Thursday 14 March 2019

Day twenty-one - Homeward bound

The morning was crisp and clear, no fog like the previous day.  It was still getting light as we rolled out of the Motel and headed towards Christchurch.  We made a quick stop for fuel and coffee, before getting on the road again.
It was a stunning morning and the epic shape of Mount Cook (Aoraki) loomed over Lake Pukaki.  We were lucky enough to see it again, standing proud and clear with almost no cloud at all in the sky.  We carried on towards Fairlie, a little wisp of fog here and there, spotting song thrushes, and other common things as we went.  Nothing of note seen, until the shape of the Fairlie Bakehouse rose in front of us!  We grabbed some lunch, and probably THE best pie in the World! ‘Salmon and Bacon’ pies from the Fairlie Bakehouse have to take the gold medal, wow, what a pie…. More pie crumbs on the floor of the van!
We carried on through some smaller towns, reaching SH1 again, a road we had become quite familiar with in many parts of the country.  On the outskirts of Christchurch we ducked west, finding the hills of Cashmere and dropping James there.  Then to the Christchurch Airport for David, Rick and Dotty, and then on to the Hotel for Pierre and Anne Marie & Connie and Larry.
Hard to believe our three weeks were over.  We had covered much of the country in our time together, compiled a list of 155 species – two heard only (long-tailed cuckoo and great spotted kiwi), a lot of pies, a lot of glasses of sauvignon blanc, some great beers, and a lot of laughs along the way.

Bird of the day– ‘Salmon and Bacon’ pie…

Sunday 3 March 2019

Day twenty - Mackenzie

It was cool as we got up and loaded the van, then headed inland.  As we neared Omarama we could see low cloud ahead of us, and then we entered some pretty thick fog.  The fog persisted as we drove, but it was pretty clear that this was going to burn off and turn into a stunning day.  And that is exactly what happened.
We made our first stop in the fog, a place with waterbirds.  Before long we had a number of great-crested grebe chicks of varying ages in the scope, and then a couple of adults.  Two of the adults took a dislike to each other and really set into each other raising up out of the water and trying to attack each other. We also got good close views of New Zealand scaup, Australasian coot, and a few more black-billed gulls.
WE then moved on, grabbing some lunch, and then heading to a site that sometimes has black stilt.  This time just a few pied stilts, but some good views of some of the finches, and spectacular scenery as the fog had cleared.  Mt Cook (Aoraki) was sitting proudly amongst other giant mountains for all to see.  We headed to another spot, this time on the look-out for chukar.  All eyes were scanning, but nothing spotted.  We parked up and went for a bit of a walk, and managed to find a small covey of at least six birds.  They were pretty difficult to see at first, with just a couple of birds visible, feeding in the tops of small shrubs, but then a few of them moved up onto a rocky ridgeline and were much easier to see.  Excellent!  We kept eyes peeled for falcon, and also on the ground for skinks and other critters of interest.  One skink was seen and a few butterflies.
We then headed off and to another lake, where we pulled up and right there was a pair of black stilt!  Lunch out and enjoying the views of black stilt, we also had views of other waterfowl, and a couple of black-fronted terns hawked over the lake nearby also. A pretty stunning spot to enjoy our last lunch together out birding.  We soaked in the sun, enjoyed views of the stilts still further, and the photographers headed in for closer looks and some photos.
We then headed to a scenic stop, where we looked out across Lake Pukaki towards Mt Cook (Aoraki), wow, what a stunning view, and made even more special with the weather we were having!  And the fact we had seen it so well from both sides, both from the west a few days ago, and now from the east.  We took some photos, played tourist, and then carried on.  Our goal this time was Baillon’s crake, which we spent some time searching for, but not a peep.  There was a lot of good looking territory, and there just had to be birds there, but nothing showed.  So, we had to admit defeat and headed on to our accommodation.  We checked in and then headed to dinner.  Our last supper together, time to chat about favourite birds, favourite things during the trip, and to realise what an amazing trip we had had together.

Bird of the day– Black stilt x7, great-crested grebe x1
Stunning day in the Mackenzie

Views abound

Black stilts nailed

There it is!

Mount Cook looking stunning

The gang

Saturday 2 March 2019

Day nineteen - back to the Mainland

Up, breakfasted, and out the door to head down to the ferry.  We dropped bags into bins, grabbed our tickets and waited on the dock.  Visibility into the water below was really good, and there were lots of fish around. But the highlight was a pretty decent 6ft broad-nosed sevengill shark that cruised below us twice.  What a cool thing!  We boarded the ferry and then headed out across the Strait.  The weather had definitely dropped and the swell was pretty light and winds light also.  We had a few sooty shearwaters, a couple of white-capped albatross, and some Foveaux shags waved good-bye, but that was about it.
We pulled in to Bluff, got the van repacked and then headed into Invercargill to an estuary area.  We scanned the abundant waterfowl, looking for anything that stuck out – namely chestnut-breasted shelduck – but could locate anything.  The tide was a long way out, so a huge amount of habitat to search. There were a lot of shoveler, teal, mallard and other things about, so it was nice to spend some time scanning the birds.
We then headed northwards, basically spending a good few hours motoring our way north. We grabbed lunch along the way, eating it in a sunny spot in a small layby, and enjoying the scenery.  About mid-afternoon we called into our first birding spot, an area where we hoped to see yellow-eyed penguin.  We walked a little along the coast, and there standing proudly in front of a bush was an adult yellow-eyed penguin.  It looked like it was in pretty chubby condition, and seemed to be in pre-moult status, so was probably set to spend the next few weeks on shore looking miserable as it changed into its new plumage.  Catastrophic moult of penguins does not look like fun!
We spent some time watching it, and the Otago shags flying past, enjoying the abundant NZ fur seals, and then decided to head further northwards.  We dropped into a site for great looks at both spotted and Otago shags, and had excellent looks at both species, the Otago shag today being new for the trip.  There were a few white-fronted terns about, but not a lot else.  So, after a bit of time watching the shags, it was time to head to the accommodation and check in.  A fabulous dinner at ‘The Last Post’ in Oamaru, and an early night.  Another great day!

Bird of the day– Yellow-eyed penguin x5, Otago shag x3
Leaving Stewart Island

Friday 1 March 2019

Day eighteen - petrels and penguins

Hard to believe summer is over, and it is already the start of March….  We were up, breakfasted and then down to the wharf to meet our skipper and boat, and chum master extraordinaire – Matt Jones.  The weather was holding for the moment and looked like it could be a good one.  We headed out into the bay, getting some nice views of the Foveaux shag on a rock, with both the bronze form and the pied form side by side.  We headed out and searched a spot, finding one, then two Fiordland crested penguins sitting out on the rocks.  They looked like they were all dressed in their new plumage, and ready to head back out to sea after their moult.  We then spotted a couple more further along in a small cave, and then a third appeared there, so five birds in total – a great start to the day.
Next, we headed across to some islands to search for yellow-eyed penguins.  These birds have been having a pretty tough time the last few years, with a large proportion of their chicks dying at sites around Stewart Island.  We searched and searched in places we have found the birds before, but to no avail. A lot of fur seals though, and their population seems to be doing well.  We then headed on a bit further, and found a couple of resident brown skuas. They came in to investigate and Matt threw them scraps of cod.  These birds have become quite adept at snagging bits of fish out of the air! Excellent views and then off out into the deep blue.
We headed out to a reef system a fair way off the island, and the wind and swell gradually picked up, so that by the time we were in our location we had a good2-3m regular swell, and every now and then a big 4-5m whopper would roll through. We started chumming in earnest, and as we already had about 50 albatross already following the bird numbers soon started to grow.  We mostly had white-capped albatross, but a few Salvin’s and Buller’s albatross were amongst them, and a few Southern Royals as well.  Over the next few hours we had a few Northern giant petrels come past, but we stared intently looking for smaller birds, and were rewarded.  We ended up seeing about 15 mottled petrels, coming through in singles, with the first 3-4 showing really well, coming quite close to the boat in really good light!  Excellent!  We also had probably similar numbers of Cook’s petrels, also showing well, a single white-chinned petrel, and at least two grey-backed storm petrels and two white-faced storm petrels.  One of the grey-backed gave really good views.  But possibly the star of the show was a Campbell albatross that came right in to the boat, and spent probably at least an hour with us, giving really nice views.  We also had a few common diving petrels during the course of the day, nothing close, and of course hundreds of sooty shearwaters.  These were of course checked for short-tailed, but nothing stuck out.
After a few good hours of chumming, and some pretty good motion, it was time to head slowly back in to calmer waters.  Everyone had done really well and there was no sign of any green gills. So we headed in to check some spots for yellow-eyed penguins.  We did manage to get a fleeting glimpse of one in the water in one bay, but it did a disappearing act on us, and we just couldn’t see any others on land.  We rechecked some islands and then right at the last minute, there was one sitting on a rock with its back to us, sunning itself. We got pretty nice views of the bird standing proudly, sad to think this could become more and more difficult in coming years!
We decided it was getting pretty close to beer o’clock and so back towards Half Moon Bay it was.  But what a great day with some really good birds seen, and excellent views of everything! Another great day on the water!

Bird of the day– Campbell albatross x4, Fiordland crested penguin x1, mottle petrel x1, yellow-eyed penguin x2

Leaving Half Moon Bay

Chum-master Matt Jones ready for action

The morning penguin search

Hmmm...a slight miscalculation I think!

Successful at last a yellow-eyed penguin in our sights

Day seventeen - Stewart Island

A good night’s sleep with rock wren under the belt, and we loaded the van, and headed east.  We basically just headed straight for Bluff, taking the more scenic coastal route.  A few drops of rain, but mainly fine, and the weather and sea conditions looked a lot better than anticipated from the forecast. Nice one!
We arrived at the Ferry Terminal and unloaded the gear from the van into the bins provided.  Parked the van in the secure area, and checked in.  Looked like the ferry was going to be pretty full, but we snagged the seats on the outside as we got on.  Leaving the terminal we spotted a couple of little pied cormorants, and a spotted shag, and then out into the open water where a steady stream of sooty shearwaters started to come past.  There was probably about 1m swell and a light SW wind, so things were moving, but there wasn’t an abundance of birds.  Sooty shearwaters were the main contender, with a few white-capped albatross coming past as well.  Several common diving petrels were seen in the mid-Strait as well.  Getting closer to the island we passed a rock with a number of Foveaux shags roosting on it, with both the dark or bronze morph and the pied morph present.
A bit further in towards Half Moon Bay and we started to pick up a few Buller’s albatross, new for the trip, and some nice views in the end.  The ferry docked and we grabbed our bags and headed up to the South Sea Hotel, checked in, and then had our lunch outside looking out onto the bay. A couple of Buller’s albatross still cruised out over the water, hoping a fishing boat would come in and throw scraps.
After lunch we headed down to the wharf again and jumped onto our water taxi to head out to Ulva.  On the way we checked a couple of spots, hoping to find a late moulting Fiordland crested penguin.  Bingo, there was one in a small cave, peering out at us.  Shiny new crest visible, although it was a little tucked away. Everyone got a look at it, thankfully showing enough of itself to recognisable as a penguin.
We carried on around to Ulva, landed on the island and headed on in to the forest. It was alive with bird calls and we headed off to see what we could find.  Within a few steps we soon had a South Island saddleback nice and close, showing really well.  A bit further down and calls from red-crowned parakeets soon gave way to nice close views. We suddenly got information that there were two female kiwi fighting out on one of the trails, but it was a bit of a hike away.  So, we headed that way, not too quickly, but no messing around.  We got to the source of the information along the way – Matt Jones who guides for Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ and Ulva’s Guided Walks – and he gave us a bit more detail.  So, we carried on towards the area.  As it turned out we couldn’t find any sign of the kiwi…except for a poop!  We slowly walked back the way we had come, scanning and picking up other birds.  Another pair of saddleback showed really well, a small squabbling group of rifleman, tomtit, some brown creeper, lots and lots of robin, more red-crowned parakeets going crazy and chasing each other, and then a group of yellowhead that showed incredibly well.  Awesome!
We carried on out to Sydney Cove, wandered along the beach and enjoyed the views, before heading back into the forest and to the wharf.  A last saddleback fed right in front of us, showing itself off for the photographers.  Perfect. As we met our water taxi at 1700, a couple of little penguins fed just offshore, and we headed back towards the main wharf at Oban.  We checked a couple of spots for Fiordland crested penguin, but no luck, but a couple of close white-tailed deer feeding on a grassy slope were a bit of a surprise!
Back at Oban we had a break, drinks before dinner, and then a lovely dinner in the restaurant.  Just before 2200 we met with Ange our kiwi guide for the evening.  We drove up to a location just out of town, got out of the vehicles and despite the slight drizzle, we all had a good feeling.  We wandered up to the spot, and the drizzle seemed to dry up, and before long we had two kiwi in the light – a juvenile and a pretty small chick of the year chasing each other.  We ended up watching them both for some time, after they had finished their pursuits.  They were feeding vigorously and great to just spend time watching them in the light. We wandered some more, hearing a long-tailed cuckoo calling loudly, then found a large adult male and watched it for a bit.  We then retraced our steps, enjoying more views of the chick, before hearing a pair duetting and probably the adult male we had seen earlier call back. Awesome!  On the way back to the cars we had a large female show herself to just a few in the front of the group.  What an awesome way to spend the evening…

Bird of the day– Southern brown kiwi x8