Tuesday 25 February 2014

Finally a yellowhead!!

Up bright and early and checking in for the Stewart Island ferry back to the Mainland.  Hard to believe our time on Stewart Island had come to an end, but we had had an excellent pelagic and despite missing yellowhead on Ulva Island, had seen everything else we had hoped for.

We boarded the ferry and it slowly cruised out of the harbour, and we again scanned the rocks for signs of Fiordland crested penguin, but no luck this time.  Thankfully we had gotten great views of the bird yesterday.  As we started to come out into the open water there was a little bit more motion in the ocean and the swell and chop steadily increased to a point where there was the odd wave crashing into the bow of the ferry and spray coming right over the back deck.  It made for an interesting ride, with a large number of people onboard looking decidedly green, but all of us were quite chipper having gotten our sea-legs yesterday!  The crossing was actually quite good for birds as well, with the usual albatross and shearwaters, but quite a number of mottled petrels and even a broad-billed prion.  Always nice to see both of these species from the ferry!

Back in Bluff we packed the van again, and then headed northwards.  We had a plan…  Yellowhead hadn’t beaten us yet!  So we headed to a spot where we hoped our luck would change.  The forest looked perfect, although was again relatively quiet.  However, good numbers of tomtit and calling parties of brown creeper increased our hopes, and then a little distantly we heard the characteristic call of yellowhead.  This time they appeared to be on the move, and as we moved along the road, we were able to get to a point where they flew over the road above us and called from some tress on the opposite side.  They showed themselves briefly, but relatively well, and most of us were able to finally get a look at these evasive little so-and-so’s!  Unfortunately, they didn’t hang around, and although we again had a big flock of brown creeper, fantails, tomtits, and silvereye around us, the yellowhead again became evasive.  At least we had gotten a look!

We headed on further north, grabbing some lunch on the way, and then stopping in at a local beach to have a walk and see if we could find a New Zealand sealion.  Wandering along the beach we could see several of them hauled out, and as we got closer we realised that there were actually seven of them, including some relatively large sub-adult males.  So we were able to get great views, keeping our distance from these surprisingly fast and agile mammals, and taking a few photos.  Wandering back along the beach we were able to take in more sunshine, and get a little fresh air before heading off to the north, through Dunedin, and on to Oamaru.  We headed to a spot where we hoped we would see more yellow-eyed penguins, and we had only just set up the telescope when we spotted a juvenile lying on the beach in the shade.  It basically just sat there, doing not a lot really, and so we were keen to see an adult come in out of the water.  So we sat watching the beautiful view along the coastline, as Stewart Island shags and the odd Hutton’s shearwaters flew past.  Several fur seals were sleeping on the beach as well, and after about half an hour an adult yellow-eyed penguin was spotted heading into shore through the surf.  We watched as it slowly came in through the crashing waves, getting rolled around and knocked over a few times, before it leapt out of the waves and waddled up the beach.  It slowly walked up towards the high tide line, stopping to preen a little as it went, before preening intently near the cover of the shrubs just above the high tide line.  Pretty happy with our views we decided it was time to head to our accommodation and checkin, and we then headed to dinner for another sumptuous feast!

Day total – Seen = 52; new for the trip = 1; total for the trip to date = 157

New Zealand sealions hauled out on the mainland

A beautiful coastline

Another magnificent Stewart Island pelagic

We were up and looking lively as we headed down to the main wharf to headed out for our all day pelagic with Aurora Charters.  Our skipper Ty gave us a quick safety briefing and overview of the vessel, before we then started to head out of Half Moon Bay.  We skirted along the shoreline, looking hopefully into the areas where a Fiordland crested penguin may have been, but even the spot we saw one yesterday was empty.  We’ll try again later.

We headed of and across towards some of the Muttonbird Islands, skirting along the shoreline looking for yellow-eyed penguin, and managed to spot one that was lying down up in amongst the bushes.  Not the Worlds best view of a yellow-eyed penguin, but a start.  We carried on along the shore trying to spot a better exposed bird, but no luck amongst the hundreds of fur seals lining the shore.  We headed to another small island, where we found several brown skua, including several young ones, and the adults came out to investigate us, taking scraps back to the chicks to feed them.

We then decided to head out towards Wreck Reef, and with the weather the way it was and a not so nice forecast decided it probably wasn’t worth hammering it for several hours to get down to the southern part of the island and the Traps.  We had about 2m of swell rolling through every now and then a good bit of chop with 20+ knots of wind, so it seemed better to maximise our time at Wreck Reef.

As we headed across towards Wreck Reef we saw large flocks of sooty shearwaters feeding, and quite a few prions as well, and of course we had large clouds of white-capped and Salvin’s albatross, with the odd Buller’s amongst them, following us as we headed out.  Nearing the reef it was obvious there was a lot of bird activity and all of a sudden Ty yelled ‘Storm-petrel’!  He slowed the boat and we glimpsed a small white-rumped storm-petrel bouncing over the waves and disappearing for prolonged periods, but it was visible enough for Brent to suggest it was probably a black-bellied.  With a bit of chum in the water, the bird swung back into view long enough to determine it was indeed a black-bellied storm-petrel!  What a cracking bird for the list!  It was joined by several white-faced storm-petrels, and every now and then would swing by the boat quickly, giving pretty darn good views.  Nice one!

We continued to chum at the same location for quite some time, with a steady stream of birds coming past, including some really nice views of mottled petrel, several Cook’s petrels, lots of fairy prions, sooty shearwaters, and of course good numbers of albatross.  We even had a Southern Royal albatross throttling a white-capped albatross for several minutes, holding its head under the water, and literally strangling the bird in an attempt to make it regurgitate the cod frame it had just swallowed…all whilst Ty threw out more cod frames!  We expected something different to fly past at some stage, but nothing too out of the ordinary, so we decided to move a little closer to the reef in a slightly different position.  At this second chumming spot we had similar birds coming by, although later in the afternoon we did pick up a distant broad-billed prion.  But other than that, there wasn’t anything new to the list.

As we started to run low on chum and the afternoon drew on, we decided to head back in towards the islands to take a look for penguins again.  On the way we passed through huge flocks of sooty shearwaters rafting up, and in amongst them all we spotted an aberrant bird with white feathers around the head.  A very unusual looking sooty shearwater, but that is exactly what it was.  At the islands we managed to find a couple more yellow-eyed penguins, including one standing proudly up on a boulder just up from the waters edge.  The last of the chum was fed out as we steamed into the bay, almost hand-feeding albatross!

Back across nearer to Half Moon Bay we again scoured the shoreline and again persistence paid off with Ty spotting a Fiordland crested penguin up in a small cave just up from the water.  We had great views of the bird hiding away in the cave, and very thankful to have been able to find one.  We slowly motored back in to the wharf, thanking Ty for an excellent day.  Even an hour or so to rest up before dinner – unheard of!

Day total – Seen = 46; new for the trip = 5; total for the trip to date = 156

Brown skua comes in to pick up scraps
The hunter becomes the hunted, a kelp gull takes on a brown skua

Black-bellied storm-petrel with very little in the way of a black belly stripe

The same bird from a different angle

Buller's albatross comes in to land

Salvin's albatross comes past looking for food

A white-capped albatross bravely attempts to take food from a Southern Royal

Complaining white-capped albatross

Southern Royal albatross throttling a white-capped to make it regurgitate its last meal

Mottled petrel whips past the boat in characteristic style

Aberrant sooty shearwater with white markings on the head

White-capped albatross floating

Coming in for a close look

Feed me!

Hand feeding a flying albatross - you have to see it to believe it!

Coming to to be fed

Those damn yellowhead!

On the road early again this morning, but not before a quick visit to Miles Better Pies to grab lunch and snacks.  Then it was on the road to Bluff to catch the ferry to Stewart Island.  A quick look across the Foveaux Strait from the lookout at Bluff suggested we were going to have a pretty nice run across, with relatively flat seas and a little bit of wind.

We checked in, and then waited for the ferry to depart, getting seats on the back deck to allow us to keep eyes peeled on the way across.  The crossing was pretty nice, with good views of sooty and Hutton’s shearwaters on the way.  Several albatross including white-capped and Salvin’s, and a single common diving-petrel.  As we neared Stewart Island we got our first Stewart Island shags, and then a couple of brown skua, and a tantilising and very brief Fiordland-crested penguin in a cave as we came in to Half Moon Bay.  Fingers crossed it will still be there in the morning when we start our pelagic!

We arrived at the Oban Ferry Terminal and then walked up to checkin to our accomodation, finishing our lunch off and then walking up and over the hill to Golden Bay where we met our water taxi.  Peter Cox took us across to Ulva Island, and although the weather was a little threatening, we hoped we would manage to find our target birds.  However, the island was very quiet, despite a bit of rain the night before after what had been a prolonged dry spell, there was not a lot of bird song at all.  We headed towards Boulder Beach, seeing a few parties of brown creeper, still with begging juveniles, and several groupds of red-crowned parakeets, then some yellow-crowned parakeets.  A few kaka put in an appearance, and on Boulder Beach we found several weka as well.  On the way back it started to spit with rain, then drizzle, and then pour!  Oh dear, it was not looking good for finding our real target species, yellowhead!  We stood in the rain, hoping it would ease off, and after about 10 minutes or so it slowly eased and so we checked out a few more likely spots.  Every now and then we had a snatch of yellowhead calling or song off in the distance, but there was just nothing close, and even after scanning the area off in the distance where these birds were we just couldn’t find them.  We walked a bit more of the island, getting good views of more rifleman, lots of South Island robin, a few tomtit, and more brown creeper, but still no yellowhead.  And so we had to admit defeat and head back to the landing to catch our water taxi.  On the way we had nice views of several saddleback, and a few more parakeets, before heading back across to Golden Bay.  On the road back up and across to Oban we had great views of tui, kaka, and pigeon in the trees alongside the road, giving more fodder for the photographers.

We had dinner and then it was time to head out for our last kiwi excursion.  We met down at the main wharf and headed off with Phillip Smith, out and across Paterson Inlet, and tied up alongside the wharf they use.  On the way we had a taste of what we hoped was to come tomorrow, with several white-capped albatross coming right in close and cutting across our wake.  Pretty nice to have this with the sun setting off in the distance.

We headed up and over to Ocean Beach with our guide Greg, and thankfully the weather had brightened a litle and the surf was gently rolling in.  It was almost dark, but already the kiwi were out on the beach, and within a few minutes we were all standing watching an adult female kiwi feeding on sandhoppers amongst the kelp.  She fed hungrily along the kelp line, seemingly oblivious to the group of people standing littlerally only a few metres away.  It is such a great experience to see them so close, so unobstructed, and be able to watch them actually feeding and going about their business.  After watching her for some time, we moved off down the beach to leave her in peace, and managed to find another juvenile male feeding away.  A little more nervous, this bird fed for a little while before moving off, so we left him in peace also.  We figured we had done pretty well, having watched two kiwi for quite sometime, so we slowly headed back through to the boat, and having a hot chocolate to celebrate.  It was tough not to fall asleep as we headed back towards Oban, but before long we were back alongside, and it was the short walk up to the Hotel before falling into our beds!

Day total – Seen = 60; new for the trip = 4; total for the trip to date = 151

Hutton's shearwater on the crossing to Stewart Island

Pigeon pigging out

Persistence pays

Up early and off towards Queenstown, through some stunning scenery but with a little weather change on its way.  We had been very lucky with constant sunshine for the last few days on the West Coast, but it looked like we might be in for a little bit of rain as we headed towards the Homer Tunnel area.  We had a fair bit of driving to do, so we made a couple of quick coffee and toilet stops along the way, then grabbed some lunch in Te Anau, and headed on through towards Homer Tunnel.  The weather was definitely cooler as we left Te Anua and passed into the beautiful Eglinton Valley, and a good cloud bank had started to form over the mountains.  We made a couple of quick stops to search for blue duck, but nothing ducky reared its head, with the river levels being surprisingly low, a testament to how nice the weather had been lately perhaps!  As we reached Homer Tunnel however, there was definite drizzle in the air, and the temperature was certainly a lot brisker than we had been used to.

We pulled parkas and warm clothes from our bags and had lunch amongst some absolutely stunning alpine scenery.  With rock wren it really is a waiting game, and having finished our lunch some decided to take advantage of a number of very playful kea which were having their usual fun with vehicles, and flying around the mountain valleys calling, play-fighting, etc.  Every now and then a dunnock or yellowhammer would catch our eye, but time was ticking and still no sight nor sound of a rock wren.  Exercises to keep warm were in order, and we waited and waited, scanning the habitat where we absolutely knew there were rock wren.  Finally, a call from a rock wren, after four hours wait.  We focussed our attention on the general area after hearing it call several more times.  Still it was hidden, and then all of a sudden it popped up onto a rock not far off, doing its characteristic bobbing motion.  It bounced around the rock slope not far off, giving relatively good views, disappearing every now and then, but allowed everyone to get onto it and get good views as it slowly came close towards us.  After about five minutes or so it gradually moved off, and eventually disappeared back into the rocky area near where it had come from.  Phew!  It had not been an easy wait, but persistence had paid off and we had all had great views of the bird!

With time ticking we decided to head back towards Te Anau and check several more places for blue duck, but alas nothing still, even if every stretch of the river searched looked like it should have a pair sitting proudly on a rock!  We then made a forest stop, doing a walk through some spectacular old growth beech forest, alive with mosses and lichens, and quite a few birds as well.  We had good views of more rifleman, several fantails, and some very confiding South Island robins.  It really was a case of who was watching who, as one bird came in to peer back through Geoff’s 500mm lens.  A very brief view of a yellowhead was had, but it was so brief and the bird so high in the canopy that most missed it, so that would have to wait for another day!

We headed back into Te Anau, checking into our accomodation, before heading to a local resturant for a very nice dinner and a celebratory drink!  I think after all that time of standing around looking for rock wren we had earned it!

Day total – Seen = 31 + 2 heard (Grey warbler, yellowhead); new for the trip = 1; total for the trip to date = 147

Big mountains

Beech forest

Geoff suddenly looses sight of the robin…"Where did it go?"