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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

New Zealand

Island Endemics and Seabirds

2020 Narrative

IN BRIEF: With a great bunch of people, it is hard not to have a great time as you explore a country together. There always seemed to be laughter, banter, or conversation going on in the minivan as we toured. And only rarely, towards the end of the 21-days was there a respite and the gentle sound of snoring from the back of the minivan. Most were keen on photography, and a diverse range of interests of the natural world also made for a very enjoyable and educational tour through New Zealand.

This summer has been a little fraught with weather and ensuing changes. Just prior to our tour starting Fiordland was hit by some very severe weather and the resulting slips and damage meant that the road through to Milford Sound was closed right through to when we were scheduled to be there. Another storm threatened to impact our West Coast portion of the tour, but luckily did not. However, our actual weather during this tour was surprisingly good, with some very hot and dry days at the very start, and then nice, warm and relatively calm days throughout much of the tour. We encountered just a bit of rain along the way, and it really did not interrupt much in the way of our birding. Our pelagic trips all went ahead, and were on the whole very good. Although our day out of Stewart Island got a little windy and had to be adjusted accordingly.

We saw a total of 154 species along the way, including 66 endemic breeders and 26 tube-nosed seabirds. This was a pretty respectable tally for the 21-days, and we saw just about every target we had. We did miss seeing or hearing shining bronze-cuckoo, a bit of a surprise as we normally manage to pick this species up. And the weather was absolutely awful with torrential rain when we were at Arthur’s Pass, meaning we didn’t bother going out listening for great-spotted kiwi. And of course, with the Milford Road closed our chance of getting into rock wren habitat was nil. That said we had amazing views of almost everything else we saw along the way. We had excellent views of all four kiwi species, fantastic views of seabirds like the New Zealand storm-petrel and Pycroft’s petrel, excellent kokako and takahe sightings, mega views of multiple long-tailed cuckoo, multiple blue duck, stunning prolonged scope views of an Australasian bittern catching small fish, up close photo opportunities with wrybill, short but superb orange-fronted parakeet views, excellent yellowhead and amazing views of both Fiordland crested and yellow-eyed penguins.

The ‘Bird of the Trip’ results were interesting and are below, with Okarito kiwi (Rowi) coming in tops, well ahead of the next species, also a kiwi, the Northern brown. This just shows how excellent our sightings of these two species were, and I can guarantee some lasting memories with have been made. The rest of the results show a good spread over the iconic species seen during the whole tour, and nice to see things like NZ storm-petrel, wrybill, and morepork making the list.

A great tour, with a great bunch of people, and some beautiful memories and photos. What more could we ask for?

IN DETAIL: 4 February 2020 – Day One

Up and meeting with everyone in the carpark of the Hotel. Everyone had slept fast, and the heat of the day had not yet arrived – perhaps it will be cooler today!? We packed the van, got acquainted with our new travel companions, and then set off across Auckland.

First stop a gannet colony on the scenic West Coast. Beautiful calm conditions with feeding gannets visible way off out to sea, and a gentle swell breaking on the beach. Thousands of gannets congregated on the cliffs, with a lot of lovely large grey plumaged juveniles getting ready for their first flight. They were exercising constantly, and it was clear that in just a couple of weeks the colony would start to empty out as the juveniles departed.

We checked out the coastline for other species, a few kelp and red-billed gulls, the odd white-fronted tern, and some variable oystercatchers. Also, with the feeding gannets offshore some large all-dark shearwaters – probably flesh-footed, but way too far to positively ID. Silvereye, yellowhammer and welcome swallow along the coastline also.

We then headed off to our first bakery stop. Completely unprompted a pie was bought! Along with a fine assortment of sandwiches in what truly has to be record time for a first bakery stop! Wow! We carried on along the roads through rolling hillsides and pastures. A few harriers, the odd purple swamphen and paradise shelduck, all good.

We arrived at small estuary and walked down to have lunch. Within moments a fairy tern resting on the mud was spotted, with a Caspian and a white-fronted in the same scope view for comparison. How nice is that!? We also had great views of buff-banded rails running about, white-faced herons and pied stilts. Plus, our first New Zealand dotterel, red knot and a bar-tailed godwit. Lunch was dealt with in record time, and so we moved on to a slightly different spot for more NZ dotterel and out first juvenile double-banded plover.

Heading further north we stopped at a small pond where the temperatures had peaked for the day at 33.5 degrees celcius. But that didn’t stop a nice selection of waterfowl being spotted with both New Zealand grebe (dabchick) and Australasian grebe side by side, Pacific black duck, New Zealand scaup, Australasian shoveler and a few brown teal! What a great little spot.

Heading on northwards, we checked into our accommodation in the late afternoon. Just enough time for a quick rest, then a beautiful dinner and then out to the countryside for dessert!! This came in the form of five kiwi sightings, plus a very small chick that was more moving grass than kiwi. But four of the sightings were prolonged excellent views. One huge female feeding in the open in front of us for about ten minutes. A very close and confiding morepork was also a crowd pleaser, and to top it all off the kiwi calling was insane with calls every few minutes for the first hour or so. Amazing! Bed and dreams of nocturnal birds!

5 February 2020 – Day Two

Waking up a little later after a late-ish night and nice memories of excellent views of kiwi and morepork the night before is always nice! It was relatively cool as we readied for the day, but the forecast suggested another warm one. We packed the van and headed south, heading down towards a coastal site where we hoped to find fairy tern. We had a lovely walk, and the temperature was still rather pleasant actually. But no sign of any fairy tern. There was a small flock of white-fronted tern, a few variable oystercatchers, and very nice to pick up our first New Zealand pipit. We wandered back to the van, finding another very confiding pipit, and then a couple of not so confiding brown quail.

We headed on south, driving through some beautiful scenic countryside, with expansive views of the coast. We made it to a local reserve area just after lunch and did a couple of short walks looking for target birds. The temperature had risen a little, but was still not as oppressive as it had been yesterday. The breeze certainly helped!

Things in the reserve were dry, really dry. The understorey of the forest was wilting and clearly could do with a good drink! And it was quiet in places. We wandered and found brown teal, NZ dotterel, and a few other bits and bobs. But soon we found the hotspot and within a few moments had a bunch of the target forest birds – tui, bellbird, whitehead, grey gerygone, fantail, NZ pigeon (showing super nice iridescence), North Island robin, and then saddleback! Awesome – all nice and close, great views. We carried on and then found a couple of big blue chickens! Bonus – nice views of a pair of Takahe, feeding and doing their thing, and looking completely unfazed about us.

We wandered back slowly towards the van, seeing more of the same on the way. I wager there were a few photos taken this afternoon, so all will be working hard to whittle down to the good ones tonight. We headed on towards the accommodation, looking for kookaburra along the way, but no luck. We checked in to the accommodation, and then a little rest before dinner and an early night! Another great day!

6 February 2020 – Day Three

Well, another beautiful morning to wake up to. Sun shining and not a lot of wind, so looked promising! We had breakfast and then headed to grab lunch and then to Sandspit. At Sandspit there was a bit of activity going on, it is Waitangi Day after all and a lot of people clearly heading out on the water. But I doubt many were planning to head to where we were!

We boarded our boat and headed out, a little wind making small waves on the Kawau Channel, but that didn’t stop us finding a couple of little penguins on the way. One adult that looked like it was ready to start moulting, and a couple of youngsters that looked fresh out of the nest. Pretty good views of these great little birds before continuing out towards the open ocean. A brief flyby Arctic skua on the way.

There was a pretty stiff breeze of about 15 knots blowing already as we got out, coming from the south. It was supposed to freshen a little in the mid-afternoon and swing to the SW, so we wanted to get out and in place without too much delay. We started to see a few fluttering, then flesh-footed shearwaters, and then some Buller’s shearwaters and Cook’s petrels. As we reached our chumming location there was a marked increase in bird activity, and so we slowed up. We started to ready the chum, and bingo! Within a minute or two and without chum there was a New Zealand storm-petrel – star of the day! It spent quite a bit of time around the back of the boat in quite nice light really showing off. The Cook’s petrels, flesh-footed and Buller’s shearwaters all looked a little disappointed they were not the focus of our attention!

Funny thing was, even when the chum was in the water there was not even a single white-faced stormpetrel that showed. And in fact they were a little stand-offish even when we finally found a few later on in the day. But we managed to pick up a single sooty shearwater that showed briefly, and a number of black petrels that showed really well, and a few white-faced storm-petrels that showed pretty well also. But New Zealand storm petrels were definitely the star of the show!

We changed location a few times, and then decided that with the weather forecast and the way the wind was already, perhaps it was better to start heading in. We slowed a couple of times for things, but a large flock of gannets sitting on the water was in fact just that, and there was no activity to be observed. We did however, head in to a bay, and managed to pick up three weka feeding along the shoreline. Being the rarer North Island subspecies a nice bird to see.

We headed back to Sandspit, drove back to the accommodation checking for kookaburra, but again struck out. Another delicious dinner, a few good wines, and conversation, and a good night’s sleep!

7 February 2020 – Day Four

Another beautiful morning as we readied the van and then headed south towards our ferry. We made a short stop at a local reserve and saw a few things, including some nice views of grey gerygone and a flyby red-crowned parakeet. A road-running buff-banded rail showed well as we departed.

We arrived at the ferry port, got our gear situated and waited for the ferry before boarding and undertaking the short ride across to Tiritiri Matangi Island. On the way we saw a single penguin, a couple of fluttering shearwaters and a single Buller’s shearwater as we arrived at the island. The Buller’s and a number of white-fronted terns were feeding just off the island.

On the island after our greeting we headed up to the Bunkhouse, birding on the way. In quick succession we had bellbird, tui, robin, whitehead, red-crowned parakeet, saddleback, Stitchbird, kokako (a pair mutual preening), and then brown quail. The kokako were nice, but a little obscured. With the island so so dry, there was a lot of coming and going at the water feeders, so we spent a little time there watching the birds come and go. By the time we got to the Bunkhouse to have lunch we had pretty much cleaned up on all the birds we really needed. But the afternoon beckoned and after an hour to relax it was time to head out for the afternoon.

We wandered out around the island, exploring. It was warm and sunny, but not too hot. And there was a bit of a breeze, so actually quite pleasant. We saw a lot of saddleback and whitehead, brown quail, and then checked out some of the feeders with lots of Stitchbird and bellbird around. We managed to find a few rifleman, managing to see them in about three different places, with at least a couple unbanded, indicating birds raised on the island. We then found a pair of Takahe, hiding in the shadows, trying to escape the heat. And then at a small pond found two spotless crakes walking the edge and feeding right in the open. Awesome views as they pecked back and forth along the shore for more than 15 minutes in front of us. A brown teal put in an appearance as well.

As we wandered back towards the Bunkhouse we picked up more saddleback, and other endemics. And then after a while we heard snippets of kokako song. The male flew over the track after giving pretty decent views, and then disappeared. But we managed to find it again, first singing from a Puriri tree, and then feeding on the fruits of a cabbage tree. Awesome views and a lot of images taken.

A beaut BBQ dinner back at the Bunkhouse, with wine and cheese, then steak and lamb chops, salads, coleslaw and new potatoes! Pretty darn nice, with a little chocolate to wash it down. And then it was time to head out for our nocturnal adventures.

We headed out, it was a bit breezy but the night was warm and the leaves in the forest unable to hide a kiwi moving. We wandered some trails, but all was quiet. Then a couple of morepork called, and the churring of several chicks was heard. But not a single snuffle or call from a kiwi! We kept on wandering, and managed to find our first tuatara, a nice big animal about 2+ feet long. Excellent views of these ancient reptile for all. We continued, finding another three tuatara. And then there it was, a rounded ball like shape. Turning off the flashlight we got everyone into place and turned it back on. There was a female, quite large, feeding right in front of us! She probed the ground feeding intently for about 60 seconds, and then as if she suddenly realised there was somebody watched her, shot off out of sight behind some flaxvbushes. YES! All very happy, we decided to move away and leave her to it. A short while later we found a morepork perched and had more great views of this great little bird, and continuing our search we finally heard a single male kiwi call. A short time later we had one more morepork with great views, and then back to the Bunkhouse! A pretty early night to be honest, and very happy to have had such excellent views of a kiwi in these very dry and challenging conditions!

8 February 2020 – Day Five

Up and enjoyed breakfast with the sound of birdsong out the window. We all headed out to various parts of the island to see what we could find, and everyone had success of some sort – with kokako, takahe, and rifleman being found out and about the place.

After cleaning the Bunkhouse and packing, we then wandered down to the wharf and caught our water taxi to head back to Gulf Harbour. From the wharf we spotted a New Zealand eagle ray, but the boat ride back to Gulf Harbour was surprisingly free of birds.

We loaded the van and headed off southwards, quick stop to grab lunch and then we checked out an estuarine area. There was a lot of waterfowl around – thousands of black swans, mallards, but our first grey teal, and some more Pacific black duck and Paradise shelduck. Quite a few pied and little pied cormorants, and our first black-billed gulls also.

We had lunch and scanned the waterfowl, and then continued our way south towards Miranda. We checked in to our accommodation, had a bit of a rest and reorganised our gear, and headed out to the Stilt Ponds to watch the waders coming in. Our timing was perfect, and as we arrived the first red knot and barwits settled down on the mud in front of us. We watched as more and more birds came in, finding a leucistic South Island oystercatcher in the gathering flock – very cool looking bird. Also, a bunch of Pacific golden plover and some more black-billed gulls. Flocks of wrybill were flying past us and heading across to the Stilt Pond, so we ended up heading across there. There was probably close to 2,000 wrybill there and searching amongst them we managed to find the previously reported lesser sand plover, then a couple of sharp-tailed sandpipers, and some sharp eyes (thanks Kirsty!) managed to find the broad-billed sandpiper. So, all in all a very successful afternoon!

We headed straight to a lovely dinner and then an early night…hopefully a little less night-time sounds than the Bunkhouse last night!

9 February 2020 – Day Six

We were up and out the door early and back to Miranda. The light was beautiful and the waders were all gathered. We met up with a few local birders at one of the hides and started to scan the wader flock in front of one of the hides. There were several thousand bar-tailed godwits, red knot, and over a thousand wrybill, so a lot to search through. But we again managed to find a few sharp-tailed sandpipers, the broadbilled sandpiper and a Hudsonian godwit – thanks David Thomas! We enjoyed the beautiful light and the great birds and then decided to head back to pack the van. On the way three Far Eastern curlew flew over and out of sight.

We packed the van and then headed off towards Whitianga. After a coffee stop we made a quick stop at another wetland site. There was a good number of pied stilts and a few South Island oystercatchers, barwits and wrybill. But nothing out of the ordinary. A swamp harrier plucking a still live juvenile pied stilt was a gory testament to these birds hunting ability.

We carried on, driving over the beautiful Coromandel Range, with stunning sunshine and beautiful forest. The views out over the ocean once across showed that we should be up for an excellent afternoon. We made it to Whitianga, checked in to the accommodation, had a quick lunch and then joined our boat for an afternoon on the water.

We headed straight out of Mercury Bay, seeing a couple of little penguins on the way, a few gannets, and then the first fluttering shearwaters. A bit further out we started to see the first Buller’s shearwaters, then a few flesh-footed shearwaters. But the conditions were spectacular, flat seas and light breezes. A brief glimpse of common dolphins on the way.

We got out to our chumming location, and after passing a few small groups of birds, we stopped in a location with no birds at all. But let’s see what happens…. We started to put chum in the water, and there was nothing in sight. Very light breezes, that seemed to change direction continuously. But then a Buller’s shearwater arrived, then another, and before too long a few more birds. The first Cookilaria petrel came through, probably a Cook’s, the next maybe a Pycroft’s…. Black petrels showed up, then flesh-footed shearwaters, and the odd white-faced storm-petrel. With more Cookilaria petrels coming past, many of them seemed to be Pycroft’s, some giving quite nice views. With Hadoram Shirihai on the trip, it was fun to compare the consensus, and almost always we were on the same page. We also had several short-tailed shearwaters and a sooty shearwater come in to the chum and show themselves really well, and a single flyby little shearwater. Finally, towards the end of our chumming session we had a New Zealand storm-petrel arrive and show really well, and then a mako shark arrived and put on a good show as well. Over the course of the afternoon we had 25+ Pycroft’s and about 10 Cook’s, plus a few others that were not positively ID’d. So, an absolutely awesome afternoon with some great birds, some great learning, and in beautiful conditions.

We headed towards port, with a few more Cookilaria on the way, and as we got closer a nice dark morph Arctic skua. Pizza for dinner and another excellent day was done!

10 February 2020 – Day Seven

So, it was an early start, the moon was still up and the sun not quite, as we left Whitianga. We had a few kilometres ahead of us, and so it was prudent to get on the road early. A nice quick run through to Matamata (Hobbiton) for a bakery stop, and then on towards the target for the day, a large tract of forest.

We made really good time and pulled into a carpark for a bathroom stop, only to hear a couple of longtailed cuckoos calling nearby. We made our way towards them and they were really getting excited. We glimpsed them flying between the tall emergent trees, seemingly chasing each other, and then got amazing views of them as they flew directly over us. In the end there had to be about 6-7 birds flying around, landing in the tall emergent trees, often in view, calling and then repeatedly flying. Amazing! It seems at this time of year if you strike it right, they are flocking up and getting all worked up, perhaps before they start to migrate northwards in small groups. Whatever, they were putting on an incredible show!

As well as this there were yellow-crowned parakeets flying around the trees, landing and giving brief views as they called and scurried through the branches. A couple of kaka did fly overs, and then we found a male tomtit, a North Island robin, and a small group of rifleman that showed briefly.

We moved on to a different location and did a short walk. We found several groups of whitehead, a nice view of a kaka prising bark off a tree, and then some nice views of yellow-crowned parakeets. Nice to see the beautiful green plumage and the yellow forehead. Lots of huge emergent rimu, totara, matai and kahikatea trees, and the ferns and mosses were pretty special as well.

We then carried on to another location, pausing to watch for falcon, but no luck, and then a short walk through more lovely forest. A robin, a few fantails, but the forest was getting pretty quiet in the heat of the day. So, we carried on and decided to head through to Turangi early. A beautiful drive through more lovely native forest, and a few pigeon and tui seen as we drove, another brief in flight long-tailed cuckoo, and then spectacular views of the three central North Island volcanoes – Mt Tongariro, Mt Ngaruhoe, and Mt Ruapehu – all visible in the sunshine!

We headed to a spot on the Tongariro River, and bingo, a pair of blue ducks sitting on the river bank, taking a nap. We got nice views of the pair, and a few photos, with the male occasionally waking up to look around. Really nice to find these at the first stop, and of course we wanted more, so made another two stops…and found nothing. Ah well, glad to have them under the belt and will try again in the morning.

It was definitely beer o’clock as we checked in to the Motel, had a drink, dinner and celebrated another awesome day!

11 February 2020 – Day Eight

Up early and off to look for bittern. Not an easy bird in New Zealand. And they proved that this morning. After a bit of driving and an hour standing and watching we had nothing to show for it. Except some coot, a few fleeting fernbird, and a lovely vista!

We headed off and checked out some locations for blue duck and had really nice views of a male and female with a large juvenile from this season. We watched them feeding along the edge of the river and the juvenile diving and feeding. We wandered along the river a bit, spotting a few other introduced bits and pieces, including a California quail and youngsters, a dunnock, and yellowhammer. It was a super nice sunny morning, and just lovely to be out.

We headed back to the accommodation, packed the van, grabbed lunch and then got on the road. After a bit we stopped and found an area literally bristling with fernbird. We had good views of about 4-5 birds, and the gang managed a few photos as well. There were certainly some juvenile birds around, and perhaps this was helping with them being so visible this morning.

We carried on, beautiful views out over Lake Taupo, and looking back to the mountains. Then on towards the East Coast. Stunning scenery, and then a lot of pine forest, but back into the native and mountainous sheep farming country. We wound our way into the hills and finally came to a forest where we had a lovely lunch enjoying the native forest surrounding us, and then went for a walk. It was relatively quiet in the forest, being pretty warm and near the middle of the day. But we heard tui and bellbird chiming away, got whitehead and grey warbler, and several robins. And then a snatch of juvenile falcon call… Hmmmm, that sounded close. We searched and searched. The beech trees just above us had to be hiding them, but it was almost impossible to see up where we thought the intermittent calls were coming from. And then finally after about half an hour of searching, a fluttering of wings and enough to locate where they were. In the end, two juvenile falcons in the top of a beech tree. We had them in the scope and pretty good views, even better when they turned to face us, but still high and not really able to be photographed. Then the one moved to another tree, allowing much better photos and views. What a little stunner. Every now and then, possibly as an adult was glimpsed the juveniles would call, and finally we had two birds flying and circling over us, with an adult and at least one of the chicks flying! Perfect. What an awesome encounter.

We decided to head on, walking through more beautiful forest and then back to the carpark. We headed on towards the coast, and made a stop in Napier to look for the last of the long staying plumed-whistling ducks. We found one after a bit, getting lovely views. And some really nice observations of little pied cormorants and all of the various plumages, from juveniles with no white, through to full white-breasted morphs. And as if perfectly placed, two little black cormorants for comparison!

We then did a little tour of Napier, looking at the beautiful Art Deco architecture, before checking in to the accommodation. Another lovely dinner, another great day!

12 February 2020 – Day Nine

It was a super early start, packing bags into the van in the dark… But as it turns out, it was worth it! We drove a short distance to a wetland area, sneaking in to take a look. There were a lot of waterfowl around, and scanning the edges it looked like our target was not about. But after a few minutes, bingo! Australasian bittern! We got into position, setup the scopes and had awesome views of a bird moving back and forth along a thickly grassed edge, pausing every now and then to catch a small fish. Amazing views of this often incredibly difficult bird, and we were able to watch it for about 25 minutes as it went about its business. Actually striking and catching small fish! Black swan, grey teal, shoveler, mallard, and even a Canada goose or two.

We then checked out another location and found a couple of banded dotterel and at least five blackfronted dotterel. This lovely little shorebird really is quite beautiful, and always nice to find.

Jumping in the van we headed off to a viewpoint with expansive views out over Hawkes Bay. And the best part was we were almost alone at such an early hour. Well except for the incredibly confiding New Zealand pipit that is. Great views of them as well and the shutters were clicking as per usual.

We then made a quick morning tea stop at Brent’s parents place on the way through to Foxton on the west coast of the North Island. Keeping eyes peeled along the way, there was not a lot of birdy interest, but some nice scenery. We got to a large estuary and the tide was pretty high, and almost at its peak. We walked in to an area to watch the shorebirds gathered, with a small flock of bar-tailed godwit and red knot, two Pacific golden plover, and about 25 wrybill in evidence. We really wanted some nice photo opportunities with the wrybill, so waited patiently. The tide peaked, and then started to drop. An errant white-faced heron put up the flock, and we relocated to where the wrybill ended up settling. Waiting a bit longer we eventually had beautiful close views of these great little shorebirds. Super nice images were taken as the shutters clicked away!

We then had a few hours of rest in the afternoon to recuperate after the early morning. And a lovely dinner at a local restaurant. An early night to recharge the batteries!

13 February 2020 – Day Ten

A relaxed morning, we met a little later, packed the van and headed south. A quick stop at a wetland area on the way saw a few birds, but nothing new. With a cool breeze and cloudy conditions everyone opted to have a quick stop in Wellington. So, we headed south and had a bit of time at the excellent Te Papa National Museum of NZ.

It was then time to head for the ferry, where we checked in and waited. A couple of spotted shags flew past, so a new trip bird and lifer. From the ferry we spotted a few fluttering shearwaters in the distance, and a large flock of kelp gulls in all sorts of plumages. Feeding and flying around. As we headed out of Wellington Harbour, we had an Arctic skua and a lot more white-fronted terns and fluttering shearwaters feeding.

There was a strong wind blowing, but the sea was pretty flat. As we got out into the Cook Strait a little we started to see more fluttering shearwaters whipping past the ship. The odd all dark bird also zipped past, mainly looking like flesh-footed shearwaters. A bit further on and we had our first albatross – hooray for Morten! He had now joined a cult of higher mortals…. It was a white-capped albatross, and as we continued along we saw another five or six. One was reasonably close, so our first albatross under the belt! We also had a single Cook’s petrel fly past, but nothing else of note. A little quiet even with the very strong wind blowing.

As we came in to Tory Channel it was sunny and the wind dropped. More fluttering shearwaters, spotted shags and gulls feeding in places, and a New Zealand fur seal was seen swimming also. We had beautiful views of the sounds, and then turned into Queen Charlotte Sound, with a single King shag seen flying shortly thereafter. We enjoyed the sail, arriving into Picton and then heading straight to the accommodation to have a bit of a rest before dinner. A beautiful meal and then off to bed…what will tomorrow bring!?

14 February 2020 – Day Eleven

Up and packed the van and walked down to the Picton Marina. It was looking like a beautiful morning, and as we headed out on the boat from Picton it sure was! A little cloud, but relatively calm conditions. And within a few minutes these conditions had allowed us to spot a small maternal pod of bottlenose dolphins. We had fantastic views of them as they came right in to the boat, turning over on their backs to look up at us. It was a case of who was watching who! We cruised with them for a little bit, admiring their movement through the water, and then left them to the day, as we continued to head northwards.

We enjoyed the scenery of Queen Charlotte Sound as we cruised, and then spied an Arctic skua which tracked parallel with us for a little while allowing some nice photographs to be taken. A few feeding fluttering shearwaters, spotted shags and white-fronted terns were also found, and we spent a little time with these before again moving on.

We headed into a couple of small bays, looking for the smallest oceanic dolphin in the World, the endemic Hector’s dolphin. The very calm conditions were in our favour, but the first bay held no dolphins, and as we started to turn and head back out of the second we had a little splash as two Hector’s sped in towards us. Nice one! We had lovely views of this enigmatic little dolphin that came in to investigate us and then gave a great show around the boat. The shutters clicked and more memory card space bit the dust!

After a good few minutes with these guys we decided that the time was right to head off and look for some King shags. And the time was certainly right! Rounding a Point we spotted a good number of birds up on a slope. There were several small groups of juveniles on the outer part of the group, containing at least 35 adults. All in all, we counted 54 birds, which is probably a record for this location in recent years, certainly for one of our tours. There were some really stunning adults showing beautiful blue eye rings and yelloworange caruncles and glossy plumage, and we had great views. Again, the cameras were clicking!

We then carried on, and decided it was time for land, so headed into a little bay to land. We headed into the forest, after spending a little time with the weka of course! There was a lot going on, with fantails, South Island saddlebacks, grey warbler and a tomtit all being seen within a few minutes of landing. Bellbird, tui and NZ pigeon were also around and making noise. We headed to a spot where we had previously had luck with the rare and sometimes difficult orange-fronted parakeet. There were more calls from saddleback, a black morph fantail which was very nice, and more weka. And then a snatch of parakeet call. We waited and watched, and next minute a bird flew right in to full view, landed on a dead branch in the open and sat there for about 25 seconds. Long enough for everyone to get great views and everyone to snap some pictures. It then turned and disappeared into the trees and never looked back. We did hear the odd call over the next 45 minutes, and a brief view of three flying past was had by Cele, but that was it for the parakeet! Pretty happy though.

We decided to get back on the boat and use the extra time to head slowly back towards Picton and make stops with anything we liked the look of. So, we had tea and coffee as we slowly made our way back. We spent some time at a spotted shag roost, getting really nice close views of them, and then found some more Arctic skua and fluttering shearwaters which we spent a little time with. And then a preening confiding little penguin. So, all in all a great morning!

We made a quick bakery stop and then headed south, through Blenheim and to a sewage treatment facility where we went for a quick walk. We found a male cirl bunting feeding two fledglings which was pretty nice, and a lot of black swan, mallards, scaup and Royal spoonbill. But no glossy ibis, oh well!

Further south we made another stop and found good numbers of banded dotterel, a single pectoral sandpiper and a single red-necked stint, as well as a small flock of black-fronted terns. The heat haze was terrible, but we had reasonable views of all of these birds, before continuing south. Next stop another wetland area where a hoary-headed grebe swam out right in front of us, and then an adult great-crested grebe continuously fed a juvenile right in front of us. Nice!

We made a short stop on the coast for the hundreds of NZ fur seals, small pups still nursing with mums on the rocks. The sea looked pretty good for tomorrows pelagic, so here’s hoping! We checked in to the accommodation, had an awesome fish and chip dinner on the lawn (blue cod!!!), and then did a short drive on dusk for little owl. Unfortunately, the drizzle started and seemed to dampen the spirits of any owl thinking of posing on a fence post for us. But, what a great day!

15 February 2020 – Day Twelve

A cloudy and breezy morning as we looked out to sea from the end of the Peninsula. A few NZ fur seals were around, and we found some ruddy turnstones, banded dotterels and a few variable and South Island oystercatcher to enjoy. We headed around to another spot and found little pied and pied cormorants, and thanks to a tip-off (thanks Alastair), found a (VERY) distant yellow-eyed penguin. It was up on the rocks and apparently had come ashore to start moulting. It was clearly an adult, but a long long way off, so definitely a ‘Better Views Desired’ bird! We headed to South Bay and boarded our boat with skipper Gazza. We headed around to try and spot the penguin, but couldn’t find it, so off out to sea we went. It wasn’t long and we had a few Cape petrels and Northern giant petrels following us.

We headed out to one of the spots and hauled up and put the chum in the water. Within seconds there were a couple of NZ wandering albatross on the water at the back of the boat, several Northern giant petrels, Cape petrels, and then a Westland petrel was spotted on the water also. There was a good stiff breeze blowing and in the end we had about 7-8 NZ wandering albatross, at least two Southern Royal albatross, and a few Salvin’s albatross also. Several more Westland petrels came in for a look, and then a single white-chinned petrel. Several Buller’s shearwaters made passes, as did a few sooty shearwaters.

We decided to move to a different spot, and put the chum out again. This time much the same, but we did get a single flesh-footed shearwater, and a single Northern Royal albatross which circled the boat several times! Perfect!

We had great looks at everything, and even some Hutton’s shearwaters passing by were coming close enough to get a good look. We decided to head back in, passing Barney’s Rock where there were huge numbers of kelp and red-billed gulls, a few spotted shags, and some lazy fur seals. Cutting back along the coast it was a little bumpy, but not too bad.

Back in port we grabbed lunch, and then checked in for our afternoon activities. Some of us opted for dusky dolphin watching, whilst others went for another go at albatross. The afternoon was a good one with lots of nice dusky dolphin action and some more good bird action. Nothing new, but always worth a second go! A lovely dinner and then a quick drive for little owl. And boom! Better than last night, no drizzle and three little owls seen, so happy campers heading to bed!

16 February 2020 – Day Thirteen

Up and on the road relatively early after a beautiful sunrise. We headed to a location for a spectacular view of the mountains and coastline, and then headed south along the very scenic coast road. We made a couple of quick stops to scan the sea, and luckily found a reef egret (thanks to the keen eyes of Sarah) as we waited for a traffic light at road works! Nice one.

We made a short stop and leg stretch at a little pond, seeing lots of waterfowl, including NZ scaup, shoveler, grey teal, and coot. But no Cape Barren geese evident in the area. Carrying on we made another stop at an estuary, scanning the area. But the tide was high and still coming in, so we adjusted plans and went to a local river. We managed to find a small post-breeding flock of black-fronted terns roosting on the riverbed, and had awesome opportunities for flight photography as they fished over a small rapid just metres away. Very nice to see all the plumages from near breeding plumage to non-breeding adults, and juveniles. They really are stunning little terns and great to get such nice close views.

We carried on, turning inland, with a few spots of rain on the way. It started to get windy and the effects of the cyclone about to hit the west coast around Fiordland were clearly starting to have an effect. We stopped and had lunch in a beautiful location overlooking mountains and fields, scanning the skies for raptors. No raptors, but a delicious lunch anyway!

We carried on up towards the Pass and the rain really started in earnest. As we got closer to Arthur’s Pass Village it really started to come down as expected. We slowly drove through the village keeping a keen eye for kea, but nothing seen. And then to another spot where we hoped to find one. We sat in the van in the rain for a bit – a couple of brave souls ventured into the rain for a few minutes. But no kea seen! No kea with any sense would be caught out in this weather!

So, we headed back down a little and went for a walk in beautiful mossy beech forest. Lovely forest, even in the wet, and we managed a few tomtit and rifleman, but nothing else much. We headed through to the accommodations, checked in and rested up. The rain fell even harder, and harder, and harder…. It just might rain itself out by the morning…oh hang on, this is the West Coast of New Zealand!

17 February 2020 – Day Fourteen

Well it rained, and rained, and rained. All night! It let off a little as we woke and started to get ready for the day, but was still cloudy and pretty damp outside. So, we had a leisurely breakfast and then got on the road. Arthur’s Pass was still socked in with weather and the drizzle was still happening. We checked out a few locations and couldn’t find any kea. Then at one spot we heard a call, and spotted it spiralling in the misty rain, only to disappear out of view. We searched for it, but to no avail.

We decided to head on and grab a coffee, and just then spotted two very wet and bedraggled birds beside the road! We jumped out and they entertained us for a good few minutes. Lots of pictures taken, even in the rain, and some managed underwing shots as well.

We decided that the rain was not going to clear any time soon, so we headed on. As we got close to the West Coast, the rain eased. But it was really humid and warm following the passing of the cyclone. And there was a lot of moisture in the atmosphere. We checked out a sewage ponds, lots of waterfowl, but nothing different visible. We stopped in Hokitika for lunch in a café, did a little shopping, and took our time.

As we continued down the coast all eyes were peeled for falcon. But only NZ pigeons were spied perched in trees like falcons. Stunning forest and scenery on the way down the coast, and amazing effects of the landslides and damage to the roads from the storms in late November. Thankfully the road was open, and we got through to Okarito without any real delays. We did a little walk, seeing tomtit and South Island robin, and then through to Okarito where we met up with Fiona from Okarito Kiwi Tours. She gave us a run down on plans for the evening, before we headed off and did a little more birding. We eventually managed to get great views of a couple of fernbird, so well worth it, before heading to our accommodation in Franz Josef. A bit of a rest and then an amazing dinner at King Tiger in Franz.

We then headed out to meet up with Cassidy from Okarito Kiwi Tours. We met and went through the plan of attack, some strategies to get us in the right place at the right time, and a few questions and answers. It was then time to get into place and get started. We were all in position and well before dark Cassidy let us know that the bird we were hoping to see was already awake and moving around. A bit later the mosquitoes started to buzz in our ears, but every now and then we could hear a sound from the bird as it moved and fed. It was gradually getting darker, so we were really focussing. A bit later Cassidy decided we needed to adjust our position a bit, and so we headed to a slightly different position, and it was definitely a good move. A bit later we could hear him rustling in the ferns, and then he let rip with about 12 calls right in front of us! Spine tingling! We waited and he seemed to be moving right towards us, and then popped out right in front of us. He quickly walked along the edge of the ferns, literally feet away from us, for all to see, then ducked back in to the ferns. We waited in case he came out again, and then realised there was another bird somewhere in the ferns just below us also. Possibly, his four year old son Beau. He didn’t show, and we decided that we had had such a great interaction, that we should just let the forest get on with its evening. What an awesome outcome. A big thanks to Cassidy and the Okarito Kiwi Tours Team for another great night in the forest!

18 February 2020 – Day Fifteen

Still a little soggy this morning, but with images of Okarito kiwi still fresh in our minds all was right in the World! We headed to a nearby site where we did a short walk through beautiful forest. Mosses and ferns were in abundance, as were tomtits and a few NZ pigeons. We got to a view point that still has a spectacular vista, but the view of the glacier is now a little underwhelming, with hardly a hint of the glacier visible in the misty cloud. Even if it had been clear, the glacier has receded at a frightening pace and is almost not visible from the location any more.

We wandered back down, and headed south. Beautiful forest and views, a little light drizzle, and still on the lookout for falcon. There were a lot of ‘stick-birds’ and even more New Zealand pigeon sitting up in the tops of trees. But no falcon. We made a few scenic stops and then a stop to stretch the legs and spend a little time scanning. Wonderful forest to explore a little as well.

We then carried on south, along the coast, making a few quick scenic stops. And then a coffee stop, before we stopped for lunch in a beautiful location inland. We had more great tomtit, grey warbler, and a few flying pigeons, and a delicious lunch. And then a short drive to our main stop of the day, a beautiful patch of very mossy beech forest. The forest was actually quite alive with birds, and before long we had tomtit, great rifleman, and then heard in the distance yellowhead. We made our way down the trail closer to them and all got views of them feeding in the canopy. There was a small family group with at least a few adults and some begging juveniles from this season. So great to see it had been a productive season for them. There were also about 10+ yellow-crowned parakeets with them, and these showed really well, plus the odd brown creeper, which did not show as well. We had a good number of fantails, grey warbler, and more rifleman, so it was a really busy forest. The shutters were definitely clicking and to be honest the birds didn’t stand a chance! More nice close rifleman and everyone was happy.

We carried on inland, through more spectacular scenery, watching it change dramatically from temperate rainforest to dry open grassland almost before our eyes. Beautiful lakes and stunning scenery as we came in to Wanaka, our home for the night. We checked in to the accommodation, and then went for a great dinner down near the lake. Another great day!

19 February 2020 – Day Sixteen

Up early and off. We passed over the Crown Range, looking very moody with low cloud and some spots of rain. Queenstown was its usual mad self, with ques of traffic and too many people. We skirted past and had stunning views of Lake Wakatipu and then stopped for a coffee break at Garston.

We were making good time and continued on our way, grabbing some lunch at Miles Better Pies in Te Anau…oh man are they ever! Lamb and mint is a stunner. Back on the road towards Milford Sound, passing the little blockade where they check that we haven’t been on another planet and not heard the road is closed through to Milford Sound, yep, all good.

The sun was actually shining and beautiful views of the lake and Fiordland as we entered the Eglinton Valley. We made a couple of photo stops along the way, and then continued through the valley. We were still on the lookout for falcon, seeing a good number of harriers along the way. We drove through to a beautiful forest spot and had lunch, listening to the forest. We finished up and then started a walk. Within a minute or two we had a very very confiding robin feeding beside us. This was our first decent view of a South Island robin, and so much welcome, and as usual there were a lot of photos taken. We spent some time with it before moving on and finding a number of rifleman. They were heard all over the place, and we got to see more than our fair share! A lot of juvenile birds, as well as adults and nice and low and great views. A few fantails, tomtits and grey warbler. But really the stars of the show were the mosses. The beech forest was just dripping with mosses, filmy ferns and ferns. Just gorgeous to see, and lovely to walk through this ancient landscape.

We finished up our walk again with the confiding robin, he really thought Jan was his new best friend! We left him behind and as the road was well and truly closed we unfortunately had to head back towards Te Anau. We made a couple of stops along the way, and managed excellent views of brown creeper, which had somehow, evaded good looks until now. Nice to get good views of these great little birds. We also attracted a bunch of other birds including a robin, male tomtit, fantails and a grey warbler. A nice collection of things. A few more photo stops and then a stop at Lake Te Anau, where we found a group of NZ scaup, and a juvenile great crested grebe with an adult. We spent a bit of time getting photos of these birds, nice light and nice conditions, so everyone was happy.

We then headed to our accommodations, had a bit of a chance to relax, and then a great dinner. Another great day.

20 February 2020 – Day Seventeen

Up and away and off towards Bluff. The light and scenery were beautiful as we headed east and then down towards Bluff Ferry Terminal. We made a quick stop in Winton on the way, and then through to an estuary stop near Invercargill. The light made things tough, it was actually shining in Invercargill, so we shouldn’t complain. But it made the birds tough to scan. We found a good selection of waterfowl, and there were also godwit, oystercatchers, and a lot of Royal spoonbill scattered over the mud flats. A nice chance to stretch the legs before getting to the ferry terminal.

We unloaded bags, set them ready for the ferry, and boarded around 1100. The weather was pretty nice, too nice for seabirds apparently! On the crossing we had a couple of white-capped albatross, maybe 30 sooty shearwaters, and then towards Stewart Island we had three fairy prions. Nice to finally pick that one up! We also had two fly-over brown skua during the trip, which was interesting, and a bunch of Foveaux shags on a rock as we got close to Halfmoon, with another skua. A single penguin that had to be a yelloweyed was spotted in the water and then three Fiordland crested penguins on the shore near the wharf!!

We arrived, grabbed bags and then checked in to the accommodation. We had lunch and then jumped on our water taxi to head to Ulva. But our skipper Chris had other plans and forced us to enjoy awesome close views of Fiordland crested penguins on the way! Thanks Chris! Beaut views of these guys as they neared the finish of their moult.

On Ulva we started with some awesome views of yellowhead, then parakeets – both yellow-crowned and red-crowned seemed super abundant today. We heard rifleman in a few places, and saddleback, but nothing close. We carried on, hoping for a kaka, as we needed to get some good looks. Lots of weka around and robin of course. We had awesome close encounters with a friendly weka on a beach, and then back in to the forest. And finally got our kaka, a nice close pair of birds that showed relatively well. More parakeets, more robins, more yellowhead. We also got some nice close brown creeper, a noisy little youngster amongst them.

We checked out another beach, but no sea lions, although we did find a small group of white-fronted terns feeding just offshore, with at least five penguins below them. Nice one! We got some views of rifleman, and then a brief glimpse of a saddleback, and then it was time to head to the wharf for our pick up.

We headed back to Oban, a nice white-capped albatross on the way…more of them to come! A rest, a beer and then dinner. We wandered out to look for long-tailed bats, but the odd spot of rain and cooler conditions seemed to keep them away. A tantalising glimpse was all that was had. But we headed out for kiwi with our good friend Matt, and although a few spots of rain were arriving, we had beautiful views of three kiwi and a very small chick. All busily feeding out for all to see. Incredible views of this enigmatic endemic, topping off our very successful run of four kiwi species on the tour! Everyone slept well dreaming of chubby happy kiwi!

21 February 2020 – Day Eighteen

The weather was looking pretty good for a pelagic, so everyone was smiles as we left the dock. We were lucky enough to have Ty as our Skipper and Matt Jones joined us as ‘Chum-meister’ extraordinaire. We headed out in sunshine, our first stop to find a Fiordland crested penguin…and that was probably the easiest thing we did all day! Straight on to three birds in a cave out and around the coast, and then another two at another spot nearby. Really nice views of these great crested penguins, and some pictures added to the collection. We then headed off towards some islands to see if we could find another penguin…and spotted one on the way in the sea, but as we turned the boat it disappeared, and despite searching for 10 minutes or so, it was never refound! Damn! But a Buller’s albatross – the first of the trip – landed nearby and was a nice consolation, and several white-capped albatross came in to join it. An excellent start!

We checked the shoreline of some of the islands, but no penguiny shapes, although lots of fur seals and a few weka were spotted. Tomtit and bellbird were heard in the forest and a Northern giant petrel was feeding on something in the waves crashing on the shore.

We carried on our way, spotting a couple of brown skua, and they came in for a look at the boat and us, as did more white-capped and Buller’s albatross. We decided to continue on, with a fairly calm sea, just a slight NE swell. We soon started to pick up good numbers of sooty shearwaters, passing several large rafts of these birds feeding on the surface, and then a few common diving petrels as well. Nice to finally get these little guys, as we had failed to find them at other pelagic locations on the trip thus far.

We got out to our chumming location and started with a bit of salmon burley in the water and some cod frames, and before long good numbers of white-capped albatross, with a few Salvin’s, Buller’s and Southern Royal albatross at the back of the boat. The wind was almost nothing, but after about 30 minutes started to pick up a little. We started seeing Cook’s petrels, and these made good passes of the boat, with a fairly constant trickle of birds passing by. A call went up for mottled petrel, and two distant birds showed, but not as well as we would have liked. Then a storm-petrel appeared, nice! A grey-backed storm-petrel, and before long a second bird, then a third, and we probably had up to five, along with a few white-faced storm-petrels as well. The surprise of the morning however, was a subantarctic little shearwater which whizzed in and out, showing reasonably well to those looking that way. A white-chinned petrel came in and circled the boat for a bit as well, but by then it was starting to get really windy, and the predominant swell from the NE was starting to be added to by the swell and wind from the west. So, it was getting a little uncomfortable and tough for people to maintain balance. We decided that is was safest to head in to shelter and see if it dropped off a bit later, in which case we could come back out.

We bumped slowly in towards the island, directly into the ever-increasing chop. In the shelter of the island we checked out a number of bays and beaches, looking for penguins, but coming up blank. The scenery was stunning though, and the little beaches and coves a pleasure to cruise. We also picked up some Hooker’s sea lions lazing on beaches, nice to see this marine mammal.

We cruised slowly along the coast, and the wind was still blowing over 35 knots, whipping up the water in places. We poked our nose a little out from the island and did a bit more chumming, bringing in a good number of albatross, but just the smaller white-capped, Buller’s and Salvin’s. Great light and beautiful views of them.

We then decided to continue along the coast, checking out a couple more beaches. More sea lions, a white-tailed deer, but no penguins! We headed back in to Oban in the late afternoon, checked out a few Foveaux shags, and docked. It was definitely beer o’clock, and then dinner. After dinner some of us headed back out to look for long-tailed bats, and had pretty nice views of one very close to us, so well worth it! A kiwi calling in the distance was a nice end to our wonderful day on Stewart Island!

22 February 2020 – Day Nineteen

We all headed to the ferry terminal early, boarding and enjoying the sunshine as we cruised out of Halfmoon Bay. Not too far out we had a glimpse of Fiordland crested penguin, and then the first sooty shearwaters as we got into open water. We only had a few white-capped albatross on the crossing, and nothing like the day before. A few Foveaux shags, a couple of common diving petrels, and then two Cook’s petrels. As we got close to Bluff a couple of Buller’s albatross made passes.

We docked in Bluff, grabbed bags, repacked the van and off we headed. A couple of quick stops yielded a lot of waterfowl, but no chestnut-breasted shelducks. Oh well! Coffee, fuel and onwards, we needed to put a few kilometres behind us, today is a big travel day. We grabbed some lunch late morning, and then ate it at a bay, overlooking the shoreline. Hoping for an ever more elusive penguin. And bingo – contrary to the advice of a very ‘helpful’ tourist – there was a penguin coming ashore in the middle of the day. It came ashore and stood there preening for about fifteen minutes, giving us all a great view, before it decided to head on up the beach and into the shrubbery. What a great bird!

We decided that was about as good as it got, and slowly made our way north towards Dunedin, then a quick café stop on the coast, before cruising to a spot to see Otago shag. We had awesome views of the late-breeding stage of this bird, with large almost fledged juveniles. There were a few spotted shags around as well, and some nice close white-fronted terns also. Lots of things going on to take photos of, so we spent a bit of time just enjoying the spectacle. Not a bad day with six species of shags in one day!

We headed on, checked in to the accommodation, and then a great dinner in town. An early night, for tomorrow is the big day…

23 February 2020 – Day Twenty

On the road and heading inland. There was an almost clear blue sky, and the temps were a little cooler, but signalled a beautiful day. As we headed inland there was a bit of fog and low cloud around, but it was pretty clear this was going to burn off. We all had eyes peeled and were excited for our last day in the Mackenzie Basin.

We made a quick stop for coffee along the way, and carried on. Our first stop was to look for the introduced chukar, but the views weren’t half bad. And the sun was shining beautifully with no wind, so what could be better. We checked out a few spots, but no chukar, and enjoyed the scenery, and then headed to another spot. This was our first location to look for black stilt, our main target for the day. And bingo, as we pulled up we spotted one, and then another two flew in shortly after. Awesome! We spent a good couple of hours enjoying this spot, with everyone spending time photographing this rare endemic. There were other things of interest around, including a rare bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus) which was all black, and even an escaped hind red deer with fawn ran on through. A few waterfowl around as well, so plenty to enjoy in the sunshine, including our lunch.

We then decided to head off, and checked out another location, but the water levels were very high and there were no black stilts. But the scenery was stunning. So, we headed into the mountains, all the time keeping eyes peeled for a falcon. We enjoyed spectacular views of Mount Cook (Aoraki), as were many other people. We then headed to our last location for the day to look for Baillon’s crake. Although the habitat looked perfect – and it is – they are there! We didn’t manage to see any. We spent a good bit of time walking and scanning, but nothing. Oh well, can’t win them all!

We headed to our accommodation, checked in, and then had a superb last dinner. We looked at the birds of the trip, with Okarito kiwi storming ahead as the top bird of the trip, well ahead of some other very worthy opponents! It has been an awesome tour, we’ve seen almost all of our targets, and had a great amount of fun. We have been lucky with weather, on the whole, and many stories to tell!

24 February 2020 – Day Twenty-One

Out the door early again this morning, and another cool morning but beautiful clear sky. As we headed north the sun was just peaking over the mountains, and the first rays of light hitting Mt Cook (Aoraki) which was completely clear. Stunning views of the peak in the morning alpenglow. A quick photo stop was necessary!

We continued on, grabbing some lunch on the way, Fairlie Bakehouse it was. And then on towards Christchurch. We made a short stop to see what shorebirds were around at a location just south of Christchurch. A nice chance to stretch the legs a little and enjoy the sunshine, before everyone was dropped at their respective locations. We checked for the recently reported tree martin, but amongst all the welcome swallows there were only….well more welcome swallows! Ah well.

We dropped off around the city, and then the airport, saying our good-byes.

-Brent Stephenson

Updated: April 2020