was too tired from lack of sleep to move quickly) and then packed up, cleaned up and then headed out.  We wandered back down towards the wharf as the rain eased and had kokako singing in all sorts of places.  We had quick but good views of one bird singing and listened to it for quite some time before finding a pair singing, mutual preening and then gathering material to line its nest with cabbage tree fibres etc.  The nest turned out to be just a couple of metres off the trail and we had great views of its mate sitting preening and singing nearby whilst it visited the nest several times to add to it.  Magic!  Down near the wharf we had another kokako singing just after the ferry arrived and the crowds had dispersed.

Our water taxi arrived and we headed back to Gulf Harbour with just a single little penguin seen along the way.  We loaded the vehicle up and headed off towards Miranda making a quick lunch and fuel stop on the way.  Marvin threatened to put a pepper-steak pie down as bird of the day, but I knew with Miranda coming up that memory would fade when he saw a wrybill.

At Miranda the tide had already dropped considerably and the birds were well out from the hide, but before we had even left the carpark we had a flock of Pacific golden plovers, a single whimbrel and two gull-billed terns.  Headed across to the hide we quickly had a couple of wrybill in the scope and black-billed gulls, with all the migrant shorebirds being well out on the mud.  We’d only just checked off these two fantastic endemics and somebody pipes up they haven’t seen a rook yet, and “When are we going to see a rook?”!  It’s tough getting good clients these days!  Four sharp-tailed sandpipers were present as well, and every time I looked seemed another had come from somewhere, with six in the end.  We spent a good bit of time just enjoying the sun and scanning the mudflats, with the gull-billed terns doing some passes, and then as we left we found the marsh sandpiper roosting with a small flock of pied stilts.

We then had a bit of a rest (they reckon I’ve been pushing them too hard?) and headed to Kaiaua for dinner, before retiring for the night.

Bird of the day – white-faced heron x1 (??? HUH), wrybill x1, sharp-tailed sandpiper x1, kokako x4
Day total – Seen = 59; new for the trip = 9; total for the trip to date = 105

Watching the nest building kokako

Hadn't even left the carpark at Miranda...
Gull-billed terns near the shellbank

Looking for rooks!

Marsh sand in with four pied stilts

Saturday 29 October 2011

Dental work and kiwi

To be completely honest I probably don't look after my teeth as well as I should, but this was the first time I'd ever had toothache like this.  The first two days of the tour I had bad toothache, and when it kept me awake most of the third night, enough was enough.  So Phil Hammond got a 6:15am wake up call and ended up guiding the Hauraki Gulf pelagic with the more than capable skippering and guidance of Brett Rathe on Assassin.  The guys headed off out on an absolutely spectacular day, whilst I went and paid a visit to the dentist, I wasn't upset at all...honest!  Grrrrr...

Long and the short of it was I had a pretty bad infection and needed antibiotics (would you believe today is the third day without booze!), and seems they didn't need me after all with great views of NZ storm-petrel, black-winged petrel, and all the usual suspects, plus three Bryde's whales, common dolphins, massive blue sharks and sunfish!  Way to make a guy feel unwanted!

Bird of the day – New Zealand storm-petrel x4, white-faced storm-petrel x1, weka x2
Day total – Seen = 38; new for the trip = 16; total for the trip to date = 84

So yesterday we were up and rested, heading away with overnight bags packed...possibly the smallest overnight bags I’ve ever seen!  Not sure what that means but I guess we will find out on the island.  We headed off towards Gulf Harbour, again with the sun shining, and arrived to find a reef egret and white-faced heron side by side on the rock wall near the pier.  Nice comparison.

The ferry arrived and we headed out to the island with about 100 school kids...glad we are staying over night and have a few hours on the island without anyone else.  Pretty quiet crossing with only a single flesh-footed shearwater seen until we got to the island and could see out beyond where there was a flock of white-fronted terns feeding and at least one, probably two Arctic skuas (parasitic jaeger) wheeling around amongst the terns.  There was also at least one, possibly more Buller’s shears, and may have been more but too distant.

We headed up for the briefing and then up through the trails to the bunkhouse.  On the way it was hard to miss the whiteheads, bellbirds, and tui on the way, and there were plenty of stitchbirds around the feeders and elsewhere.  We checked into the bunkhouse, unpacked, had lunch and then had a rest before heading out again in the afternoon.

We headed back down to the wharf and sat beside one of the ponds waiting, waiting, and waiting.  A brief glimpse of a spotless crake spurred us on and eventually we were rewarded with awesome prolonged views of a spotless crake feeding along the edge of the pond.  The brown teal pair and ducklings had kept us entertained right the way through the wait, and a fernbird even popped up right beside us about 1.5m away, so a pretty nice way to spend the afternoon.  We then headed slowly back up to the bunkhouse and finally managed to get a good view of a kokako having not heard a peep from one all day.

Back at the bunkhouse we had possibly the best meal of the trip (I have to say that because I cooked it!), BBQ steak and lamb, with salad and potatoes, followed up with dark chocolate for dessert...mmmmmmm!  We then headed out for our nocturnal ramble, heading right the way down to the other end of the island.  No kiwi called until 2100 which was a bit of a shock, and shortly thereafter we had great views of a morepork which sat perched and then hovered right above us, perfect!  A bit further on we had a pretty good sized tuatara right on the track and had really nice close-up views.  We walked back towards the bunkhouse thinking a kiwi was going to jump out at any stage (in fact by this stage I was thinking the damn things had gone back to bed!), and we were within 2 minutes of the bunkhouse when we found a kiwi right beside the road.  We ended up having excellent prolonged views, possibly some of the best I’ve had of this species, so very very happy.  A short walk back to the bunkhouse for a milo and bed! 

Bird of the day – Little spotted kiwi x5, saddleback x1, stitchbird x1
Day total – Seen = 47 + 1 heard (little blue penguin); new for the trip = 12; total for the trip to date = 96

The manuka is currently in flower...yeah yeah, I know this is a BIRDING trip!

Male stitchbird near one of the feeders

Male bellbird

Sacred kingfisher against the sky

Brown teal getting jiggy...

...and all in front of junior!

Thursday 27 October 2011

The big and small of it all

So it was up and off to breakfast at a civilised hour, keeping in mind we had been up till late the night before.  A beaut breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs, cereals and toast had us powered up for the day and we headed northwards with the sun shining again.  We took the short walk in to visit Tane Mahuta – the largest of the kauri trees, and possibly around 2000 years old.  Whatever its age it really is a spectacular tree and we even had some lovely Earina orchids flowering and a few Pterostylis (Greenhood) orchids flowering, although almost finished.  A couple of nice male tomtits kicked the days list off to a good start.

We headed southwards back towards Dargaville and then across towards Waipu, stopping on the way to visit a small pond where both Australasian and New Zealand grebes breed.  The Australasian grebes didn’t seem to be breeding yet, but the NZ grebes had at least two chicks and both adults were busy diving with the chicks protected under their wings.  Very cool watching the heads pop out from under the wings to be fed by the adults.

We then headed down into Waipu to grab some lunch and headed to a nearby estuary.  Within seconds we’d spotted a fairy tern roosting on the mudflats right away down the estuary.  We had it in the scope for everyone before it took off whilst we ate our lunch.  We then scoped the rest of the estuary seeing all the usual suspects – bar-tailed godwit, a single red knot, a few turnstone, lots of variable oystercatchers and a good number of New Zealand dotterel.  It was a nice opportunity to spend some time checking out the endemic waders, enjoying the sunshine, and waiting for a fairy tern to appear, and they did.  We spotted two birds roosting further down the estuary, and as we headed towards them they took flight and one ended up hovering over a small pool not far away, before doing the same over the main channel.  The other then did almost the same thing before landing, and we had closer scope views.  Pretty happy with that, they flew off back up the estuary and we decided to head off as well.

We checked out another estuary along the coast, finding a non-breeding little tern and a great egret, along with a heap more white-faced herons, before heading further south to a great spot for buff-banded rails.  We ended up with three in one binocular view, with excellent views of them walking along the shoreline.  A small flock of brown teal was also nice.

Lastly, as if the day hadn’t been good enough, we managed to find two kookaburras perched and had good views of them, before a lovely dinner in the little town of Warkworth.  And the forecast looks good for the pelagic tomorrow...

Bird of the day – Fairy tern 2x, buff-banded rail x4
Day total – Seen = 59 + 3 heard (kaka, shining bronze-cuckoo, bellbird); new for the trip = 17; total for the trip to date = 68

Earina orchid in flower

Closer view of the flowers

In front of Tane Mahuta, I can see there is going to be a lot of posing on this trip!

The big of it...

Fun with gannets - Day 1 - 21-day tour

We were all up bright and early and ready for action.  The sun was shining, there were still All Black supporters reeling from the close victory over France, and everyone was poised like a coiled spring.  We headed out through the sprawl of Auckland to the west to the Waitakere’s where we had a stop overlooking a nice patch of kauri forest.  Along the way we had quick views of spotted dove, and a bunch of other introductions, but nearing the park we had our first views of tui, New Zealand pigeon, and purple swamphen (pukeko).

Standing in the sunshine overlooking the forest we had good views of tui, pigeon, fantail, silvereye and heard shining bronze-cuckoo and tomtit.  A very confiding male North Island robin came and checked us out and sang his heart out right in front of us.  Eastern rosellas flitted around the place giving colourful but brief views and another noisy Australian flew out of the forest scrakking away as it flew – Sulphur-crested cockatoo in the bag.

We then headed up the coast and checked out the beautiful but rugged West Coast at a local Australasian gannet colony.  The birds were all in attendance, mostly with eggs, although the odd small chick was also visible.  There were also about 400+ white-fronted terns in attendance, some nesting and some with quite large chicks, quite a spread of breeding stages.  A pair of variable oystercatchers were down on the beach, and tui, yellowhammer and a sacred kingfisher were seen around the area.

We then grabbed some lunch enroute, and headed on towards Waiwera where we sat and ate lunch overlooking a patch of tidal mudflats with mangroves.  Fleeting glimpses of buff-banded rails were not enough to put on the list, but it was a nice spot for lunch.  We then headed on to some wetland areas with small numbers of New Zealand grebe, New Zealand scaup, Australasian shoveler, grey teal, Pacific black duck, and black swan.  A lone little black shag sat in the sun looking on.

We then headed northwards, basically making a b-line for Dargaville and the Kauri Top 10 holiday Park.  We checked in to our accommodations, and then settled in, having an hour or so to check out the local birds – tui, rosellas, etc.  After dinner at the local Kaihu Tavern (built in 1855) we headed out with Herb from the holiday park into Trounson Kauri Park.  Expectations were high and before too long we heard the first male kiwi call.  However, they made us work for it, with two rather obscured views before a last-minute good but brief view of a bird out in the open grass.  We did had fantastic close views of a morepork for several minutes, as well as kauri snails, banded kokopu, long-finned eel, fresh-water crayfish, glow-worms (actually a fly maggot!), cave wetas, and even a possum.  All in all a great night, and excellent first day of the tour.

Bird of the day – Northern brown kiwi x2, Australasian gannet x1, New Zealand dotterel x1, New Zealand pigeon x1, North Island robin x2.
Day total – Seen = 51 + 3 heard (shining bronze-cuckoo, dunnock, North Island tomtit); new for the trip = 51; total for the trip to date = 51

The gang

The rugged West Coast looking south


The rugged West Coast, looking north

Gannets doing their thing

Coming in to land

A nice backdrop

White-fronted tern against the sky

Surf's up

White-fronted tern bringing in a small fish

White-fronted terns nesting

A change in direction

Well had almost three weeks at the Rena Spill in Tauranga.  Whilst there I was managing the Wildlife Field Operations, so during the peak of my time there we had almost 40 teams of 3-4 people each out on the beaches recovering wildlife, ranging over up to about 160km of beaches.  The work was incredibly challenging, not made any easier by political and financial grandstanding by conservation organisations who should know better, and at least one that is renowned for such antics.

But we had an incredible team of skilled people onboard, from Massey University, Maritime New Zealand and several overseas Bird Rescue and Oiled Bird response facilities.  A big thanks to Kerri Morgan, Helen McConnell, Brett Gartrell, Jim Lilley, Bill Dwyer, Phil Battley and Lynn Adams, as well as Barbara Callahan, Curt Clumpner and Mike Ziccardi.  Luckily, we had been training for such an event with regards to a Wildlife response for quite sometime, the impacts are still there, but we were able to react swiftly, with skilled trained people.  And of course then there were our trained responders and the huge number of volunteers that came out enmasse to help.  Truly wonderful to see.  And great to have such experience, knowledge and enthusiasm to call upon - people like John Dowding, David Melville and Tony Harbraken for the NZ dotterel capture, Paul Cuming and Dave Richards for taking the reins on the night penguin work and putting in so much effort, and all those teams on the beaches.  And then of course there is the massive contribution from the Department of Conservation...a government department currently stricken with the loss of around 100 jobs...the very people we have called upon in this time of need.  Let's hope this acts as a wake up call as these guys came from all around the country, eager to help, with skills, knowledge, and the logistical support we needed to lead the field teams.  It would have been a lot more difficult without them.

So with long days and not much time off it was home to repack and drive to Auckland to start again, this time a 21-day tour with Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ.  Did get to watch the All Blacks beat the French though!

M/V Rena on 7 October 2011 with Motiti Island in the right background and the mainland further beyond.

Friday 14 October 2011

Wildlife response - Rena oil spill

Well the last week has been one of the most hectic I've ever had to deal with.  So you haven't heard much from me lately...

Last week I was called within hours of the MV Rena running aground in Tauranga, NZ, and mobilised as one of the core National Oiled Wildlife Response Team members to Tauranga.  I've been here since, and likely to be here for a little while yet.

Below is a link to an interview I did the other day on TV3, and thought I'd post it here just to give a little info on what I've been doing. I would just say that having been involved with this from the very start I am constantly amazed by the knowledge, expertise, and drive of the people involved, from all aspects of the response. This is not an ad hoc group running this response, but a team of incredibly experienced people who know what they are doing. If things haven't been done as those in the public expect, it has been for good reason.

I'd ask that people be as supportive of the efforts as possible, work with those involved directly and not form splinter groups of well meaning people. Lets work together on this. If you want to be involved with the Wildlife Response then please call 0800 333 771 (experienced bird handlers will be especially valuable over the coming weeks), and if you want to be part of the wider cleanup response then please call 0800 645 774.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

New Zealand storm-petrel in the news

Well this is a little late, but things have been so hectic lately, that I thought better late than never!  Been trying to get my report on the Tukituki River Catchment completed, and it is taking a little longer than expected, and of course there is always something else to add.  I should have that finished in the next few days and then can get a few photos taken over the last few weeks on here...some good stuff of Australasian bittern, orchids, and plumed whistling ducks to put up.

In the meantime this article ran in the Sunday Star Times just over a week ago - on 25 September 2011.  The article had two of my images accompanying it - including the front cover of the 'Focus' section.  They came out really well, and in fact the article has received a lot of good interest.  It was really sparked by the publication of a paper in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, by Dr Bruce Robertson, with myself as a coauthor, entitled "When rediscovery is not enough: Taxonomic uncertainty hinders conservation of a critically endangered bird".  You can read that article here.

Anyway, more exposure for the story, the bird, and us.  The articles can also be seen here and here.