Monday 22 October 2012

Above it all

Well last week I was fortunate enough to spend a few hours flying through some of Hawkes Bays stunning countryside.

I'm part of a team doing some Ecological characterisation of the Ngaruroro River Catchment, one of the four main river catchments within the region. The Ngaruroro flows from its headwaters in the Kaweka Ranges, through some absolutely stunning rolling farmland. There are many tributaries to this large river, and the river itself provides significant areas of braided river habitat for riverbed breeding species such as banded dotterel. It also holds a few breeding pairs of South Island oystercatcher, the first place in the North Island that this species was found to breed, confirmed in 1980.

It's a pretty special place, and when you get to see it from the air you really get to see what a beautiful part of the World you live in! That said, flying conditions were not ideal, with wind increasing during the morning on the first day, and it getting a little wobbly by mid-morning. The next day we knew there was a bit of wind up there, and when we got up to where we wanted to be realised it was a little too lively, with very swirly turbulence and passing rain showers making it a little too exciting. Made for some stunning photos though. Below are some of my most aesthetically pleasing shots. Hope you enjoy them.

The rolling hills of Hawkes Bay with flat agricultural land in the foreground.

A dairy herd flows back onto the pasture.

Stream valleys run like veins through the landscape.

Beef cattle grazing on the still green pastures with long shadows.

Streams bisecting the green landcape.

Pine trees forming an impenetrable canopy.

Sunshine on the lowlands but murky dark skies and rain in the foothills.

Trees just coming into leaf cast long shadows on the landscape.

Vineyards, an expanse of posts and wire.

Unnamed tributary of the lower Poprangi Stream in stormy and windy conditions.

The Ngaruroro River running towards the sea with stark morning light making it look like molten lead running towards the coast.

Stormy skies and rain showers passing an green and rolling countryside.

Looking like a coiled serpent the Otamauri Stream cuts deeply through the landscape.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

WADER QUEST - the New Zealand contingent

I have just written this piece for Rick and Elise Simpson to post on their WADER QUEST blog and thought I would post here as well.  They are only 15 days away from starting their travels, so check out their blog site and be generous.  They are hoping to raise awareness about the challenges faced by waders World-wide, and are also raising money for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) Spoonbilled Sandpiper Captive Breeding Programme.

New Zealand, and place of oddities and rarities
Well known for its rather unusual birds that evolved in a land without mammalian land predators, New Zealand is home to some of the oddest and rarest waders as well.  Sure a wader with a small spoon-shaped bill is pretty odd (and very special), but how about one with a beak bent to one side?  The wrybill Anarhynchus frontalis is the only bird in the World with a beak bent to one side, and yes it always bends to the right.  So unique, we named our bird guiding company after it - Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ!  This endemic plover nests on the braided riverbeds of the South Island of New Zealand, a habitat becoming increasingly rare due to weed encroachment, development, and the utilization of water for agricultural irrigation.  But even more than that, this bird that has evolved without mammalian nasties now has to deal with a plethora of introduced mammals, such as rats, hedgehogs, cats, and the mustelids (weasels, stoats, and ferrets).  The population mostly winters in the North Island, where it is actually relatively easy to see, even though the population is suggested to be as little as 4,500–5,000 birds, and the population appears to still be declining.  A visit to Miranda (near Auckland in the North Island) during the winter can mean seeing approximately half of the entire population in one spot!  But, compared to the black stilt Himantopus novaezelandiae the wrybill is common!  The black stilt breeds only in the MacKenzie Basin in the centre of the South Island.  Another braided river specialist, this species has encountered similar problems to the wrybill, and now breeds in only a handful of locations.  An additional problem faced by this species however, is hybridization with the much more common pied stilt Himantopus leucocephalus.  Numbering probably less than 200 wild individuals, with perhaps only 20 actively breeding pairs, the critically endangered black stilt takes the cake for the rarest wader species in the World.  More than 20 years of concerted conservation effort has only raised this species' numbers a little, from the low of 23 birds in 1981.  It's a case of two steps forward and one step back.  Shore plover Thinornis novaeseelandiae and Chatham oystercatcher are both endemics to the outlying Chatham Islands, but both seem to have populations that are stable, if not increasing, with around 250 of the former and 300+ of the latter.  Shore plover are now being reintroduced to other islands, where they appearing to be slowly but steadily increasing in numbers, whilst protection measures on the Chathams appear to be working for the oystercatcher at present.  They are by no means out of the woods yet though!  Likewise, three species of endemic snipe exist on offshore sub-antarctic islands and the Chathams.  All are difficult to see due to limitations in landing on the islands on which they exist or the isolated nature of the islands.  Luckily, the future for these species appears safe with their populations occurring on (now) rodent-free islands.

Luckily, however, there are a few species of endemic New Zealand waders that number more than a few hundreds or thousands.  Variable oystercatcher Haematopus unicolor (a really silly scientific name for a bird that has a variably plumaged dark form and pied form!), South Island oystercatcher Haematopus finschi, and banded dotterel (double-banded plover) Charadrius bicinctus are all classified as Least Concern, and can be found throughout many parts of the country.  However, none of these species are hugely abundant by any means, and of course they face many of the same struggles the rarer species do with regards to development, changes in land use, and introduced mammalian predators.

The New Zealand dotterel Charadrius obscurus, or red-breasted plover as it is sometimes called, fits somewhere in between the very rare black stilt and the slightly more common wrybill, being classed as endangered, with perhaps around 2,000 individuals, but with a slowly increasing population.  The reason for the increase is largely due to intensive protection measures at breeding sites, including fencing of nesting areas, trapping mammalian predators, and a heightened public awareness.  It is not uncommon these days to see little patches of beach fenced off by locals around the Northern parts of the North Island, where people have banded together and fenced off the patches where these birds breed to keep dog-walkers, vehicles, etc away from their nests.  A great thing to see, and just shows what education and public awareness can do to the plight of a species.  The bad news is that the distinct Southern subspecies, which only breeds on Stewart Island in the far south of the country, numbers only around 270 birds, so more work is needed there.

But New Zealand is not just all about the endemics.  Two Australian species have decided New Zealand is a pretty good place to settle (reversing the often quoted trend of NZers to move to Australia), with both black-fronted dotterel Elseyornis melanops and masked lapwing Vanellus miles having negotiated the Tasman Sea and setup home here in New Zealand in the last 50 years or so.  But of more note are the Arctic migrants which New Zealand has in recent years been recognized for, due to the extraordinary migration of the bar-tailed godwit Limosa lapponica.  In 2008 it was finally confirmed, as had been suspected for some time, that the Alaskan breeding population of this species performs the longest non-stop migration of any bird, in some cases around 11,000km from Alaska to New Zealand.  An incredible feat!  There are a host of other waders species that also migrate to spend the Austral summer in New Zealand, many doing similarly incredible journeys.  On the northward migration, these birds utilize the East Asian – Australasian flyway, passing through South-East Asia, Japan, China, and Korea.  As we know this is an area of incredible human induced change and development, and an area critical for millions of waders passing through these areas every year, not just those visiting New Zealand and Australia.

So, New Zealand is going to be an incredibly exciting place for Rick and Elise to visit.  The only bird in the World with a bent beak, some of the rarest waders in the World, including THE rarest, and of course New Zealand's famous stunning scenery and kiwi-hospitality (let's hope the water doesn't get turned off while your in the shower Rick, its a long story!).  Having known both Rick and Elise for about four years, I have been helping them organize and plan their New Zealand leg of their Wader Quest, and hope that with our help they will be able to successfully find and observe the endemic wrybill, black stilt, shore plover, banded dotterel, variable and South Island oystercatcher, and New Zealand dotterel.  Plus of course they should get black-fronted dotterel, masked lapwing, black-winged stilt, as well as some of those incredible bar-tailed godwits!  We wish them well in their quest, look forward to their blogs along the way, and hosting them here in New Zealand.  Of course if New Zealand is a destination you would also like to visit, then you need to get in touch with us, New Zealand's best bird guiding company! 

Brent Stephenson, PhD

Wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis) scratching with head turned to the side showing its bent bill. Manawatu Estuary, Manawatu, New Zealand. February.

Bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) stretching its wings as it hops forward on the encroaching tide. Manawatu Estuary, Manawatu, New Zealand. February.

South Island oystercatchers (Haematopus finschi) landing on the mudflats. Miranda, Firth of Thames, New Zealand. September.

Birders enjoying the spectacle of thousands of Arctic migrants , here mainly bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica) and red knot (Calidris canutus). Miranda, Firth of Thames, New Zealand. November.

Dr Phil Battley, Massey University, weighing a bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) as part of the migration studies he has been involved with. Miranda, Firth of Thames, New Zealand. October.

New Zealand dotterel (Charadrius obscurus), sometimes known as red-breasted plover, feeding on a small crab. Waipu Estuary, Northland, New Zealand. July.

New Zealand dotterel (Charadrius obscurus), sometimes known as red-breasted plover, feeding on the shoreline. Waipu Estuary, Northland, New Zealand. July.

Male shore plover (Thinornis novaeseelandiae) standing amongst seaweed. Wakapatu Beach, Southland, New Zealand. January.

Pied stilts (Himantopus leucocephalus) feeding in shallow water. Ngaruroro Estuary, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. September.

Black-fronted dotterel (Elseyornis melanops) feeding in soft mud. Ngaruroro Estuary, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. September.

Female banded dotterel or double-banded plover (Charadrius bicinctus) against a blue background. Ngaruroro River Estuary, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. November.

Chatham oystercatcher (Haematopus chathamensis) on a rocky shoreline. Maunganui Beach, Chatham Islands, New Zealand. December.

Variable oystercatcher (Haematopus unicolor) pair defending their territory by calling and displaying. Waipu Estuary, Northland, New Zealand. February.

Wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis) yawning and showing its tongue. Manawatu Estuary, Manawatu, New Zealand. September.

Adult breeding plumage male banded dotterel or double-banded plover (Charadrius bicinctus) running over the mudflats. Manawatu Estuary, Manawatu, New Zealand. September.

Wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis) feeding on mudflats. Manawatu Estuary, Manawatu, New Zealand. September.

Wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis) feeding and walking head on showing the bent bill. Manawatu Estuary, Manawatu, New Zealand. September.

Spur-winged plover or masked lapwing (Vanellus miles) walking in short grass. Cape Kidnappers, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. October.

Juvenile black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae) still showing significant amounts of white in its plumage. Glentanner, Lake Pukaki, Central Otago, New Zealand. November.

Adult variable oystercatcher (Haematopus unicolor) with a chick pulling mussels off the rocks at low tide. Dusky Sound, Fiordland, New Zealand. February.

Adult black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae) feeding in shallow water. Glentanner, Lake Pukaki, Central Otago, New Zealand. April.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Just joined Flickr properly

Well, I have had a Flickr account for a while now, but have just started to upload a few images to my account and have just upgraded to Pro.  Not sure what all this will turn into, but I figured I had little to lose in getting my photos onto Flickr as well as on here and on my Eco-Vista: Photography & Research FaceBook page.

So let's see what happens, just working through some of my Svalbard images and doing a little editing before posting that album, but have so far added a Spain 2012 set, a UK 2012 set, and a Circumnavigation of the Black Sea 2012 set.  Let me know your thoughts, and if you are a regular Flickr user I'd appreciate any feedback and comments on how I can get the most out of this.

My Flickr user is Brent Stephenson Eco-Vista: Photography & Research.

Below is one of my (many) favs from the month I spent in Svalbard in June/July 2012.  What an awesome place!

A Polar bear stands silhouetted on the shore high above the zodiac. Svalbard 2012.

NZ Birding DVD by Paul Hopkins

In late 2011 I had the pleasure of meeting Paul Hopkins who was travelling New Zealand, and had been in touch with us about his trip to New Zealand.  He was going to tour the country in a campervan and try and fit as much birding into the 'sight-seeing' New Zealand tour with his very patient wife, as possible (many of us know this situation ;).  So he ended up doing a couple of pelagics with us, and we bumped into him in a number of places around the country as I was leading our Oct-Nov 2011 21-day tour (trip report here on our Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ website - and day by days are on this blog).

Well Paul has a bit of an interest in taking trip videos, and he produced one for his NZ trip which I have to say is an absolutely excellent introduction to New Zealand birds.  There is some great footage on this DVD, all taken during his trip, and includes Southern brown kiwi, Fiordland crested penguin, wrybill, black stilt, saddleback, yellowhead, takahe, stitchbird, and most of the other land endemics.  Also includes great footage of a bunch of seabirds, including New Zealand storm-petrel.  So if you are planning a trip and wanting to whet the appetite and see do some research this is a great DVD to have.

Friday 12 October 2012

Circumnavigating the Black Sea

So I’ve now been home for a couple of weeks and time is flying by! I didn’t get to post anything during the Circumnavigation of the Black Sea that I did on the MV Clipper Odyssey with Zegrahm Expeditions, so thought I would post something now. We had a great trip starting in Istanbul, Turkey. This was my first visit to this part of the World, so most countries were new for me, and although we saw 124 species of birds during the trip, there were actually only a handful of new species for me, but those that were new were pretty nice!

Istanbul we of course visited the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, etc and then departed to sail up the Bosporus on sunset, with beautiful views back at the city with the setting sun. We had a couple more days in Turkey, visiting Amasya for the Pontic tombs (rock nuthatch was an exciting addition to the list and lifer!), Trabzon and the Sumela Monastry with beautiful forest and lovely views, and then to Georgia where we stopped at Batumi. Here we got to experience a local market with some interesting characters, the really nice botanic gardens (Kruper’s nuthatch and short-toed tree-creeper!!!) and a traditional lunch and dance show. Some pretty stylie moves!

Then it was on to Sochi in Russia, where Kevin and I led a walk into the hills behind Stalin’s Dacha. We were meant to walk to a waterfall (the birders were never going to keep up with the hikers though!), but the river was dry, the summer had been a very long and hot one and there was no waterfall. But we did see some good birds including migration of bee-eaters, common buzzards and a couple of sparrowhawks, and calling woodpeckers kept us on our toes, with green and great-spotted seen, and a third species heard. As we left the port and headed back out into the Black Sea a migrating short-eared owl flew past the ship – awesome!

Next day was in Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula, and the Sevastopol, before the city of Odessa the next day. Wow what a place!

But then finally it was a wilderness day (with a full day in the Danube Delta, Romania. We entered at dawn, with spectacular sunrise, and managed to see approximately 35 species or so by breakfast, including some good stuff like pygmy cormorant, white pelican, hobby, squacco heron, etc. Then after breakfast we boarded a local boat which took us through narrow channels for the rest of the day. All in all we saw 61 species during the day, with some really great views of a lot of things, and some nice close encounters with egrets, etc. Finally got my lifer white stork (plus black stork) as well as greenshank, spotted redshank, garganey, teal, etc. We then got back onto the Odyssey late afternoon and headed back out towards the sea, managing two species of woodpecker (great-spotted and green-headed) on telephone lines as we slowly cruised along. The countryside in Romania was really picturesque with very undeveloped farmland predominating.

Next day was near Constanta, Romania where we still managed a bunch of good stuff, mostly migrants with blackcaps, willow warbler, and red-breasted flycatchers all over the place. Even a vacant lot in the city had three species of flycatcher (spotted, red-breasted and semi-coll), three species of warbler (blackcap, garden and willow), oriole and other bits and bobs. Seeing visible migration like this was just so exciting for me as a New Zealander, as we just don’t get to see this sort of thing.

The last day was in Varna, Bulgaria, and again there were migrants still moving through. Nothing completely out of the ordinary, but some nice things to end on, and a stunning lunch in town! We disembarked the next day in Istanbul, where I overnighted before flying out the next day. Not before visiting the Grand Bazaar and a local carpet seller and getting a stunning carpet for the new house….now all we need is the new house! The start of the build is just days away…

Inside Topkapi, Istanbul

Inside the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

Stunning domed ceiling and lights in the Hagia Sofia

Worn entrance way into the Hagia Sofia

Kids feeding kittens outside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Interesting goods at the Spice Market, Istanbul


Sunset over the Fatih Mosque, Istanbul as we sailed the Bosporus

Looking down on Amasya from the Pontic tombs

Crag martins chilling out on….crags!

The Pontic tombs…never was sure who Mr Pontic was?

Sumela Monastry, perched on the cliff

Another angle

Almost there, looking down on the monastry

Market in Trabzon, Turkey

The people in Turkey were great, these guys just wanted me to take their photo.

Meat section in the market in Batumi, Georgia

The last customer that messed with this lady is….well that's whats left of him on the chopping block!

Leaping lizards! Dancing Georgian style.

A blur of colour

These guys like leaping!

A walk in the forest in Sochi, not a snowboarder in sight!

Modern church in Sochi.

Hummingbird hawk-moth - super ool little critter!

Sunshine and green leaves

Yawning yellow-legged gull

Submarine pens in Sevestapol, Ukraine.

Feral pigeon at the fountain in Odessa

Odessa was a great place to people watch!

Sunrise on the Danube

Purple Grey heron in flight, there were a lot of purple that day, should have looked at the photo before captioning it! ;)

Landing great egret

And in flight

Juvenile black-crowned night-heron creeping along

Cute as a kitten, a Bulgarian kitten pair.