Sunday 9 December 2018

Day twenty-one - kea and Christchurch

Another early start, as we left the Motel and headed back down the coast, the wind had risen and the cloud cover had increased.  We had milked the best weather the West Coast can have, and it was on the change.  We headed up towards Arthur’s Pass, and the cloud gradually increased as it built up against the Southern Alps.  Driving up into Otira, it blocked our views.  We made a quick stop, but distant calling kea were as close as it got.  Even they felt it wasn’t worth putting in an appearance.  But by the time we got to Arthur’s Pass town, the sky was blue and the sun was shining! And there were a couple of kea there to amuse us momentarily.  We enjoyed watching them play on the roof, before they then flew off.  A distant calling long-tailed cuckoo reminded us of our encounter in Pureora…that seems so long ago.  We have covered so much countryside since then, and seen so much.
We carried on down towards Christchurch, with sun shining and temperatures gradually warming.  We were still on the lookout for that elusive falcon, but it just wasn’t going to happen for us!  As we entered the outskirts of Christchurch we had to resign ourselves to the fact a glimpse was as good as it was going to get for us.
We unloaded the van at a Motel, said our goodbyes, hard to believe we had seen the country in 21-days together.  An excellent adventure, and one filled with memories and hopefully some incredible images. 

Saturday 8 December 2018

Day twenty - reflecting

We were up early, and could still see the tops of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook (Aoraki) as the sun started to colour the sky.  We headed across to a site where we hoped a still night might have rendered a small lake perfect for reflections.  And indeed it had.  Walking through the forest on the way, we could see the crystal clear surface of the lake reflecting the surrounding forest.  From a viewpoint we had stunning views of the mountains, and their reflections, with just enough time before the sun peaked over the mountains.  Stunning.
We wandered back through the forest, enjoying a few birds as we went, with tomtit, fantail and a few other bits and bobs.  We headed back to the Motel, finished breakfast and packing our bags and then got on the road to head further north.  The sun was shining and it was another stunning day on the West Coast.  We drove through to Franz Josef and went for a little walk through more beautiful forest.  Lots of green-hood orchids in flower, and nice views from the top of a viewpoint area.  The Glacier really looks like it is receding fast, I wonder how long before it won’t even be visible through the valley?
We carried on up the coast after a quick coffee stop, and drove the beautiful road surrounded by huge trees and spectacular forest.  A detour out to a coastal lagoon brought a new bird for the trip – great egret – but not the hoped for fernbird…they were quiet today. Eyes were peeled for falcons, but again they were hiding.  We called in to another area with a short forest walk, and enjoyed more lovely forest and some great views of brown creeper and fantail, plus a weka came in to say hello.
We decided it was time for lunch, so we stopped in at a café and had a sit-down lunch, a rare occurrence on trips like this.  But we had a great lunch and a chance to relax before getting back on the road.  Now the road was more coastal, giving us in many places views up or down the coast, and so we made a couple of short stops to scan the sea.  Nothing much happening out there, but beautiful none the less.
We arrived at out Motel in Punakaiki, checked in and then relaxed for a little bit, before heading out to walk the Pancake Rocks walkway.  This beautiful piece of the coast was popular with other people, but the weka family (mum, dad and four small fluffy chicks) didn’t even seem to notice!  We had great views of them before heading on around the walkway…I wonder how many tourists thought they were kiwi?!  The white-fronted terns and red-billed gulls were nesting out on the rocks, and there were a lot of fluffy chicks of both species scampering around the place.  We enjoyed the coastal views, scanning for Hector’s dolphins, but nothing spotted.
After a bit more time at the Motel enjoying the scenery, we had a lovely last dinner together at a local café, and finished it off with local ice-cream.  An excellent last dinner and a great time to reflect on what an amazing trip we have had.  A real mix of weather, but some excellent photographic opportunities with many of the 143 species encountered on this tour!

Mount Tasman as the sun rises

Male paradise shelduck looking out for his flock

Reflections of the mountains and forest

Steam rising off the water, Mount Tasman on the left and Mount Cook (Aoraki) on the right

A little closer

A great egret takes flight 

Friday 7 December 2018

Day nineteen - yellowhead and sunshine

We were up early and away, stopping at a bakery to grab some lunch, before heading out of town.  We skirted around Lake Hawea and then made a stop in the lovely early morning light to look for falcon.  Well no falcon, but we did have some lovely scenery to look at and a few common species to keep us occupied.
We carried on passing Lake Wanaka again and heading towards the West Coast.  Another scenic stop before a stop in the forest to walk a trail through some spectacular beech forest, with mosses galore and some nice birds.  We had good views of rifleman, and a family of yellowhead feeding two newly fledged chicks, plus heard yellow-crowned parakeet and tomtit.  Was lovely to walk through this beautiful forest and the sun was shining.
We headed on along the road, enjoying the stunning scenery and taking it all in. We made a stop at Haast township, where Sav had found a falcon chasing birds just a couple of days earlier, but nothing seen.  So we carried on our to Jackson Bay and enjoyed more beautiful scenery and managed to get great views of South Island tomtit.  We also scanned from a small beach and located at least a couple of Hector’s dolphins out in the surf, so nice to see these little guys a little bit closer.  We carried on up the coast, carefully searching for falcon along the way, but nothing seen.  The weather continued to be stunning and as we pulled into our Motel in Fox Glacier it was the start of a beautiful evening.  The views from the motel were pretty special, so we took photos of Tasman and Cook looming above us.  Then we headed to a spot with equally stunning views, looked for falcon as this was a site where we had seen them in the past, and then had dinner with the mountains as a backdrop.  Gorgeous as the sun got lower!  What a great day on the often wet, West Coast!

The coast, the mountains, the sky

Mt Tasman on the left, Mount Cook (Aoraki) on the right

Tasman and Cook (Aoraki)

The photographers

A spectacular evening on the West Coast

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Day eighteen - Wanaka

We decided to have a little lay in this morning, not a bad idea on a tour that has had some early mornings, and with the forecast as it was, it made sense also. We awoke to more rain, but that’s ok, we were heading to Wanaka, and the sun always shines in Wanaka!  We left Te Anau and headed out of town, and in several places north of Mossburn had water right across the road, and people controlling traffic.  Clearly the rain during the night had been pretty substantial in an already soggy district.
We made a few short stops along the way, and kept an eye out for falcon the whole way. Beautiful scenery and the weather was certainly improving as we headed north, with lovely views across Lake Wakatipu, with clouds shrouding the mountain tops.
We checked in to our accommodation, and then went for a burger lunch.  And then headed out of town to a site where falcons have been in the past.  But no sign of anything, so we headed to a spot on the lake where we knew there were some grebes and took a few shots of them doing their thing.  With a few late afternoon hours, a lazy afternoon was called for, before dinner at a superb local Indian Restaurant (Ashraf’s).
An early night and looking forward to a busy day tomorrow, after a somewhat restful one today.

A great crested grebe gives a yawn

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Day seventeen - wrens and kea

Surely it can’t be…I know what the forecast said, but surely we brought the sunshine from Stewart Island.  Nope rain on the roof during the night.  We woke to grey and drizzly skies, but don’t panic, it will be ok.
We quickly stopped at Miles Better Pies (nom nom nom) and then on the road super early, the pies were only just out of the oven!  We headed straight through to our first stop, a few rain showers on the way, and parked the van.  There was definitely some moisture in the air, but we donned our wet weather gear and headed out.  We had only just paused, when Jack said ‘Is that one there’ and there in the corner of some rocks was a male rock wren!!!  Right there in front of us, and we had only just got into place!  With warnings of “It could be several hours” this all seemed like a bit of an anti-climax!  We soaked in the views as it perched atop rocks and showed itself off, calling every now and then.  It gradually moved off up the hill and disappeared.  We waited and watched for another 45 minutes before it showed again, this time for a few minutes, and again then disappeared.  Fantastic! We had all had great looks and managed to get some lovely images.
Pretty soon the rain came in hard, so we decided to head back to the van and try for something a little different.  We drove a short way, and there it was – our prize.  If not THE, one of the smartest birds on our planet (smarter than some Presidents!) – the kea.  We jumped out of the van, guarding it against the attack of a bill capable of tearing out windscreen rubber in the blink of an eye!  It was fun to watch the antics of several of these birds, jumping around the place, investigating various vehicles, etc.  And it was even more fun to watch the owners/hirers of the vehicles grinning and laughing to start with, only to change into stern faces and scolds as the birds started to pry rubber from places it was never going to fit back into!  Gold!
We got some nice images and spent some time just watching and enjoying, before then continuing on our way.  We headed down into Milford Sound to take a look at this spectacle of nature, and enjoy a coffee and snack.  The weather had really improved and lulled us into a false sense of security, so we headed back up into the mountains.  We again stopped and made a walk to see if we could spot the rock wren again, after enjoying more antics of the kea.  But this time no sign of the wee green gems.
We carried on back towards Te Anau.  Stopping at a couple of spots along the way.  A beautiful walk through magical moss covered Nothofagus was gorgeous in the slight rain, but fairly quiet of birds.  We carried on back towards Te Anau and kept eyes peeled for the ever elusive falcon, before having a break at the Motel and then another lovely dinner in town!  Rain on the roof top as we crawled into bed…

A male rock wren looking cute amongst the moss and boulders

A kea circles above us in the spectacular alpine scenery

Kea and this my best side?

Stunning scenery of Fiordland in the rain

A moody landscape

Day sixteen - diurnal KIWI and Hector

So, up and at ‘em, after hearing rain during the night, it was another beautiful morning. Wow!  Stewart Island you are really turning it on.  We headed down to the wharf and again met with our water taxi and headed across to Ulva Island, this time spotting a couple of wary Fiordland crested penguins in the water.  They weren’t keen on having a chat, so off we headed.
We arrived at Ulva and decided on our route, and off we went.  The forest smelt fresh after the nocturnal rain, and it was so lovely to see all the filmy ferns and mosses plump with liquid rejuvenation. The forest was a little quieter than yesterday, but we soon picked up a singing South Island robin, spotted our morepork pair in the same roosts, probably the same yellowhead group in a similar spot, and then a jack-bird for Jack!  Historically known as jack-birds, an immature South Island saddleback fed quietly beside the trail showing really well.  We hadn’t seen one the day before, and being one of the major differences between the South Island and North Island saddleback, this unsaddled immature was a great find.
We carried on along the trail, spotting a few things, and then stopped by the rifleman nest again.  The bird came in a few times, but we didn’t stay long before moving on and finding a red-crowned parakeet perched nicely, and a couple of adult saddleback.  We were just ambling slowly along when it happened!  I have been to Ulva probably almost 40+ times, I’ve heard the stories and seen the videos – “Oh it was my first time to Ulva and we saw a kiwi’…blah blah blah! And there it was!  A flippin kiwi!! In broad daylight.  I know it happens with this species here on Stewart Island, but for me this was a first!  Epic!  It fed quiet just off the side of the track, snuffling under ferns and investigating rotten logs.  Right there in front of us, and we didn’t even need a flashlight!
It fed for about 10 minutes, and we watched intently.  Then a couple of other people came along, and it got a little too much, so the bird ambled off into the shrubbery!  Amazing…. We continued on…gobsmacked!  And it didn’t get any less surreal.  We watched a rifleman low to the ground, got some images, and then a weka we had been watching decided some chemical stimulation was needed and as it walked up to the fly agaric I knew exactly what it was going to do!  The rain during the night had pooled in the cap, and with an 800mm lens I had to do a few quick paces to get far enough away.  I needn’t have bothered though, as in the end the weka drank the water from top of the toadstool for several minutes.  Who know what weird dreams that little guy will be having now, but what a cool picture!
We carried on back towards the jetty, seeing a few things long the way, and soon our water taxi arrived to whisk us back to Oban.  We cruised back on beautiful seas, seeing a few little penguins on the way.  Back at Oban we grabbed our bags and then checked in for the midday ferry back to Bluff. The crossing was very quiet with a few white-capped albatross and a good number of common diving petrels, but not a lot else.  Too calm for birds, great for poor sailors, although out group was now unmedicated and ready for anything!
We loaded the van and started to head towards Te Anau.  A couple of quick stops to look for waterfowl, and then a beautiful beach with expansive views where we spotted some distant rounded black dorsal fins – Hector’s dolphins.  We arrived into Te Anau, checked into our accommodation and had a rest before dinner.  Another amazing day!

A male South Island robin sings his heart out

An immature South Island saddleback (jack-bird) showing the lack of a saddle at this age

The jack-bird peering over a log

An adult South Island saddleback for comparison

Beautiful red-crowned parakeet perched and looking pretty

MEGA - diurnal Southern brown kiwi feeding on Ulva Island during the day

Foraging amongst the ferns and understory

The one open shot I managed in this tricky situation

Weka drinking from the cap of a fly agaric - bring on the hallucinations!

Giving it a peck as well

Male bellbird in the sunshine

Monday 3 December 2018

Day fifteen - yellowhead and Fiordland crested penguins

The morning started a little later than usual, as we had been out till late the night before.  So we were up, breakfasted and heading to our water taxi at 0745.  We headed off around to Ulva Island – our location for the morning, where we hoped to clean-up…and we did!
We headed up the path and almost instantly had a South Island saddleback.  Target bird number one and the critical one that could not be found elsewhere on our coming journey in the bag.  We carried on wandered along the trails, admiring the beautiful vegetation.  We soon had red-crowned parakeet, tui, bellbird, and a pair of morepork roosting side by side in a tree near the trail.  Amazing views of these sleepy birds, possibly a nest nearby with large young, so the adults camping out roosting together nearby.  We then had our second target – yellowhead.  We had great views of these stunning birds, their heads glowing lemon yellow even in the dim light below the canopy.  They foraged in front of us, hanging upside down and using their strong legs to grip the branches and trunks.  We spent some time with them, and then carried on, looking for more yellowhead, finding more saddleback, and then some brown creeper. Hard to believe we had seen yellowhead on this trip before their closely related cousins!  Further on we found some kaka feeding in the blooms of kamahi trees, and had great looks at the way they fed with their tongues, clearly gathering nectar from the flowers.
At a beach we watched several weka running along the tideline, and then spotted a couple of tiny little black chicks following one of the adults.  The adult was not keen to let them out into the open, so we had to make do with views through the vegetation.
We decided to head back the way we had come, seeing more red-crowned parakeets and saddleback, and a pair of copulating kaka!  Talk about déjà vu!!!  We had had North Island kaka copulating in Pureora Forest Park, and now here were some South Island kaka doing the same!  Once they had finished, and seemed exhausted with their antics, we carried on. We then managed to find a rifleman nest that Matt Jones told us about, and saw the male come in several times. Nice, I think we had pretty much cleaned up!
We decided to head back towards the jetty, as it was getting towards midday, and we had a very important rendezvous with Aurora Charters.  The boat was there ready and waiting, so we climbed aboard and started to munch on our lunches as we headed out towards Wreck Reef.  On the way we spotted a few little penguins, pausing briefly for them, before getting out into open water.  Matt was onboard and started to throw a bit of chum over the side and we soon had a few white-capped and Salvin’s albatross following the boat as we steamed.  We made a quick pause at an island for a brown skua – a couple of birds came out to take a look, and we then continued.  As we got further out numbers of albatross started to increase, and then a few common diving petrels were seen – flying but of course never coming in that close.  A few sooty shearwaters started to appear, but conditions were really calm, almost too good, with only a light breeze and mostly just a couple of feet swell.
We arrived at Wreck Reef, and started chumming in earnest.  In the end we had probably 40+ albatross around us, mostly white-capped, a few Salvin’s and at one time seven Southern Royal albatross. We also had a few Northern giant petrels come in, and at least one Westland petrel.  Probably the most surprising though were a good number of Cook’s petrels, probably over the course of the day 50+, with some of them coming right in and landing on the water at the back of the boat and taking fish scraps.  This happens very rarely in our Hauraki Gulf trips, but multiple birds repeated this over the course of our chumming.  They were clearly very hungry.  We had a couple of fly-by Hutton’s shearwaters, and a single fairy prion and Buller’s shearwater also came in to have a look at the boat.  But unfortunately, no sign of anything along the lines of mottled petrel.  But still a lovely day out and some great views of albatross!  And we had a 3m+ shark come in and investigate the chum slick giving quite nice views.
We started to steam back in towards the Muttonbird Islands, and checking the coastline. There were a lot of NZ fur seals up on the boulder beaches, and we scanned and scanned, but no yellow-eyed penguins.  But just off one of the reefs we spotted some Fiordland crested penguins floating and preening.  There looked to be about 7-8 of them, and as they drifted around the corner we moved slightly to get a better look.  They were 70m+ away as we watched them, and then all of a sudden something spooked them and they came porpoising towards the boat!  They stopped about 15m away, surfaced and sat there posing for their pictures, before then suddenly porpoising off in another direction and out to see!  Awesome! We found a couple more up on land at several other locations, before getting back in to port after an outstanding day!

A morepork snoozes during the day, its mate a foot or so away

A yellowhead peers at us

A brown creeper or pipipi looks to the sky

A South Island kaka taking nectar from kamahi flowers

Copulating kaka! Again!

A white-capped albatross calls as it comes in to land

A Cook's petrel takes a very close pass as it comes in to steal chum

A Northern giant petrel does a flyby in beautiful light

A Salvin's albatross puts the landing gear down

A brown skua comes in to bits of chum

Stunning Fiordland crested penguin comes in to check us out with its mates close by

Day fourteen - shags and kiwi

We had a relaxed start to the day and then started to head south.  We stopped at a couple of spots as we headed south, getting more great looks at Otago shag, and then put in a bit of driving.  As we got further south the sun started to poke through the cloud, and good grief, it actually came out sunny and warm!  We made a stop just before midday and walked along a beautiful beach in the sunshine.  We watched as one and then two male Hooker’s (New Zealand) sea lions came up out of the water and onto the beach.  The one spent a bit of time rubbing itself in the sand and then throwing sand over itself with its fore-flippers.  And then the bigger second one came along and ruined its solitude and they both ended up disappearing back into the water.  There at the right time!
We carried on south and had a nice lunch in a café, and then continued, with spectacular views across Foveaux Strait as we approached Invercargill along the coast. Amazing weather!  We called in to a wetland area and scanned, looking for a couple of vagrant targets.  Within a minute we had a great pair of chestnut-breasted shelducks feeding in the shallows, before they moved out into deeper water.  We searched the area for a Northern shoveler that has been seen there, but to no avail.  Lots of other waterfowl though, and in the sunshine a lovely spot to spend a half hour.
We headed on towards Bluff and to the Ferry Terminal.  We checked in and waited for the ferry, before boarding and then heading a cross a very calm and flat Foveaux Strait.  The seas were all of a foot in height and there was little breeze, so very few birds flying.  As we got closer to Stewart Island we started seeing common diving petrels at a distance, with perhaps up to 20 of these, and about 5 white-capped albatross, all resting on the water.  A single sooty shearwater and a probable Cook’s petrel, plus one brown skua was it. But a lovely crossing none the less. Coming into Halfmoon Bay we had our next cormorant species, with several Foveaux shags on a rock.
We arrived, headed up to our accommodation, seeing NZ pigeon, kaka, and a few tui on the way, and then a beaut dinner in the Hotel.  A quick rest and then it was out for our evening’s activity – kiwi spotting! We headed out with Matt Jones – who is one of our guides, as well as being an awesome guide for Ulva’s Guided Walks, pelagic trips with Aurora Charters and sundry other birding options on Stewart Island.  We got kitted out and then headed up the hill, walking slowly and listening and looking. It was barely 5 minutes and we had our first looks at a Southern brown kiwi.  A smallish male feed towards us, showing all the features we needed to see. Awesome!  It gave us a few minutes of viewing pleasure, before it then stomped off into the undergrowth.  We continued on, keeping eyes and ears peeled, and in the process we managed to see another three kiwi, several of which gave excellent prolonged views.  And then a great morepork to top things off! An awesome night.

Otago shags displaying, with mostly dark morph birds

A Hooker's (NZ) sea lion looks to come up out of the water

After coming out, a roll in the sand is a must!

Friday 30 November 2018

Day thirteen - wrybill and penguins

Another early start, and off we headed to a spot where we hoped we might find more shorebirds.  Shorebirds of the endangered, endemic kind.  And we did.  We parked the van (more on that later) and then walked a short way before we had some double-banded plovers nice and close, and then we spotted our true quarry – WRYBILL!  We had seen these guys in the north, but they had not been possible to photograph at close range, and of course those up there were non-breeding birds, most of which didn’t show the characteristic breeding plumage.  So, we approached and sat, and they approached, and got closer and closer, and closer!  In the end too close to focus!  But what a problem to have.  Over the next two hours we had excellent fun with this awesome little shorebird, getting the required ‘full-frontal’ shots.  We enjoyed just watching their antics.  They were feeding rapidly, but were also still maintaining territory, so there was quite a bit of chasing going on, which was all part of the fun.
We then decided it was time to head back to the Motel to pack the van and head to the coast…or was it.  Seems our parking spot had not been the best choice (ahem!), and we had a little difficulty with grip.  Not to worry, there will be someone along soon.  Walking towards the road a 4WD with fisherman was coming in and as luck would have it had a tow rope and snagged us out of our predicament! Awesome – thanks some much to them! They headed off to wage war with the fish, and we headed towards the road, only to find three immature black stilts. So, we couldn’t pass that opportunity up, with beautiful light and reflections, we spent a few moments taking some more images of these magic birds – one of the rarest shorebirds in the World.
Then it was time to head back, pack up, and head to the coast.  We stopped at a pond on the way and found a bunch of very confiding scaup and a pair of great-crested grebes with a chick!  Nice! Then it was lunch time, standing looking for a falcon to rush, past, alas – no luck on that one.
At the coast we headed to an excellent spot to observe and photograph the recently split Otago shag.  Seeing both the pied and the black morphs and able to compare them side by side.  We also were able to spot some recently fledged young, still with wispy down.  Then on to the accommodation where we checked in and had a quick respite, before getting back out there for our target bird for the afternoon – yellow-eyed penguin. So, from one of the World’s rarest shorebirds, to one of the rarest penguins.  We walked along the coast, and the wind was really blowing.  But almost immediately we had three penguins in the scope and nice views.  We decided to wait it out and see if we could get some closer, and at almost the eleventh hour a penguin came up out of the surf, nice light and relatively close, so that we were able to get some nice images and great views.  Excellent!  What a day.
Back to the accommodation, and then off to dinner nearby.  Another great day!

Black-fronted tern in flight

Wrybill posing showing off its bent beak!

Wrybill feeding in a small pool

Male double-banded plover amongst dew covered grass

Immature black stilt with beaut reflection

Immature black stilt feeding in a shallow pool 

Immature black stilt against the bank

Baby great crested grebe

Male NZ scaup

Dark morph Otago cormorant showing iridescence on its head