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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

New Zealand

Island Endemics and Seabirds

2016 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This 21-day tour was arranged by WINGS Birding Tours and Sunbird and organized and led by Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ. We did extremely well with birds and weather, seeing every “gettable” endemic landbird species during the course of the tour, with stonking views of all four kiwi species, and great-spotted kiwi heard. This tour was privileged to have great views of Northern brown kiwi (after some work), unbelievable views of little spotted kiwi, with three running around at the same time, including a male calling right beside us, a pair of Okarito kiwi interacting with each other and going in and out of their nesting burrow just meters away, and classic open beach views of Southern brown kiwi. Certainly the best combined kiwi views I have had on a 21-day tour, and some of the best interactions and behavior EVER observed! To hear both male and female great-spotted kiwi calling several times and possibly at least two different pairs, although distant, was a fantastic addition to the trip.

Weather can always play such a major role in any tour, and we were very lucky with just a couple of drizzly days at times when it really didn’t matter or affect our plans. To have seen Mount Cook (Aoraki) clearly on all three days where this was possible, both from the West Coast and from the Mackenzie Basin was pretty astounding. Our pelagics had incredible weather, perhaps almost too good for the Hauraki Gulf and Whitianga pelagics, where light breezes aided with us getting to where we wanted to go and made it very comfortable for us, but almost made it too calm for the birds. A white-naped petrel during our Hauraki Gulf pelagic was an additional bonus, on top of stunning close views of New Zealand storm-petrel, and excellent views of all the other encountered birds (including grey ternlet). Whitianga was a little quiet, with weather playing a part, but excellent views of Pycroft’s petrel towards the end brought smiles to every ones faces. Our Stewart Island pelagic as always was a stunner with great weather and conditions for both sailors and birds, and hundreds of albatross is always a sight to behold. Always nice to get great views of Fiordland crested penguin in late summer, with these birds being tricky this time of year. And although we hit most of our seabird targets, we did miss a couple of albatross we would have liked to have seen (Campbell albatross for one), and broad-billed prion has been a tricky subject during most of this summer around Stewart Island. 

Setting a large trip list was never a focus of this trip, so we enjoyed taking our time with targets. Despite this we managed an excellent total of 161 species, which includes both great-spotted kiwi and chukar as heard only. This is definitely a respectable total, and on par with the three other tours run during this similar period. Our landbird targets really showed their stuff, except for orange-fronted parakeet which put in a very brief and tantalizing appearance. We had sightings of eight falcon during the course of the tour, with excellent perched views of three of these, something that definitely does not always happen. We had excellent views of kaka – both in the North and Stewart Islands – and great views of both of the New Zealand wrens, with many excellent encounters with rifleman, and a wonderful encounter (after a very short wait) with at least three rock wrens. Excellent, close and prolonged views of the latter rivalled many previous encounters, and a lovely sunny day to boot! And despite black stilt making things difficult for us, in the end we had excellent prolonged views of a close bird feeding, whilst a further 17 or so were able to be scoped off around us. And let’s not forget the mammals – leaping Hector’s dolphin, bow-riding common dolphins (at two locations), cavorting dusky dolphin’s and sperm whales seen by those on the whale trip from Kaikoura were all excellent additions to the wildlife list, as were both New Zealand fur seal and sea lion. Bird of the trip was an interesting one, with a pretty broad cross section of species mentioned, and as per usual a heavy emphasis on species seen towards the end of the trip. But as can be seen below New Zealand wandering albatross topped the list, with 10 points, but it has to be said this was with only two votes. Close behind, and possibly rivalling was Buller’s albatross with three votes and nine points, and a little surprising that Okarito kiwi didn’t take the cake with the outstanding views we had, coming in at second equal. All a bit of fun, but I am surprised there were no pies featured in this line up!

PS. I should just mention that all exaggerations, bad jokes, and artistically licensed information contained within the tour report below is solely and whole-heartedly mine!

IN DETAIL: 8 February 2016 – Day One

Luckily the rubbish weather of late had decided to take the day off, and it was actually a pretty decent day underway in Auckland as we met, packed the van, and then departed for the western part of Auckland. Spotted doves seemingly sprang from every telephone wire and fence post as we headed west, and through to a forested area. With a long weekend in full swing (being Waitangi Day on Saturday and therefore a holiday Monday), we soon found the carpark at the forest fairly full. However, the New Zealand pigeons and tui didn’t seem to mind, with both putting on good shows. And even the rowdy Australians put in an appearance with several sulphur-crested cockatoos flying around the native forest. We then headed on out to the coast, and to a large Australasian gannet colony. Everything was in full swing, including the surfers relishing the big swells and beaut conditions on a holiday day. The gannets had chicks of all sizes, and even some late eggs, so there were chicks exercising and looking like they were about to fly, and others that were only about two weeks old. Evidence of a strange breeding season, with clearly a lot of failures and relaying resulting in such asynchrony in the ages. As it was so nice we spent a good while enjoying the sunshine and watching the comings and goings.

We then headed back across to the east coast, grabbing some lunch on the way. Only two pies made it into the lunch hamper, but I suspect that percentage will grow as word spreads! We had lunch by a lovely little wetland area, with nice views of New Zealand grebe, scaup, and other waterfowl. The best bird was a brown teal, perhaps the same bird (or another) that was seen at a nearby sewage ponds back in November? Anyway, some good birds, and then nice views of silvereye and grey warbler to round things off. We crept back past the sewage ponds, but nothing out of the ordinary there, and so called at a small estuary area. There were several New Zealand dotterel – our first chance to see these – and then several families of variable oystercatchers. One family had two very small chicks, and we watched as one of the adults ran up and fed them the meat from a cockle it had just taken. Very cool.

We then headed northwards, making our way towards Dargaville for a supermarket stop (a good sign when these guys headed straight for the beer and wine section), and then on to our accommodation for the night. Nestled in a lovely picturesque setting, we settled in nice and early, a chance to unwind and enjoy an hour, before then heading out for dinner. And what a great dinner, with Grant and Raewyn again turning on a beautiful meal and great atmosphere for our first night together.

And then it was off out for our first kiwi mission. We headed out just before dark to a local park area. A distant morepork called on dusk, but couldn’t be persuaded to come in, and the Southern Cross slowly burnt into the night sky as darkness fell. We then headed into the forest in search of our near-mammalian quarry, only to find a brush-tailed possum almost immediately. We heard and glimpsed a kiwi scurrying off, and several times thought we heard one. Several pairs called off in the distance, males responding to the calls of what sounded like a very grumpy female. But after over an hour we hadn’t seen a bird. We decided to head back in and do the first bit of the track again, and then we heard what could only be a kiwi. Shuffling in the leaf litter…we waited, and finally were rewarded with pretty good views of a large female feeding in an opening between the tree ferns. Several minutes of feeding ensued and we all had her in the binoculars, fantastic! We headed back to the carpark happy, looking at the night sky now ablaze with stars. What a perfect evening!

9 February 2016 – Day Two

It is always a good feeling getting up in the morning knowing that you have a kiwi under the belt! We breakfasted and then left a little later than normal, based on our late evening the night before. The sun was shining and all was well in the world. We drove northwards, heading towards the beautiful Waipoua Forest, home of the giant Kauri tree – Tane Mahuta. We wound our way through the scenic countryside, and then through the forest itself, stopping to do the short walk to the tree. What a spectacular tree – over 2000 years old – amazing to think of the bird species that would have been around when this tree was half its current age! We enjoyed the spectacle, took some photos, and spotted a couple of tomtits, as well as several pigeons feeding on large tawa drupes. We then headed back to the south, making a quick stop in Dargaville, and then heading east towards Waipu. On the way we made a quick stop at a small farm pond where we watched a pair of Australasian grebes and a pair of New Zealand dabchicks go about their day. They seemed to be rather civil neighbours, with no fighting observed, but we know that is not always the case! A sacred kingfisher also showed well, a nice sunlit specimen.

We then grabbed some lunch at a nearby bakery and headed to a small estuary where we had our lunch in the sunshine. And it was interesting to note the number of pies had increased amongst the lunch packs! The word is getting out! Before the crumbs had even stopped falling, we had spotted two fairy terns roosting on the mudflats, amongst a large number of New Zealand dotterel, variable oystercatchers, and a smaller number of banded dotterel, bar-tailed godwit, and red knot. We finished our lunch and then walked out to where all the birds were, getting nice views and photographs of everything on the way, before getting really good scope views of the fairy terns. In fact we found another bird roosting also, so had views of around 8% of the total New Zealand population right there in front of us! Although they were all adults already moulting out of breeding plumage, they are still stunning little creatures, with the beautiful yellow bill and dark cap, gently receding. We spent some time observing them, as well as all of the other birds, finding two wrybill amongst the waders, and then decided to move on.

We carried on south along the coast, generally wandering towards Warkworth where we are to stay for the night. We headed for a spot where we hoped to find buff-banded rail, and had hardly arrived when we spotted one. As we watched we spotted three walking around on the edge of the pond, and then a couple more opposite. We also found a few brown teal paddling around, and some preening on the banks and then found another spot to settle in and watch the comings and goings. The buff-banded rails played hide and seek, giving pretty good views, and other bits and pieces put in appearances. We then went for a little drive and found one or two pukekos (purple swamphens), and then our first bellbirds. After a short walk we found a Takahe, and watched this almost prehistoric looking critter feeding on short grass. We then decided it was time to head for the accommodation, checking in and having a brief rest, before a slap up dinner. Another great day!

10 February 2016 – Day Three

Well any day on the water is a good one, especially when it starts with sun shining and no wind. We drove out to Sandspit after grabbing some lunch at a bakery, and spotted another buff-banded rail on the way. Boarding the boat and greeting Brett from Assassin Fishing Charters, we headed off out into the channel and then off past Kawau Island. We kept a keen eye out for little penguins, but alas no sign. As we came out into more open water fluttering shearwaters started to stream past, and then we spotted a couple of little penguins, but they were feeding and not too keen on being social.

We carried on out a bit further, finding a feeding group of fluttering, Buller’s and flesh-footed shearwaters, but they were very mobile and moving around a lot, so we decided to carry on out. The sea was pretty calm with less than 1m swell and almost no wind, so we made good speed, soon starting to pass the odd white-faced storm-petrel and then Cook’s petrels. We decided to stop at a spot we have chummed at before, put down the anchor and started chumming. Within seconds flesh-footed shearwaters were coming in as well as white-faced storm-petrels, and Cook’s petrels. And within five minutes we had our first New Zealand storm-petrel! Fantastic! Over the next hour or so we had up to at least six NZ stormpetrels coming to within just feet of us at the back of the boat. Loads of white-faced storm-petrels came in as well, and lots of the usual Buller’s and flesh-footed shearwaters, Cook’s and a few black petrels. A single short-tailed shearwater also made an appearance. As conditions were so nice we decided to make the most of it and head out further. So we upped anchor and headed out to Maori Rocks, where we found at least 50+ grey ternlets. These guys were roosting on the rock stacks, with a few of them feeding amongst schools of trevally just off the rocks. Having notched them up and had great views, we decided to carry on out further. We pulled up a little while later at another spot, and chummed for a bit, and although there were not a lot of birds, we did have another NZ storm-petrel and a few white-faced, as well as flesh-footed and a good number of black petrels. All of a sudden from downwind another bird appeared, and with whoops of joy a white-naped petrel appeared. It gave several really nice close passes, before gradually heading off away from the boat – a great bird. We decided to head off out a bit deeper, and chummed again, but with light winds there were fewer birds than our previous stop, and we didn’t seem to be drawing them in. One of the Cookilaria petrels that turned up however could well have been a Pycroft’s petrel…one to think about. We decided to head back in and make a couple of quick stops on the way. And at one stop we had at least another 5 NZ stormpetrels and a few fairy prions. Gradually making our way in, we called past Kawau Island to see if we could rustle up a rail, and there on the beach was a North Island weka. Excellent. Back on land we had a quick stop at the Motel and then on to another beautiful dinner. Another excellent day!

11 February 2016 – Day Four

Up with the promise of another warm and sunny day. We quickly called in to grab some lunch, and then one last chance at the elusive kookaburra…and it remained elusive. No sighting, so we headed off southwards and out along the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, towards Gulf Harbour. Getting to the ferry terminal early, we checked in, unpacked our gear and had a look around. A reef egret was located hunkering down amongst boulders, and there were lots of white-fronted terns and a few more variable oystercatchers. We boarded the ferry and then headed out across to Tiritiri Matangi Island, with pretty flat conditions. There were a good number of fluttering shearwaters streaming past, so we took some time to watch them. As we arrived at Tiritiri we readied ourselves, and unpacked our gear and listened to the welcome briefing. New Zealand pigeon flew overhead, saddleback called nearby, as did whitehead, tui, and bellbird. We then headed off up towards the bunkhouse, making our way along the trails. First up was a morepork roosting in a tree, rather active when we arrived preening itself, it soon settled down and assumed its normal daytime posture…hunched up and asleep! We then carried on up the trail, finding in short order whitehead, North Island saddleback, kokako and robin, and then stitchbird. We had good views of everything except the kokako, which sat in a tree above our heads and taunted us, but wouldn’t show well. Further on up we had good views of tui, bellbird, and fleeting views of red-crowned parakeet. Up at the bunkhouse we checked in, had lunch and then spent a little money at the giftshop, taking a little break in the middle of the day before heading out for some exploration of the island. We headed to the lighthouse and found a pair of takahe with a half grown chick wandering around feeding on the grass. We then headed out along the island, bumping into a few saddleback, robins, and other bits and bobs. We heard a couple of fernbird, but nothing decided to pop into the open, so we focussed on another pair of Takahe, getting some nice shots of them. They were feeding on grass seeds as well as the stems of grass, so some nice photo opportunities. We then spotted a few red-crowned parakeets, getting some good views of them before heading to a pond. Before we had even sat down we had a spotless crake pop out at the far end of the pond, and then moments later it called to another bird that popped out, followed by two little fluffy black chicks! Awesome! We watched the adult feed along the back of the pond, coming right out into the open at times. After a good bit of time with these often very secretive birds, we headed back to the bunkhouse. Some of us had some good views of rifleman and kokako on the way home, with good views of brown quail also. Back at the bunkhouse we set about getting a fantastic BBQ dinner on the go, with steak and lamb chops, salad and potatoes. Of course a few NZ wines were sampled, as well as some fine cheeses…not a bad way to celebrate the day. After dinner we had a little down time before heading out to look for kiwi. And it was one of the best nights ever on Tiritiri! We waited by a good looking spot, and before it was even fully dark there was some rustling nearby. We tracked it along the trail, and watched as it came out beside the trail, went under the boardwalk and popped out the other side. It then fed along the edge of the boardwalk right in front of us! It gradually disappeared into the forest so we carried on. A bit later a kiwi called, and we waited hopefully, but no sign, so we carried on. And then a tuatara on the trail, and another, and another! Awesome views of NINE tuatara! Carrying on we didn’t hear much – the odd morepork in the distance, but nothing close. Almost back at the Lighthouse some rustling… it was a kiwi and it was moving away from us. We repositioned and within a few minutes there it was, right in front of us, running along the road! And then calling at the same time, but not from the running bird! Moving a little we had awesome views of a male calling loudly with bill wide open as it called! But wait, there was another bird still rustling behind us…creeping down the trail we had great views of another bird feeding, and then it crossed the trail in front of us! FOUR kiwi in all and stunning views of each…wow! We floated back to the bunkhouse for a, hopefully, sound night’s sleep!

12 February 2016 – Day Five

After a big night out kiwi hunting, and a very hot and humid night in the bunkhouse (with some rather strange animal noises being heard), it was a slow morning. We slept in a little and then tidied up around the place, packed our gear and headed out. We wandered down towards the wharf, hoping to try and find a kokako again on the way. We heard several, but each time they were just off out of reach, and when one sounded by the trail, it ghosted off into the forest and wasn’t seen again. We did get more good views of stitchbird, saddleback, etc and the got down to the wharf in time for our water taxi departure. We left the island and headed across in beautiful, calm conditions with the sun shining and little wind. A couple of Buller’s and a few more fluttering shearwaters flew past as we headed in. We loaded the van and then rather quickly headed south towards Miranda, making a lunch grab stop, and a fuel stop on the way. We checked in quickly to accommodation in Miranda and then went out to the hide at the Stilt Ponds. It had been a really large high tide, and although we had arrived an hour after peak, it was still really high and all the birds were out in front of the hide. We quickly sorted through everything – with a massive flock of perhaps 800+ wrybill being present, along with good numbers of banded dotterel. Of course there were thousands of bar-tailed godwit and lots of red knot, and sorting through them we gradually increased our list of birds. First off a whimbrel, then several sharp-tailed sandpipers, then a curlew sandpiper, and then two pectoral sandpipers. A red-necked stint, Eastern curlew, a Hudsonian godwit, and a bunch of Pacific golden plovers were also added to the list. So a pretty good haul of waders! As the last of the birds left from in front of the hide, to feed out on the mudflats, we decided to head along the Stilt Ponds and see what we could find, and after a bit of searching we managed to locate a marsh sandpiper feeding in a wetland area. We then carried on down to the Miranda Shorebird Centre, and increased our checked baggage weight by quite some! Good to support a local cause! We then headed back to the accommodation and spent a few hours resting up, before an early dinner, and then an early night. Tomorrow is going to be another busy day!

13 February 2016 – Day Six

Up really early this morning…the sun wasn’t even up! We packed the van and headed for a wetland area in the hope of catching an early bird with a worm…or maybe an eel. We drove for a bit and then parked and overlooked an area of wetland, which when we arrived was very foggy with visibility less than 100m. We waited as the sun slowly rose and started to warm the area, and the fog came and went… Finally after about forty minutes or so the fog started to really thin out, and as it did we spotted a dark shape on the edge of a small pond. Hunched on the bank it could have been a log, but then all of a sudden it turned and showed a pale face and long bill – there was our Australasian bittern! The fog steadily burnt off and we had fantastic views of the bird stretching its wings, preening and shuffling around, whilst a white-faced heron fed nearby. We watched it for about 40 minutes in all, during which time we spotted another bittern off on another marshy area about 100m away from it. Excellent! We scanned the rest of the wetland area, but no other bittern, but we did have greenfinch and chaffinch, our first of the tour! Can’t believe it had taken so long, but there we have it! There were also shovelor, pukeko, swamp harriers, great cormorants, and black swans around, so plenty to watch and enjoy. We then decided to hit the road and head off towards Whitianga. We made a stop in Tairua for coffee, and then up over the windy section to Whitianga. With time in our pockets we headed down to a spot to watch some of the local NZ dotterel on the beach, probably our last of the trip. We then grabbed some lunch and checked into our accommodation, before heading down to the marina to jump on our afternoon pelagic.

We boarded ‘Sapphire’ with Ian our skipper and headed out, seeing an Eastern reef egret on the way, and before long the first fluttering shearwaters, white-fronted terns, and several Arctic skuas that were chasing the terns. A couple of little penguins also slipped past in the water. It was another beautiful day, although overcast, but as we headed out the sun started to show through the clouds and it gradually became brighter and brighter. The sea was almost flat calm with just a slight swell, so perfect conditions…perhaps too perfect!

We made a couple of scenic stops, and cruised past a rocky island where we spied a New Zealand fur seal lounging about, and then headed out into deeper water. A few Buller’s shearwaters and white-faced storm-petrels started to appear, but overall it was fairly quiet bird-wise. After a bit more travelling we arrived at a point we liked the look of, and stopped to put some chum in the water. It didn’t take too long for a couple of Buller’s shearwaters to swing by, and then flesh-footed shearwaters and black petrels to come in. White-faced storm-petrels bounced about in the slick, feeding on droplets of oil and bits of fish. Then we spotted our first Pterodroma petrels, hoping for Pycroft’s petrel, but almost all of the first ten or so birds that passed seemed to be Cook’s. Over the course of the next hour and a half we had about 25 Pterodromas pass by close enough to get decent views of, and most of them appeared to be Cook’s. However, there were at least two birds that were definite Pycroft’s with shorter bills, darker head and shawl patterns, and more bulky chested appearance. As our time drew to a close we spotted several more Pycroft’s and then gradually started to head back in. We passed through a band of birds streaming back towards the Mercury Islands, and almost all of these appeared to be Pycroft’s, so we saw probably another ten birds. Two very fleeting little shearwaters also put in an appearance, and as we got closer, more fluttering shears, etc. It was a beautiful evening as we headed back in towards land.

Arriving back at the Marina after an excellent afternoon on the water, we were all famished and headed to a nearby restaurant for another great meal and a few drinks! Everyone will sleep well tonight!

14 February 2016– Day Seven

Up and away…well at least to the bakery down the road. We grabbed lunch and then headed off south back towards Tairua as a few spots of rain came through. Heading back up and over the Coromandel Peninsula we again had beautiful views of the Alderman Islands, and then headed through Tairua on south. We basically spent most of the morning heading south and inland, finally getting away from the coast we have been hugging for almost the entire time we have been touring. The sunshine prevailed and as we got inland it warmed and got sunnier.

We entered Pureora Forest Park and stopped at a great spot with good views over the surroundings for lunch. We all had eyes peeled for some key targets, but most were clearly hiding away. We did get good flight views of yellow-fronted parakeet and kaka, as well as tui, robin, NZ pigeon and other common stuff in the forest around. We decided to drive in to another spot and did a short walk through the forest, where we again found several robins and this time got good views of kaka and parakeets perched. A beautiful view out over the forest, with flight views of kaka, but there were no calling long-tailed cuckoo, and no perched falcon….hmmm! We headed off to another spot and drove some gravel roads, finding a couple of confiding NZ pipits which showed well. Good views out over the countryside, and we then headed to a spot where we quickly got onto a fernbird. The bird jumped right out in the open and then flew across to a patch of blackberry and sat in the open for a few seconds before diving into the bracken. We spent a little time trying to coax it out again, but no luck, so headed off back to our first spot for a second look, before then heading off through some beautiful forest. We scoured the area for falcon and listened for long-tailed cuckoo, but no luck. But it was beautiful scenery and nice to be driving through it. We made another quick stop for fernbird, but nothing showing, so carried on. We checked into the accommodation and then headed out for a spectacular Valentine’s Day dinner…so romantic! Another great day!

15 February 2016 – Day Eight

Up early and out on the road as the sun was getting up. We headed off up the road and to a spot where we hoped we might find a blue duck! Again the weather was warm already and promised to be another beautiful day, and as we arrived at our spot on the river the scanning began. Upstream, downstream, upstream, downstream…nothing! We scanned a bit longer and then all of a sudden a blue duck jumped up out of the water onto a rock. It was a fair distance off, but we had it in the scope and managed some reasonable views as it sat on the rock and then jumped back into the water to feed, moving quickly through the fast water and often disappearing.

We decided to jump back in the van and head on to another spot, but as we were just about to drive off we spotted a pair upstream! So out we got and put them in the scope. They were a bit closer and so we got much better views, as they preened and fed in slower water. After a while we decided to move on, and headed for a different spot. We had hardly hit the river when we spotted another pair perched on rocks on the side of the river. We moved along a trail until we were adjacent to them and had them within 40m of us as they fed and swam along the water’s edge. Excellent views of a truly spectacular duck! With such nice views under the belt, we decided to head back to the Motel and pack up our gear, grab a bite of breakfast and then head off. We called in to a bakery to grab some lunch and a persistent tui alarm call alerted us to something untoward. We parked and checked the trees the tui was calling from, and although it took a couple of minutes, there it was – a male New Zealand falcon – perched up on a high branch! The tui definitely had something to complain about! We got it in the scope and managed some reasonable photos of the bird perched up in the tree – a nice way to see our first falcon! After about 6 minutes the bird flew off, with the tui half-heartedly following and calling.

We then carried on northwards and checked out a site for fernbird. Despite no calls a bird was spotted shuffling through the bushes a few metres away from us, and we had reasonable views of this little skulker. After a few more minutes we managed some more reasonable views, before we decided to head on our way. Another quick stop a few minutes later had some nice views of black-billed gull, and then a good drive to our next stop, through some beautiful countryside. We arrived at a beautiful forest reserve area, the sun was shining, it was warm, and more importantly it was lunch time! We had our lunch and watched as kaka came and fed themselves at feeders specifically designed for them. Some wore transmitters and bands, but others were unbanded, clearly progeny from these released birds, now living in the wild. We also spied several rifleman, and a male falcon flew right overhead. It was all on! We decided to go for a walk, and wandered through a lovely forest trail. We heard a snatch of kokako song, and waited and listened for more, but alas nothing else. We had robin, tomtit, whitehead, more rifleman, and tui and bellbird along the trail, as well as a juvenile female falcon screaming as she flew around and around. We were never able to get great views of her perched, but she kept flying around us calling and we could see her up above the canopy. Back at the van we headed on towards Napier, and made a few stops around the city for waders, including black-fronted dotterel, and also found the remaining two plumed whistling ducks that have been long staying at an urban pond. Beautiful little things with their wispy little feathery bits. And then it was time to call it a day! We checked into our accommodation and then headed up to Brent’s house for dinner. A fantastic BBQ dinner with lamb chops, chicken kebabs, salads and all the trimmings…and of course a few wines! Another great day!

16 February 2016 – Day Nine

A pretty relaxed day today, with a (very) late start to the day. We headed out from the Motel and looked for black-fronted dotterel again, this time getting nice close scope views of two birds. We then did a scenic stop to admire the beautiful Hawkes Bay, and found several pipits very confiding, and then grabbing some lunch from a bakery carried on south.

Crossing the Takapau Plains we passed through lots of sheep country, and then made a stop for lunch at a small reserve. Carrying on we headed through Palmerston North, and then out to the coast, checking in at our accommodation in Foxton. With high tide being late afternoon, we headed on down to the Manawatu estuary as the tide was coming in and parked up. We quickly spotted a couple of good sized flocks of white-fronted terns and so walked up to investigate them. Sure enough, there in the middle of them was an immature common tern, looking somewhat different, but not glaringly so. We admired it, and the rest of the flock which included some streaky and still begging juvenile white-fronteds. A nice start to the afternoon!

We then carried on down to where the rest of the waders were starting to accumulate at the spit. We could see the wrybill flock from a distance and homed in on them. This was to be our best views of these great little birds so far, with around 20 of them hunkered down just a few metres away. And there amongst them was a little gem – a terek sandpiper – that has been here for a few weeks now. A great little bird, and even when sitting down roosting it looks busy! We then scanned the rest of the waders, with a good flock of bar-tailed godwit and red knot – some of these birds were really starting to colour up and look stunning with their red breeding plumage. We found three sharp-tailed sandpiper, and three Pacific golden plover – two of which were also starting to get pretty gold and speckled black on the belly. We watched the wader flock for some time, just admiring the sunshine and the beautiful birds in front of us. We then headed back to the accommodation, took a short break and then headed out for another great dinner. Yet again another great day!

17 February 2016 – Day Ten

As we packed the bags into the van, the drizzle started…oh dear! Our first rain of the tour, but there could definitely have been worse days for this to happen. We finished packing the van and started to head south, passing through Levin, and heading to a nearby lake. We had a good assortment of waterfowl, with shoveler, grey teal, mallard, black swan etc as well as several species of cormorant and even a good group of Caspian terns. But the prize was some splendid red junglefowl (!).

Carrying on south we encountered a few showers of rain, but nothing too serious, and picked up some lunch along the way and then made another sewage pond stop. This revealed more good waterfowl, including our last New Zealand dabchick and some NZ scaup, as well as another black-fronted dotterel.

Heading on south we stopped at another wetland/pond area, and did a short walk, finding a cormorant colony with quite a few pied and little pied cormorants in the trees. Also some lovely breeding plumage Royal spoonbill feeding close by were a nice sight, and we stood and watched them feeding through the scope, with lovely saffron blushes to their breast, and shaggy crests flopping in the wind. We then carried on south and drove into Wellington city. We made a stop at Te Papa and several of us enjoyed a wander around the exhibits there, whilst some of us enjoyed some time people watching on the very popular Oriental Parade. It was then time to check in for our ferry which had been delayed a little, and we finished up lunch and then boarded the ferry. We found a place on the outer decks which had a good view and some shelter, as rain continued to come in waves and it was really windy. As we got out of Wellington Harbour it looked like it was gusting over 50 knots with wild spume and spray being whipped off the water. But being from the north there was almost no swell and waves, so a very comfortable ride.

With all the wind we might have expected some birds, but the northerly direction was not helping. However, we did get a few Buller’s, fluttering, and flesh-footed shearwaters, our first Westland petrels, and two relatively distant white-capped albatross – our first albatross of the trip! A single Cook’s petrel was also a surprise, so no complaints. As we entered Tory Channel and got into calmer waters the rain continued. More fluttering shearwaters, a couple of Arctic skuas, and some white-fronted terns. We saw a few spotted shags, and then had an awesome flyby of two King shags very close to the ship, giving great views. We docked in Picton, and headed straight to the Motel which was very close, and then on to a beautiful dinner. After dinner it was off to bed for a good night’s sleep with the rain pounding on the roof…what will tomorrow bring!?

18 February 2016 – Day Eleven

Rain, rain, rain…some really heavy stuff during the night. But as we stirred and got ready for the day the rain miraculously disappeared and the clouds started to open. Hard to believe! We packed the van, drove a short way, and then boarded a boat for a trip on the beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound. And beautiful it was becoming. There was a light wind, but the sun was gradually breaking up all the clouds and it was looking pretty good. We headed off through to a small bay on the way along Queen Charlotte and slowed and started to search for the World’s smallest oceanic dolphin – the Hector’s dolphin. After just a few minutes we spotted three little guys, one a mother with a half grown calf. They were not all that confiding, but showed reasonably well for us, and as we started to move off they rode a wee way back in our wake. Then all of a sudden one animal did a massive leap up into the air, clearing the water at least 6-7ft! What a spectacular jump, and even better everyone saw it!

We headed off towards the outer sound, with our target of King shag in mind. As we approached an island we could see small black and white shapes perched up on a steep face, and as we got closer realised they were not as small as we thought. We counted 41 of these rather rare shags, the largest of the species that lives in New Zealand. And we got great views of them from the boat, watching them preen and even observing that several of the birds appeared to be standing on nests. We then headed off and landed on an island, climbing down a ladder onto the beach. Our target here was orange-fronted parakeet – a pretty rare, and sometimes difficult to see species. We spent a lot of time standing around looking, and looking, and listening, and looking! After almost two hours of this we had seen tomtit, weka, tui, bellbird, NZ pigeon…and had glimpsed a parakeet, and heard them several times. They just didn’t want to play ball! Begrudgingly, we walked back down to the landing site and the boat came back in to pick us up.
Back onboard we had home-made date scones, and tea and coffee as we headed back through to Picton. We spotted an Arctic skua on the way back, as well as a few fluttering shearwaters, spotted shags, and white-fronted terns. Back at Picton we loaded back up onto the van, grabbed some lunch from a local bakery, and then headed south towards Renwick to look for a black kite that had been resident for a very long time. Having lunch amongst the vineyards in the sunshine was a pretty pleasant experience, even if the black kite didn’t bother to show itself! A second stop at some more sewage ponds brought a female cirl bunting and lots of Royal spoonbill, as well as coot, scaup…and a glossy ibis! Excellent work.

Driving on, we headed south out onto the spectacularly beautiful coastline heading down to Kaikoura. We made a few scenic stops, including some to look at New Zealand fur seals and enjoy their antics. Lots of young pups playing in the tide pools, which is always fun to watch. We also found a few groups of spotted shags roosting in several places and stopped to admire them. Arriving at the accommodation, we checked in and then had a beautiful fish and chip dinner on the lawn in the sunshine. After dinner we went for a drive to find little owl, managing to get one really well as it perched beside the road, and then another as it flew off down the road. Another great day!

19 February 2016 – Day Twelve

We were up and out the door with great expectations. The wind had dropped and the sun was shining as we headed out to the end of the Peninsula to take a look at the ocean. And it too had dropped, and was looking pretty good. Even from land there appeared to be a fair few birds flying past, and the light on the mountains was looking pretty nice as well. We then headed across to South Bay to wait for the boat. We jumped on board and Gaza arrived with a couple of others and we were off. There was still a little bit of wind, but the sea was pretty good. As we headed out it wasn’t long and we started to get into a lot of shearwaters – Buller’s and flesh-footed mostly – which was a real surprise. A few of each might be normal at this time of year, but not hundreds like this. We slowed and checked out a few of them, and watched a few Hutton’s cruise through as well. We then carried on out into deeper water to a chumming location, where we put out the chum and waited. And it wasn’t long before birds were landing – New Zealand wanderers sailing in on their 11ft or so wingspans, and a number of Northern Royal albatross, plus the other usuals. There were a lot of white-chinned petrels, but only one Westland called past, but more of the Buller’s and flesh-footed shearwaters and the odd Hutton’s and sooty flying past. We then relocated to another spot, where we continued chumming, but had much the same species, although we did get a single Cook’s petrel, and a flyby Pomarine skua. We then headed in towards the coast, seeing a couple of leaping dusky dolphins on the way, and checking out Barney’s Rock where there were hundreds of red-billed gulls roosting and lots of fur seals hauled out laying in the sun. Heading back along the coast we looked for little penguins, but no luck. We arrived back at South Bay and headed to grab some lunch before the afternoons activities. Some were heading back out on the afternoon Albatross trip, whilst others headed out on the sperm whale watching trip. The albatross trip visited much the same sites, and although a little slower, we still got a great range of birds and some great light made for good photography. The whale watch trip got excellent views of two very good close sperm whales and hundreds of dusky dolphins leaping from the water, so an excellent afternoon for all. A great dinner that evening and then early to bed to rest up for the next day.

20 February 2016 – Day Thirteen

After a good night’s sleep we were up and on the road relatively early. First stop was a lookout overview of Kaikoura township, somewhere we hadn’t had time to visit during the busy preceding day. The sun was shining and although a little crisper than the temperature had been, the day promised to be another stunning one. We glimpsed a couple of cirl buntings flying past, but none would stop and perch where we could see them, but two dunnocks (our first of the trip) sat on power lines for us to see well. We then headed south along the spectacular coastline. We made a couple of stops for scenery and at one point several dolphin swimming boats were just offshore surrounded by leaping dusky dolphins. Awesome.

Carrying on we left the coast and headed slightly inland, tracking south towards Christchurch. We stopped in at the Christchurch Antarctic Centre and picked up Nigel Milius, a new guide coming to join us for the last week of the tour, and then headed inland. And of course, what time did we hit Sheffield – the home of the World famous Sheffield Pie Shop – lunch time! The cue was out the door, but we managed to fight our way in, grabbed some lunch and then headed on up the road to a picnic spot to munch on the pies. And as usual they were a crowd pleaser!

Carrying on up we started to get into the beautiful scenery of the foothills of the Southern Alps. The sun was still shining, but as we moved inland and higher the temperature slowly dropped. We were keeping eyes peeled for New Zealand falcon, and anything else, but not to be seen. We again made a couple of scenic stops, seeing our first great-crested grebe, some obviously migrating post-breeding banded dotterel, and a few other bits and bobs. As we arrived into Arthur’s Pass it didn’t take long to find a kea, but we decided to move on up and find some that weren’t hanging around café tables waiting for scraps! We got up to a site where we had a spectacular view…and there was no kea. But a few minutes later one flew in and we got to enjoy watching it up to its usual antics. And then it flew off and showed us its lovely red underwing. We decided to head back to another spot and go for a forest walk. We enjoyed the beautiful moss covered beech forest, and saw a lot of rifleman, with really lovely close views. Our first brown creeper of the trip also came in for a look to investigate us, and our first South Island robin also. We then headed on to our accommodation and checked in. Located in a beautiful valley with extensive views we had some down time and a chance to rest up before dinner. We had a relatively early dinner and then headed out to a spot to listen for great spotted kiwi. Unfortunately there was a light drizzle falling, but luckily it eased a little. As it got darker we heard a distant pair calling – first the female then the male, and then a bit later another male calling, and then another female a bit closer, before another pair called – possibly the same as the first? Although none were close, it was great to realise there a good few birds running round on the hillsides. After just over an hour, we decided to head on back to the accommodation, driving the road slowly and keeping eyes peeled just in case. Everyone slept well!

21 February 2016 – Day Fourteen

We had a little sleep in this morning, and luckily as we woke the sun was shining and all was looking good. We packed the van and then headed through to have a quick look for blue duck in a few spots. As we got into the mountains there was a little drizzle and some very low cloud, but as we punched through on to the West Coast we left both behind, but a ceiling of grey remained. Luckily though as we got closer to the coast this burnt off and we were again in sunshine.

We made a few quick stops along the way, and pulling into a little town for a toilet stop we found a few ferals – a couple of chickens and two guinea fowl! Some fodder for the cameras at least! We carried on and made a quick stop at a sewage pond, where we scanned the waterfowl in case there was anything of great interest. Nice views of a range of ducks – some good looking grey duck, lots of scaup, and a few shovelor…but no Australian vagrants!

We carried on and grabbed some lunch, filled with fuel, and then drove to a lovely little lake where we spotted a great egret as it flew to a new position on the lake shore. We ate lunch in the sun and then did a short walk through some beautiful forest. It was a little quiet at first, but we soon tracked down a tomtit and a small flock of brown creeper who came in and gave great views. They really are stunning little fellas, with real character. We carried on back to the van and then headed southwards through more spectacular scenery. A few quick  scenic stops along the way, and then a stop in a wetland area to see if we could rustle up a fernbird. We wandered around, not hearing a single squeak from a fernbird! We persisted, and eventually heard one distantly, but it appeared to not to want to come in. We decided enough was enough, and headed on to Franz Josef to our accommodation. We checked in and had a little relax, and then headed to an early dinner in town.

After dinner we grabbed our things and headed back out. We decided to give the fernbird another go… and still nothing! Until finally we had birds reacting, and then got pretty decent views of one of them scurrying about in the vegetation. Great! We then carried on and headed to meet Ian Cooper in Okarito at his place. He gave us a run down on the Okarito kiwi – the rarest of the five species of kiwi with just around 400 birds – and then a briefing on what we were going to do. We then jumped back in the vehicle and headed out to his spot. We chatted and organised ourselves and then headed out. He checked the location of the pair we were going to focus on, and adjust our plans slightly. We then got into position, and as the light faded, a big old moon – not quite full – came up and the morepork started calling. We waited and as we did so the mosquitos came out with a vengeance…but we were prepared. We waited and then all of a sudden as it was almost too dark to see without a torch, there was a female kiwi right in front of us. About 10m away was a burrow that the pair had been excavating, and the female had just arrived. She set about messing around and kicking dirt out, and then the male arrived. Unseen, he gave about four little quiet calls, and then stepped into view. The pair interacted with each other for a few moments, and then she disappeared down into the burrow, and we watched him for a little while. He then disappeared down into the burrow, a tight squeeze still as his legs flicked back dirt and he appeared to almost slide down into the burrow with feet extended backwards – very amusing to watch. All was quiet for about 8-10 minutes and then all of a sudden a female and then a male called about 70-80m away. The pair came rushing out of their burrow in front of our eyes and ran off up the hill towards the neighbouring pair, disappearing into the bush! Wow – what an experience – to see a pair of kiwi, at their burrow and interacting like they had is just an unforgettable experience! Ian Cooper had done us proud! We headed back to the carpark, patted each other on the back, and then headed back to the motel, pulling in to the carpark at 9:58pm – now that has to be a record!

22 February 2016 – Day Fifteen

We were up and off relatively early, seeing that last night was an easy one! We headed on up to the Franz Josef glacier viewpoint, and wandered up to the little viewing area. The glacier was still just visible, but it is amazing to look back at where it was just 10 years ago – it certainly is receding fast. The info panel there has where they thought it might be in 2100 and it is already well past there! We saw a few birds along the way – tomtit, brown creeper, and lots of silvereyes feeding in the sunny areas.

We then headed on south, passing through some remarkable scenery. Just spectacular country and even nicer in the sunshine. We stopped near Fox Glacier for a fantastic view of Mt Tasman and Mt Cook – not a cloud in the sky to hide them today. We then grabbed some lunch and carried on south, keeping a sharp eye out for falcon. We stopped at a forest trail and walked through beautiful temperate rainforest, with mosses, ferns and lichens hanging from every branch. The trail took us down to the beach and we enjoyed the sunshine on the beach and some even paddled in the cool Tasman Sea. The ever present sand flies were about and keen on a snack, and so were we! So we headed back to the van and ate our lunch in the sun. A falcon called nearby, but we didn’t manage to see it – but this was the sixth falcon for the trip so far.

After lunch we carried on south, stopping at a few viewpoints and scenic spots, and then did another forest walk in the afternoon. We hadn’t even got more than a few feet into the trail and already had awesome views of rifleman, tomtit and grey warbler, and shortly a small group of brown creeper. We kept our ears peeled and a few minutes later we heard our target – yellowhead! We headed down the track a little and in the end had beautiful views of two birds feeding up in the canopy. Pretty happy with that, we started to head back towards the carpark, and had another two yellowhead, this time just a few metres away and eye level! Excellent. We watched them feed, hanging from mossy branches, and throwing moss here and there as they fed on insects. As they disappeared we carried on, seeing more rifleman, and back at the van carried on towards Wanaka. We made a couple of quick stops to admire scenery, and then pulled into our accommodation in Wanaka. An awesome meal of Mexican was enjoyed by all, and then a nice early night…it is going to be a relatively early start in the morning!

23 February 2016 – Day Sixteen

We were up early, and in the van almost before the sun was up…mind you 7am is not really that early a start for a birding tour! We had a big drive this morning from Wanaka to Te Anau to start with. We made a couple of quick stops along the way, but the weather was holding, although a little cooler than it has been, and we wanted to get through to our location for rock wren whilst it was still holding. The forecast suggested there might be afternoon rain, so always good to get things early. As we drove a stretch of Lake Wakatipu we spotted a falcon perched on a power pole, and turning around had great views of the bird perched there, and got some nice pics as well.

We grabbed some lunch at Miles Better Pies in Te Anau – and of course much of the lunch was scoffed over the next while as we drove out towards Milford Sound. We made a couple of quick scenic stops and then arrived at out location for rock wren. The sun was still shining, there was almost no wind, and conditions couldn’t have been better. We had hardly been amongst the alpine terrain for more than two minutes when we heard a characteristic little high pitched call in amongst the boulders and vegetation. We focused our attention in the general area, but nothing was moving. Then a little blur just down the hill and so we moved slightly and could hear a bird possibly two calling much closer. Then we saw two birds flitting off along a rocky edge and standing up on a couple of rocks. We had great views of one of the birds, probably a juvenile fledged this season, the other possibly an adult female. But there was still one calling back where they had come from, and so we headed back to that spot and found a male bird in pretty nice plumage. It showed really well for several minutes, jumping up onto the top of rocks and feeding in amongst vegetation. So all up we had at least three birds, with outstanding close views of them – all within about 20 minutes of arriving. You cannot ask for any better than that! We spent another 20 minutes or so enjoying the scenery and checking out the rest of the area, and then decided we should make the most of the time in our pockets and head to Milford Sound whilst the weather was holding. So we headed back to the van, chomped through the remaining lunch and then drove through to Milford Sound. It was still pretty nice through in the Sound, with a little high cloud just masking the top of Mitre Peak, but otherwise warm. We had checked all the rivers for ducks of the blue variety on the way, but nothing. We spent a little time admiring the scenery and then slowly headed back through to a couple of forest spots. Of course eyes were on the rivers again as we checked for ducks, but still nothing. But the scenery and beautiful weather made up for that.

We stopped at a view point and enjoyed more spectacular views, and then at a forest walk where we admired beautiful big beech trees just festooned with mosses – mosses on branches, on trunks, carpeting the ground – just beautiful. And there were rifleman everywhere – you could just hear them calling all over the place, and we had some really nice views. We also had a few South Island robin around and got nice close views of them, and a black morph fantail, our first of the trip. But, it was soon time to start heading back towards Te Anau. We enjoyed the scenery as we drove slowly back towards town, checked in to our accommodation, and had a little time before dinner. As usual dinner was another pretty delicious affair!

24 February 2016 – Day Seventeen

We were up early this morning, and thankfully the bad weather that had been forecast hadn’t yet eventuated. We packed the van and left the accommodation as it was starting to get light, and as we headed out towards Invercargill, the sun was rising and looking pretty spectacular over the hills and mountains as we drove. We basically made a bee-line straight for Bluff, stopping in at the musical toilets in Winton, and then bypassing the metropolis of Invercargill. We headed to an estuary area and scanned the shoreline, spotting a good number of oystercatchers, as well as a few bar-tailed godwit, red knot and a lot of banded dotterel. There were a lot of black swan and a few Royal spoonbill as well, so a good birdy spot. We then headed in to Bluff and had a quick look from Stirling Point to look out over Foveaux Strait – which was lovely and flat! Excellent!

We checked in for the ferry and then boarded on time and headed out of the port. As we did so an Arctic tern was spotted by some, but was so brief we didn’t have enough time to get everyone on to it. We carried on out into the Strait and a few sooty shearwaters started to come past. As we got out a bit further we spotted our first albatross – a Buller’s at that – a new one for the list. With almost no wind there were not a lot of birds flying, but we added a couple of white-capped albatross, a single Southern Royal sitting on the water, several Stewart Island shags, and then several brown skua on the rocks as we passed the Muttonbird Islands. We scanned the rocks for Fiordland crested penguins as we came into Halfmoon Bay, but nothing, except a little penguin in the water.

We docked at the main wharf, grabbed our bags and headed up to the hotel to check in. We stowed our gear in the rooms, grabbed our lunches and ate them in the sunshine out the front of the hotel. We then walked up and over the hill to Golden Bay, where we met with our water taxi who took us across to Ulva Island. With the weather still warm and high cloud we were anxious to see as much as possible before the forecasted deterioration commenced. We headed up the trail and within a minute or so had a juvenile saddleback – in the classic jackbird plumage with rusty red-brown feathers. It crept around on the forest floor feeding amongst the leaf litter and we got great views, before it skulked off into the undergrowth. We carried on along the trail and before long were hearing a lot of yellowhead just off the trail. We carried on hearing more, but still off the track, and then we found a group that seemed closer and waited and listened. We were eventually able to get good views of birds not too far off the track, and then a little later another group a bit further along. Of course the robins were trying their best to distract us, and it worked quite a bit of the time! We gradually wandered out to a beach, seeing more yellowhead, saddleback, a few red-crowned parakeet and kaka along the way. We found a couple of the resident variable oystercatchers on the beach, and it wasn’t long before a weka found us! It crept around trying to work out what it could steal…but then decided there were better morsels to be had along the strand line on the beach.

We then wandered back towards the other side of the island. We saw more of the same, but also some nice views of yellow-crowned parakeet and a morepork roosting as well. We gradually headed back around to the wharf, just as it started to rain a little – perfect timing. We had seen everything and decided to catch the water taxi a little early. We had a little time before dinner, then a great dinner, and then readied ourselves for our kiwi hunting mission. We headed down to the main wharf, boarded the boat, and then headed around Acker’s Point and across Paterson Inlet. The weather was still holding thankfully, and as we headed up and over to Ocean Beach the light was definitely fading. We headed down the beach, and almost at the end of the beach was our target! A fantastic female Southern brown kiwi, feeding right out in the open on the beach! She was eating sandhoppers and busy at it! She hardly paused whilst we stood there, just metres away, with a torch dimly lighting her for about 15 minutes. Fantastic views and a beautiful experience. We moved off and left her in peace, and then headed back up and across to the boat, looking for other kiwi on the way, just in case. It started to rain a little and we had a bit of rolling and spray on the way back, but we had had a fantastic day and our beds were waiting…

25 February 2016 – Day Eighteen

Well it sure did rain during the night! We were up bright and early, and it was still drizzling. We breakfasted and then headed down to the main wharf and met our skipper and jumped aboard the boat and headed off out towards the entrance of the bay. We had hardly even settled in when several Fiordland crested penguins were spotted. We angled the boat in towards them and discovered there were at least seven penguins in very nice new plumage! They came and went in and out of a cave, and several of them jumped into the water and splashed around. Clearly these birds had recently finished moulting, but were still coming in to shore – excellent to get these tricky birds at this time of the year. We carried on out towards the Muttonbird Islands and had a look along the coastline of several of them. There were a lot of NZ fur seals about, and we found a few weka running around on the beaches turning over kelp, but no yellow-eyed penguins. We carried on a little and had an adult and freshly fledged juvenile brown skua come out to visit, and Matt threw them a few scraps. They gave a great show and came around quite a few times with the youngster calling loudly to be fed. We called in to look at the back of an island and spotted two almost fledged juvenile yellow-eyed penguins up on the hillside out in the open, so had a good look at them, before heading on. Ian all of a sudden stopped the boat and came running back, pointing out the tip of a great white shark dorsal fin as it slipped beneath the waves right beside the boat. It looked like a pretty big animal, but hadn’t showed itself off too well to us.

We then decided it was time to head on out to deeper water, and so made a bee-line for Wreck Reef. The weather was pretty good, with the odd spit of rain, but the sea conditions were gentle, with less than a metre swell most of the time, but a nice stiff 10-15 knot wind. So pretty good for seabird watching. As we steamed out clouds of white-capped albatross started to follow us, with the odd Buller’s and Salvin’s albatross mixed in amongst them. Sooty shearwaters were flashing past and as we got closer to Wreck Reef the numbers increased. We pulled up near the reef and started chumming with cod frames and skins and some salmon chum to get a good slick going. Before long we had a lot of albatross around us, fighting and squabbling for scraps. A few sooty shears swept past, and we had a white-chinned petrel as well. But after over an hour we still hadn’t managed to pull in anything different. So we decided to head on out into deeper water. We carried on for another 40 minutes or so, and then started chumming again. Many of the albatross had followed us, but within a few minutes several Southern Royal albatross arrived, despite the fact we had had none in by the reef. This was a good sign. There seemed to be more sooty shears about, and it didn’t take long for the first mottled petrel to come past. Over the next few hours we had incredible views of mottled petrel, with many of them coming very close to the boat, giving extended views as some went up and cruised over the slick. Not something they do very often. We also had several Northern giant petrels turn up, and a single white-faced storm-petrel, followed shortly after by at least 2-3 grey-backed storm-petrels. The grey-backed gave excellent views also, coming in very close and feeding near the back of the boat. A single fairy prion caused a heart palpitation, as it cruised slowly past, but other than it we saw no other prions during the course of the day.

After a good few hours we decided to head back to a spot just off of Wreck Reef, but out a little deeper, where we chummed for a third time. Again we had much the same assemblage of albatross, but nothing new. And before too long it was time to head back in towards the bay. We slowly chugged back in, keeping an eye out for anything different. But after a pretty excellent day there were a few weary heads. Several Stewart Island shags (or now the newly split Foveaux shag) were roosting on the rock in the bay, showing both pied and bronze forms. We docked at the wharf and headed back up to the accommodation for a bit before another excellent dinner and then a well-deserved early night. It was still raining in Oban and apparently had been all day, so we had done well on the water with the limited spots of rain we had endured!

26 February 2016 – Day Nineteen

We were up again early. The rain seemed to be easing off, and we walked down to check in for the ferry after breakfast. The ferry headed off on time, heading out of the bay, but there were no Fiordland penguins where there had been seven yesterday! We were lucky! The crossing started very calm with light winds, but by halfway across there was a very strong wind and enough small waves to cause some pretty good spray over the back deck. We saw a few birds on the way back including Southern Royal, Buller’s Salvin’s and white-capped albatross, sooty shearwater, and at least one probable mottled petrel. We docked at the ferry terminal in Bluff and quickly loaded the van with all our gear and headed off northwards. A fair way to drive today to get up to Oamaru, but some pretty nice scenery along the way. We basically headed through to Owaka where we grabbed some lunch and then headed to a beach to eat it. It had started to drizzle a little, but as we finished so did the rain and we headed along the beach and found a good number of Hooker’s sea lions resting on the sand. They were spread out along the beach, with several of them lying in small groups. We had great views of them, and even watched one large bull come up out of the sea.

We then wandered back to the van and carried on northwards, heading through Dunedin. We called in at a small coastal spot where we had awesome views of yellow-eyed penguins. There were at least six adult birds out sitting about, and several juveniles with just small traces of down left to moult sitting under bushes. They were clearly very close to fledging from the nest, so were probably waiting on their parents to come back and feed them. Some of the adults sitting around were clearly in the middle of their moult, and there is nothing that looks more miserable than a moulting penguin! We enjoyed the beautiful coastal views, and watched a few albatross cruise past, as well as a Hutton’s shearwater, and several of the newly ‘split’ Otago shags – split from Stewart Island shag. We then headed on to Oamaru and to our accommodation, where we checked in and had a break before another excellent dinner.

27 February 2016 – Day Twenty

Well we were up early again…we seem to be making a habit of this! We loaded the van and headed off inland, towards the scenic Mackenzie Country. We drove straight through to Twizel, admiring the beautiful scenery, which was bathed in sunshine. Unfortunately, there was a fair old wind as well though, with it gusting probably over 35 knots! Windy!

We grabbed some lunch from a bakery in Twizel and then headed on out to our first spot to look for black stilt – our key target for the day. Our first location looked good, not too windy, and we searched, and searched, and searched, but nothing to show. So we decided to head off to another spot. On the way the wind was incredibly strong and the van was being buffeted about the place. But, the consolation was that Mt Cook was clearly visible between thin clouds and looked absolutely stunning! We made it safely and checked out the likely looking spot. But again – nothing! We headed to another location nearby, and although it was beautifully protected and calm, there was not a single black stilt! Where are they hiding? So we headed on to another location…and with bellies rumbling we decided to have lunch as we arrived. We scanned as we munched and off in the distance we spotted an adult black stilt, then another, and another…all up it looked like perhaps at least nine birds off in the distance. The only problem was the wind was still howling and it was a fair old walk which involved some rather wet feet! Ah well, nothing else for it! We sorted out footwear, shorts, etc and then mounted the expedition. It was perhaps a kilometer across to the closest bird, a nice adult that was feeding in a stream. We sat on the edge of the stream as it fed slowly working its way up towards us…one step forward, two steps backwards as the wind blasted the bird. Clearly we weren’t the only ones struggling in the wind! Off in the distance we could see at least another 17-18 birds! We watched as the bird got closer and closer, then a big gust blew it back a fair bit and it seemed to give up, flying off shortly after that. But we had had great views and it was nice to know there were a bunch of others nearby. There were also a lot of banded dotterels around, and other bits and pieces, but we decided to head back to the van and out of the wind.

Back at the van we loaded up, and then headed on to another spot where we hoped to find a Baillon’s crake. We spanned out and searched and searched, but it would seem things were playing tough to get today! After almost an hour we decided they were playing with us, and headed on to our accommodation. We checked in and then went out for our last dinner together – a very nice dinner at Ladybird Hill Winery! We did our bird of the trip together, with New Zealand wandering albatross coming in as the top bird. A great trip, and some excellent birds along the way.

28 February 2016 – Day Twenty-one

Well it was another early morning, and we were loaded and on the road by 0700. We decided it was worth giving Baillon’s crake a second hit, and also looking for Chukar. So we headed out past Lake Pukaki just as the sun was rising and hitting Mount Cook, which was completely cloud free and looked absolutely stunning! This was the third day we had looked for and seen Mount Cook (Aoraki) - we had seen it from the West Coast, and two days running from across Lake Pukaki - I don’t think that has happened on a tour before! We headed on to a spot, that for all the world looked like there should be Baillon’s crakes stumbling out of every corner…but nothing. We gave it a good go, nearly 45 minutes of searching, but not a sausage…or a crake!

So we headed back off towards Christchurch, cruising slowly looking for Chukar. We didn’t spot any but heard some a wee way off, but decided time was against us and so we carried on. Just before Burke’s Pass we had a flash by falcon, but turning around couldn’t find it again. Still, our eighth falcon of the trip can’t be bad! We made it into Christchurch around midday, checked into accommodation and said our goodbyes. Everyone was a little weary after such an action packed trip, so I imagine the afternoon was a little lazy for most. Hard to believe our 21-day trip was over.

-Brent Stephenson

Created: 11 March 2016