So who is this weirdo?

Hi! My name is Liam and I am a beginner birder living in Glen Massey. I first became interested in birds after a 6-month missions trip to Papua New Guinea in 2016, and my interest grew from there! I am now a member of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand and Young Birders New Zealand (OSNZ and YBNZ respectively ). So now, I'm starting this blog so I can share my birding adventures with anyone who will listen ☺.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Migrating South!

It's a long one this time! I initially tried to split this up by days but it was taking too long. Hope you don't mind!

My journey began, as all good birding trips seem to, at 3am Monday morning. I threw on my warmest clothes, jumped in Dad’s tiny Ford Fiesta, and we were off. At 5 I arrived at Auckland airport, a balmy 12 degrees, and had a full hour to master the intricacies of the self-check-in kiosk, wheeling my optics-filled suitcase through the terminal. At 6 I was sitting on the runway, counting off the first birds of the trip. Spur-winged Plover. Check. Welcome Swallow. Check.


After a short delay, we left the tarmac in the predawn darkness. The dark clouds above me were foreboding, but I pushed such thoughts to the back of my mind and watched the watery sun break over the horizon. At 7:30 we landed safely in the labyrinthine Christchurch airport, and I had a solid 4 hours to puzzle over the complexities of the pelagic birds we were likely to see and expand my Canterbury list out to 5 species. Thankfully, the security guards didn’t seem to mind my airport birdwatching, and at 11:30 I was back in the air, marvelling at the braided rivers below me and the Southern Alps to my right. After 45 minutes or so, I was welcomed to Dunedin by Lloyd Esler, the head honcho as far as this camp was concerned, and settled down to wait for the other young birders to arrive. Once we had assembled, ornamented by all manner of binoculars and cameras, we piled into the vehicles and headed south.


We pulled in to Invercargill that afternoon and caught up with the other half of our birding squad, who described the Brown Creeper and Sooty Shearwaters they had seen that morning, to our obvious jealousy. As this was my first time birding in the South Island there was renewed magic in every bird, and the black phase New Zealand Fantails were especially special. We assembled at Lloyd’s house after dinner, admiring the veritable treasure trove of avian paraphernalia among the seal bones, space junk, and (oddly enough) the “Museum of prickly objects”. He gave us the rundown on how the trip was going to roll and handed out some bird booklets with a whole bunch of other freebies (Cheers Southland Tourism!). We climbed into our creaky bunk beds scarce able to sleep, dreaming of the birds we would see in the morning.


A small part of Lloyd's collection!



The next day was brisk (absolutely glacial) and breezy (think gale force winds), but our spirits weren’t dampened as these proved to be excellent conditions for the morning’s seawatch. At the Bluff ferry terminal, Buller’s, Salvin’s, and White-capped Mollymawks were nice and close in, my first look at such birds. Untold numbers of Sooty Shearwaters zipped past further offshore, while the odd Black-fronted Tern ‘bounced’ past. A welcome Foveaux Shag stayed for a while, before moving off, another new bird! At 9, we boarded the ferry, eyeing the churning sea, but we were reassured by the calm-looking staff. This turned out to be a poor way of predicting the conditions, however, as once we had powered out to sea the waves rose to five-metre swells, tossing our ferry around like a bit of driftwood. My only distractions were the magnificent mollymawks almost within arms reach, and a small pod of dolphins seemingly undeterred by the weather. It began to hail, and once I lost feeling in my fingers I paid devout attention to the horizon, and little else.


“WHITE-HEADED PETREL!” Someone called over the howling winds, and I staggered across the deck awash with seawater, throwing myself against the railing desperately trying to catch a glimpse of this bird. It was to no avail, however, and my failure to lock eyes onto this Pterodroma would haunt me for the rest of the trip (I’m still recovering!). Resigned to my bird-blindness, I returned to my seat and clung onto nearby objects in a futile attempt to remain upright, or at least stable. After an eternity we pulled into Oban, and I lurched onto the pier. The hail hadn’t relented, and as we dragged our belongings to our new lodgings we were predictably soaked. However, despite the less-than-ideal weather, once our stomachs had settled we brightened up again (except for those who didn’t get seasick - they were cheerful the entire time, lucky sods!), and it was easy to quickly fall in love with the idyllic town. Kaka screamed and whistled from the mighty pine trees, and more Foveaux and Spotted Shags perched on the offshore rocks. A gorgeous Buller’s Mollymawk was taking shelter below the pier, unshaken by our presence.


By far the most stunning of the mollymawks! This one was sitting just below the pier!




Once we had stored our luggage safely away in our very comfortable lodgings, we met up at the Lions International Pavilion (or, more simply, The Pavilion) where we would be based while we were on the island. After a quick conference and lunch, we all went out, either walking or driving, to Mamakau Reserve, where a predator-proof fence kept rats, mice and deer out of the point. No mustelids here though, and this success meant that we were accompanied by an array of fantastic bush birds, including Red-crowned Parakeet, New Zealand Bellbird and Kereru. Our guide for the afternoon educated us on the plethora of traps, poisons, and other defensive measures used to keep the reserve’s endemic wildlife safe, and told us how the reserve once had the highest Tokoeka density on the island (and therefore, in the world!). This got our hopes up, but it turned out that we were clearly too noisy a party to attract any Tokoeka. However it was a thoroughly enjoyable walk around, and we were taught about the dazzling array of flora and fauna in the area. Sadly, I was foolish enough to wear shorts as my jeans (bad move again!) got soaked during the pelagic, and so I was forced back to the pavilion to warm up.


Hail on the bowling green!



The rest of the crew made it back alive just before dinner, and after hot showers and dry clothes we all trooped out to Acker’s Point on a quest for Sooty Shearwaters and penguins. A single Little Penguin was shuffling up the beach when we went past, our first for the trip, as well as a sole Sooty Shearwater moaning from its burrow. Tired but enthusiastic, some of us plopped into bed while the more adventurous ones went kiwi-spotting. At this point, I was not one of those.


Wednesday was the biggest day as far as birding was concerned, and the weather was actually looking pretty mild. Excitedly, we boarded the Aurora suitably early and chugged out to Ulva Island where we divided into groups. As expected, Ulva was spectacular, with a multitude of rather special bush birds. Weka was my first, running along the golden sand at the pier. Another new bird! As we got into the bush, Brown Creeper were fairly numerous, as were (to my delight!) Mohua/Yellowhead. Parakeets were abundant, chattering excitedly in the canopy, however to my frustration, only Red-crowns could be successfully identified, and unlike other groups, we dipped out on Yellow-crowns. This defeat, however, was offset by our extraordinary number of victories, and we bagged South Island Robin and Saddleback pretty early on. The robins were amazingly friendly, coming so close my camera couldn’t focus! Weka were bold and fearless, one even picking the crumbs off my sleeve when I crouched down to take a photo! We all found great joy in feeding the weka by turning over rocks on the beach, and the weka were intelligent enough to rush over like hungry chickens and scoff the crabs trying to get away. Rifleman were unexpectedly rare, as my previous experience with them on Pirongia had led me to believe they were always abundant. We did get good views of a few, although they were moving far too fast for a clear photo. As we ambled down the track we reflected on the species seen so far and came to the conclusion that the only ones we had missed were YC Parakeet and Tokoeka. A rustling right by my feet led me to jest that it was the very kiwi we were after, and I naturally dismissed it as yet another weka. Something prompted me to check though, and when I crouched down I saw not the beady eye of a weka, but the striped grey behind of an enormous Tokoeka! That wasn’t all though, and for reasons unknown, the bird decided to lumber out in front of us and run down the gravel track for a good sixty seconds! I nabbed a few blurry photos and it was gone, never to be seen by us or any other group again. Magical.


Sunny Ulva Island

One of the inquisitive Weka

A South Island Saddleback

One of the charismatic South Island Robins

The Tokoeka! At last!

A Tomtit on the beach

One of the Mohua



Once we had finished up on Ulva, we all boarded the Aurora again and headed into the open ocean. With Matt Jones from Wrybill Tours as our knowledgeable guide, we had high hopes for this trip. Almost immediately we were surrounded by almost a hundred mollymawks, as well as the comically ugly Northern Giant Petrel. Graceful, delicate Cape Petrels begun to land near our boat, my first look at these birds. As we neared another small island, someone’s sharp eyes spied a black-and-white crested penguin - either Fiordland or Snares Crested! Photos confirmed it as a Snares Crested-Penguin to our excitement, and we ticked off the first UBR-able bird of the trip! A few Prions flew past, tantalisingly close, but we were unable to identify them and they remained mysterious. The odd Common Diving-Petrel whizzed past, looking like a “flying block of butter”, as David described them. Some breathtaking Southern Royal Albatrosses made a nice comparison to the smaller mollymawks and proved to be every bit as awe-inspiring as I had heard. Once we were almost out of sight of land, we started chumming, and the birds were very obliging. The mollymawks soon left us in stitches with their cacophony of honks and shrieks, and it seemed very hard to reconcile their graceful looks with their barbaric and frantic squabbling. Much like some people I suppose!


Up until now, the sea had been oddly calm, a far cry from yesterday’s churning and rolling. Of course, our luck couldn’t hold out for long, and soon the landlubbers among us (myself included) were hanging onto anything that didn’t move. We didn’t stop our quest for birds though, and our persistence was rewarded by a Procellaria flying right in close. Initially, it was declared to be a White-chinned Petrel, but closer examination revealed a rare Westland Petrel, the second record for an Aurora pelagic! We neared some of the famous (infamous!) Muttonbird Islands and added yet another penguin for the list…. Yellow-eyed Penguins were present around the islands, two prominent on the rocks. A new bird for me and many others, and absolutely stunning to look at! At this point, we turned back, to people’s disappointment or delight. Seasickness was now rife amongst us, and the islands were soon behind us as we powered back to Oban. However this didn’t keep us from looking for a few extra birds, and a surprise Hutton’s Shearwater or two kept things exciting. Some of us decided that we were done for the day, but I and a few others went kiwi-spotting yet again, without success. I wasn’t too bothered given my earlier sighting, but a few others were and went out again, seeing one very close up at the park.


Thursday was a chill day in multiple ways. The wild weather kept us layered up, while we refrained from any particularly crazy birding antics. In the morning we wandered out to Golden Bay, seeing nothing incredibly exciting bird-wise, but had a nice look at the seaweed and mollusc diversity, while in the afternoon myself and the other newbie birders were taught the intricacies of identification in the field, as well as note-taking. Michael then educated some of us on the art of lawn bowls, which to my surprise I actually enjoyed, and after dinner, we went to the gymnasium for a bit of running around. A group of us learnt how to play Squash off of Wikipedia, and we swiftly became adept (just kidding, I can’t play sports!). Ability aside, we had a lot of fun and climbed into bed exhausted and praying for some half-decent weather for the crossing tomorrow morning.


All of the blue skies from Wednesday had vanished without a trace, but to our delight (and apprehension) the ferry was still running. For some reason, a Cook’s Petrel was sheltering in a stack of pallets, and Ian carefully extracted the bird and sent it on its way. Once it was time, we nervously boarded the ferry and set off. Thankfully the swells weren’t as bad as I had been fearing, but throughout the crossing, I remained nauseous and fixed my eyes on the horizon to avoid an 'incident'. At one point a dark tern flew past, and to our agony was not properly identified, but it was likely to be an Antarctic or Arctic Tern. A few storm-petrels were strung off the back, and the candidates I managed to see magically turned into diving-petrels...oddly enough. Needless to say, I missed out on those ones.


After an only slightly traumatic trip I had my feet on dry land again, and our first stop was the Pak’n’Save in Invercargill where we loaded up on junk food and drink. We moved on to the currently miserable Pleasure Bay where the rarities that had been at the lagoon earlier that year (Whiskered Tern, Northern Shoveler, Chestnut-breasted Shelduck) had mysteriously evaporated, but we did see some nice Royal Spoonbills among the ducks.


Next, we journeyed to Borland Lodge near Fiordland National Park. We stopped off at a few spots on the way, turning up nothing out of the ordinary until we arrived in Blackmount. When we got out of the car, we listened to the briefing by one of the staff, before George frantically herded us into the vans again to see the Chestnut-breasted Shelduck he had seen just 200 metres down the road! I was one of the first to be shuttled to the bird, and got a few photos before… it flew. Another UBR-able rarity! It boggles the mind to think of the infinitesimal chance we had of seeing this one, yet we were fortunate enough to see one! The shelduck kept popping up in nearby fields, and everyone got a great look at it over the few days we were there. That night we went out down the road hunting for Little Owl. Despite some fairly convincing noises we could only lock in Morepork for the night which was a little disappointing, but only strengthened our resolve to return one day.


My blurry shelduck photo



The next morning we arose horrendously early, and the clouds had receded enough for the snow-clad mountains nearby to be visible. First stop was Te Anau, where we had a look for some Crested Grebes, but they remained elusive. Lots of Scaup and Canada Geese were present though, and the views were so stunning that we left Te Anau as happy as clams. We slowly gained altitude, stopping off at Mirror Lakes to look for Marsh Crake and reflect on our progress so far… Nothing much there though, so we moved on to Lake Gunn where my first Yellow-crowned Parakeet of the trip made its presence known (finally!) along with lots of Riflemen and robins. This was the trip where South Island Robin was cemented as my all-time favourite bird, as they were amazingly confiding and while trying to get a shot for Fruzio (one of our sponsors) one perched on the box of frozen berries! So photogenic! Anyway, once we had wrapped up our walk around the famous beech forest, we moved on to Monkey Creek, where the charismatic Kea strutted boldly around the carpark. These were a bird I had wanted to see for a long long time, and to have them so close was an incredible experience. At this point, Ian had gone over to a bridge and was searching the rushing water for Whio. He spotted a pair, followed by a third, and called us over. Eventually, I saw them too, and Blue Duck was added to the list! Then, to add to our excitement, the pair flew right upstream, and we managed to get to within a few metres of these rare birds.


One of the inquisitive Kea getting too close

Whio braving the rapids



Tension built as we neared the Homer Tunnel. Some would argue that this was the target bird for the entire trip, living in often inaccessible alpine areas and declining in number rapidly. Rock Wren were the big ones for today, despite their diminutive size, and we were all nervous and excited as we clambered up the rocks. We were briefed on what we were looking for and spread out among the scattered boulders. Dunnocks and squeaky boots added to the confusion, as we were listening for the slightest ‘pip’ from one of the wrens, and these elements made it a hundred times more difficult. For around half an hour we searched, but to no avail, and it was a disgruntled bunch of birders that got back into the vans. Rock Wren was a new bird for almost every young birder on the trip, and we were all pretty hopeful to start with. Oh well, all the more reason to come back!

After a few short stops, we arrived at the Milford Sound foreshore, where the first bird to greet our eyes was the regal White Heron… perched on top of a campervan! The obliging driver let us get some photos before he left, and the sight of the beautiful heron trying to keep its balance while he drove off was absolutely hilarious. The kotuku then flew onto yet another vehicle and contrasted nicely with the black Audi it was perched on. Again, we got to within a few metres leaving the heron amazingly calm and dignified right in front of us. Eventually, it was time to go and we headed back to Borland Lodge for dinner and sleep, our last night of the trip.


Trying to look majestic on a car roof!


Ok, ok, I couldn't stop taking photos!

Finally, a crisp, clear day… just as we left! A New Zealand Falcon saw us off, and we hit the long road to Rakatu Wetlands. The wetlands were really quite stunning, and some Grey Duck surprised us, hidden amongst the other more common waterfowl. After a little persuasion, three Fernbird showed themselves, but only allowed us fleeting glances as they hid in the bushes. No crakes though. We left Rakatu for dreary Lumsden, then Gore (my least favourite town in the whole world!), and we said our goodbyes as me and a few others had to go and catch an earlier flight. We weren’t quite done yet, though, and a quick visit to Kaka Point added my last ‘lifer’ of the trip - Otago Shag. I left Dunedin on an incredible 20 lifers, and all up it was a fantastic trip.


The stunning Raketu Wetlands

Can you spot the fernbird!?



My favourite bird of the trip has to be the obliging Tokoeka on Ulva, while there were also some nice surprises such as Snares Crested-Penguin, Westland Petrel, Hutton’s Shearwater and Chestnut-breasted Shelduck. Big dips were Rock Wren, Crested Grebe and, for me, White-headed Petrel. Huge thanks must go to the trip organisers, the adults who put up with us for a week, and of course Lloyd Esler. I should also thank the other keen young birders who helped make the trip so enjoyable, and Fruzio and Waikato OSNZ for sponsoring me! I definitely couldn’t have made it without the financial help they gave, and I am very grateful to them for that.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The next 10 days...

It's been an action- and bird-packed few days, as I try and bump my year list up. I'll try and keep it short.

January 11th - Walking up Mt Te Aroha, followed by a visit to the slightly creepy Howarth Memorial Wetlands. Few bush birds around, however, there were some baby Dabchicks and a few Grey Teal in the wetlands. No sign of any crakes though.

January 12th - Fairly uneventful, although I managed to catch up with the resident New Zealand Pipit hanging around the back of our road, as well as a few Lesser Redpolls. Late that night I boarded the bus to Wellington.

January 13th - I arrived at Wellington the next morning, snatching four hours sleep on the bus. I met with George Hobson - a fellow birder - and his dad. We began driving up the coast to Otaki Wastewater Treatment Plant, where we picked up Michael Burton-Smith and Huia Wesling-Macgregor. Thanks to George's sharp eyes I got my first lifer of the year - Black-fronted Dotterel and we kept going up the Kapiti coast. Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot at Ohau Estuary as well as a Barbary Dove, followed by some Banded Dotterels at Foxton Beach and Black-billed Gulls at Lake Horowhenua - all new for my year list! We made it to Whanganui, where we dipped on New Zealand's only known population of Nankeen Night-Herons, but picked up Mute Swan at Virginia Lake and New Zealand Falcon and North Island Robin at Kemp's Pole, among others. A big day indeed!

January 14th - Straight on to a bach in Pungarehu, Taranaki Region, with my family. An afternoon seawatch at Cape Egmont yielded a whole swag of lifers - Sooty, Flesh-footed, Buller's Shearwaters, and Common Diving-Petrel. Buller's Shearwater was number 120 on my NZ list... No mollymawks or albatrosses though.

January 15th - 18th - Our Taranaki holiday continued, with much beach birding but nothing extra-special. A bit of bush birding too, with Rifleman being the highlight.

January 19th - Heading home, we stopped at Mapara Scenic Reserve to look for kokako. No luck though, however Long-tailed Cuckoo and New Zealand Falcon were nice consolation prizes.

January 20th - Sat at home. Wrote blog post.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

First 10 days of the year - wrap up.

As I am a lazy and apathetic teenager, I thought that instead of documenting each of my birding adventures (if you can call them that!) this month, I would instead summarize each day in a few sentences as I begin my year-long quest to see as many birds as I possibly can in a calendar year. 90% of you will probably be fairly relieved to have a break from my clumsy pseudo-journalism, and the other person won't mind too much either. So, here we go:

1st January - After New Years celebrations, I escaped the house and sat in the garden for a few minutes until a Morepork called. The next morning, I ticked the common garden birds including Shining Cuckoo and Ring-necked Pheasant. In the afternoon I made it out to Hamilton Lake, where I got both geese, Spotted Dove, all the black-footed shags (Black, Pied, Little, Little Black), any easy birds I had missed that morning, and all the regular lake birds (Mallard, Coot, Pukeko, Feral Pigeon etc).

2nd January - Went to Kauaeranga Valley in Coromandel Forest Park with the family, getting NZ Pigeon (Kereru), Tomtit and Yellowhammer, as well as Kelp Gull in Thames.

From the 3rd to the 7th I had the awesome privilege of leading at a holiday camp in Ngaruawahia, so needless to say that nothing interesting birdwise went on.

8th January - Popped over to Pukemokemoke Bush Reserve, where California Quail was the only new one for the year.

9th January - Got up at an ungodly hour to go to Mt Pirongia, where many many Riflemen flitted around me, along with a Kaka, Whiteheads, and a Bellbird. Sadly I dipped on Falcon, Yellow-crowned Parakeet, Long-tailed Cuckoo and Kokako, but hey, that's the name of the blog.

10th January - Taitua Arboretum in the morning yielded exactly zero Guineafowl, however afternoon birding at Ngaruawahia Wastewater Treatment Plant got me Black Swan, Paradise Shelduck, Australian Shoveler, Grey Teal, Dabchick, Caspian Tern,  and finally, finally, FINALLY Spur-winged Plover.

In 10 days time hopefully I will get off my butt and write some more, and until then, enjoy your holidays!

Saturday, 23 December 2017

2017 Birdathon!



3am came in the form of Joe stomping into the lounge and turning the lights on, while the more sane neighbours slept on. Not us though, and I rolled off the couch and coaxed my body into reluctant action. I had a quick breakfast of cheese and crackers, (the breakfast of champions) washed down with an oddly warm Up & Go, and grabbed my gear. I crammed my supplies into “Georgie” - Donald's wonderful vehicle - and we hit the road.

So why were we getting up at such an obscene hour? For the 2017 Birdathon of course! Our team - the Crakeless Spotters - consisted of Michael Burton-Smith, Joe Dillon, Oscar Thomas, myself, and driver Donald Snook, were setting out to break the Waikato record of 73 species seen in 24 hours. Much like camel polo or cardboard tube fighting, this was a hotly contested competition with a promise of eternal fame and glory, so we were taking it very seriously.

We headed south from Donald's house in Whangaparoa, and as soon as we crossed the Auckland-Waikato border, our count began, at bang-on 5:00am. It was unsurprisingly dark, and unpredictability foggy so we would need to be uber-focused. A certain team member, however, didn't see it that way and fell asleep. Lightweight.

Our first stop was Whangamarino Wetland, where as we rolled along the road a small flock of Spur-winged Plovers became Bird Number One on the trip list, at 5:09. As we continued along the road less travelled, we saw a Pukeko and a few Black Swans, bringing the total up to a whopping 3 birds! 70 to go. We stopped at Coal Bucket Marsh, where the birds began to flow in. While we couldn't actually see anything due to the thick fog, we heard some of the common passerines and more notably a Fernbird, the only one for the trip. We sped on to Falls Road, where a Sacred Kingfisher and a pair of Eastern Rosellas were spied. We pulled into one of the many pond tracks and followed a beaten-down trail into the wetland. As we approached one of the maimais a Dunnock began singing - number 19. Australian Shoveler and Grey Teal were both present, along with a few Mallards and confusingly mucky hybrids. Two Feral Pigeons were present in one of the maimais, and a New Zealand Dabchick flew into view (the first time I have seen one in flight). On our way out we heard a Spotless Crake bubbling away, followed by its characteristic prrrrrr. We heard an Indian Peafowl or two, then moved on to the Falls Road Lookout, where we added Black Shag, White-faced Heron and confirmed Pied Stilt, along with a few more common passerines and a Shining Cuckoo to pad our total out to a nice 37 species, and we were well on schedule.

Next stop was Miranda Shorebird Centre, where we arrived at around 7:30 to catch the falling tide. On our way to the Centre, we made good use of Georgie’s sunroof, and Michael spotted distant Greylag Geese in the southern paddocks. Keith Woodley generously let us hire some decent scopes, and almost immediately we added Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot, and South Island Pied Oystercatcher. After a little more searching, we spotted Wrybill, New Zealand Dotterel, LOTS of Pacific Golden-Plovers (almost a hundred if I remember correctly) and Ruddy Turnstone. After scanning the distant shellbanks White-fronted and Caspian Terns became birds 51 and 52, respectively. Black-backed and Black-billed Gulls made an appearance, although to my surprise no Red-billed Gulls. At the Stilt Hide, we managed to pick out five Banded Dotterel, one in beautiful breeding plumage. This was a relief to me, as last month I unwittingly sent two Texan birders on a wild goose chase (hehe) up the coast after Bandies, only to find out they were all in Aussie! 5 Sharp-tailed Sandpipers were probing the mud on the other side of the Stilt Pools, and soon after we made our escape. Somehow we missed Banded Rail in the mangroves, but we had no choice but to suck it up and press on.

The early morning Bar-tailed Godwits
We powered up to Te Puru on the Coromandel Peninsula, ticking Red-billed Gulls (finally!) on the way. A huge colony of Spotted Shags followed, probably more than a hundred birds. We pulled over and hunkered down for a seawatch, and pretty soon I spotted a dark gull-like bird chasing a tern. “SKUA!” I called out and watched in awe as it performed some superb aerial acrobatics. The others got onto the bird soon after and it was decided that this bird was an Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaeger). This led to a small crisis when a certain team member accidentally recorded it as an Arctic Tern and unwittingly triggered rare bird reports around the nation, but Joe shall remain nameless. Anyway, I realised that we had seriously missed an easy species - Gannet! So we strained our eyes for the glimpse of one, and finally, one was spotted far off on the horizon, diving into the sea. Australasian Gannet was number 59. On our way down, Oscar suggested that we should have another try for Banded Rail, so we headed to the Karaka Bird Hide in Thames. No rails except those of the model train, however, so we tried to transform one of the numerous White-faced Herons into Reef Herons, to no avail. We were about to leave when I suggested that perhaps this would be a good spot for Brown Teal, so we checked the Mallard flock that was almost at our feet… and lo and behold! A single Brown Teal, right in front of us! Bird number 60! We continued our long southbound journey, and on the way finished off our shag set with a Little Black Shag.


Arctic Skua on left, White-fronted Tern on right. Photo courtesy of Donald Snook.
White-fronted Terns and Spotted Shags
View from the Karaka Bird Hide (Thames). Can you spot the Brown Teal?
We wound up crossing Lake Karapiro, where I again utilised the fantastic sunroof and we spotted New Zealand Scaup on our way to the southern end of Maungatautari. When we arrived at the maunga a pair of California Quail ran along the path while a New Zealand Pigeon swooped from one of the huge rimu trees. As we went deeper into the native bush North Island Robins and Tomtits called as a Kaka screamed overhead. A small flock of Whiteheads buzzed near us, and we began to climb the 16m viewing tower. A Bellbird called, as did Saddleback and Stitchbirds. A New Zealand Falcon zoomed over the canopy, screaming before stooping at unimaginable speeds towards some hapless animal. Number 72, and we were now 2 birds away from claiming the Waikato record! We walked up the Rimu track in search of the elusive Kokako and noisy Yellow-crowned Parakeet, but found neither, and left Maungatautari at about 4:00, heading north again to Cambridge.
We realised that Canada Goose was still missing from our list, and eyes were peeled as we again crossed Karapiro, until finally, Michael spotted a small flock bobbing on the lake. High fives all around, as we were now on the threshold of glory. We arrived at Lake Te Ko Utu with high expectations, and claimed Eurasian Coot as number 74! We made it, despite dipping on so many species (Wild Turkey, Banded Rail, Lesser Redpoll). We all grabbed pizza in Cambridge and drove up to Maungakawa to eat it, where we were promised Redpoll. It seems, however, that we had been duped. No Redpoll here. We soldiered on, to the North End of Maungatautari where once the sun went down we ticked Morepork, our last bird of the day - number 75. We searched for kiwi but no luck, we would have to be content with 75. It was a nice round number anyway.

We got out of Maungatautari at 10, and I finally got to bed at 11:30, buzzing from the thrill of being champions of the Waikato (the V helped too!). Credit must go to Donald Snook, our fantastic driver, and to Georgie, his fantastic van. And of course, to the idiosyncratic and ineffable Michael, who planned the entire trip.

Biggest dips were a few of the Arctic waders, Fluttering Shearwater, Lesser Redpoll, Banded Rail, Australasian Bittern, Royal Spoonbill and… Wild Turkey! We couldn’t believe we missed that one. Next time eh?

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Hakarimata slog

My interest piqued by reports of kaka in the Hakarimata Ranges, I decided to have a bit of a look for myself. Well, a lot of a look. I got dropped off at 8am at the Rail Trail, in Ngaruawahia, and headed up into the bush with my binoculars and my new/old camera that I picked up off TradeMe for a steal. I followed the track and ascended 80 metres to the ridge trail, where two New Zealand Pigeons (Kereru) swooped majestically above my head, while Shining Cuckoos filled the air with their sweeping whistles. No kaka though.

A supplejack knot

I continued along the track for about 2 hours, my pack getting heavier on my aching shoulders. Eventually, I arrived at the Summit Lookout, where I got some stellar views but no birds save one or two Grey Warblers in the canopy. After a break, and some beef crackers and about half a litre of water, I started on the second leg of my journey. Almost immediately I heard the cheerful ti-oly-oly-oly of a male Tomtit, a new bird for my Ngaruawahia list! As I continued along the rutted path I kept hearing these birds, and I ended up with a total of at least 11 distinct individuals. Considering there is very little pest control here I was pretty pleased with that! While in a lot of the country these small robins are common, I had been on a lot of bushwalks and hadn't heard these before. Sadly I didn't manage to see one, but it is good to know that they are there. New Zealand Fantails continued to make their presence known as they followed me, searching for any insects I might have disturbed, while Silvereyes zipped through the undergrowth and male Chaffinches made their pink-pink-pink-chewy-chu calls. Yellowhammers laughed at me as I counted Black Swans floating on the distant oxidation ponds, making an unlikely addition to the trip list.

12:30 - still walking, no kaka
1:00 - still walking, no kaka
1:30 - still walking, no kaka

At about 2 I arrived at the southern lookout, finished off the lunch and the last of my water, and prayed that I wouldn't have to walk much further. A pair of Tui screamed past, chased by... an Australian Magpie - no Falcons ☹. And, no kaka.

The gorgeous view from the Southern Lookout



Sadly there was nothing out of the ordinary for the rest of the walk, and the most exciting thing that happened to me was some trouble with the eBird app... I finished up around 2:30, almost too exhausted to make Goldfinches the last bird on my list, bringing my total to 25 species.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Holidays!

My last exam was finally over on Thursday 23rd, and I was well and truly on holiday! By Friday afternoon, I was packing my bag with binoculars, scope and field guide. My parents drove three of us young birders up to Miranda Shorebird Centre, pausing at Whangamarino Wetland on the way just to check for bittern. No luck, but we were undeterred. After some 'shortcuts' from Dad, we arrived at the Centre, where we were greeted by a friendly Keith and shown our dorms.

Now, I have just written a really long 3-part post on Miranda from about this time last month, so I won't repeat everything. This is just the highlights... I also must admit these are not my photos - I wish! They were taken by the other two YB's - Adi and Joe.

Saturday morning we walked up to the shellbanks and stilt pools, where we got to try out the new hides (Stilt and Wrybill hides). Along with the common ducks etc we saw a few New Zealand Dotterel, a single Banded Dotterel (our only one for the trip) and a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Now, Keith had promised us free accomodation if we found a new bird for New Zealand, so we desperately tried to turn some of the dotterels into Kentish Plovers and some of the godwits into Marbled Godwits, but to no avail. At the main (Godwit) hide, we saw a beautiful juvenile 'Sharpie', and a Curlew Sandpiper along with the innumerable Bar-tailed Godwits and Red Knot. White-fronted Tern were common along with Black-billed Gulls. What can only be described as 'oodles' of Pacific Golden-Plovers were also present, the most I had ever seen at one time. Of course, we learnt that if only we had been a little earlier we would have seen a Cattle Egret in beautiful breeding plumage - that would have been a new bird for my NZ list...

White-faced Heron with an eel



One of the upsides of birding in New Zealand is the sheer number of pelagic or ocean-going birds. However that one came back to bite us when Joe spotted a dark seabird sitting on the ocean in the distance. I opened my guide, only to find that the bird could be any of the following:

  • Grey-faced Petrel
  • Black Petrel
  • Flesh-footed Shearwater
  • Wedge-tailed Shearwater
  • Sooty Shearwater
  • Short-tailed Shearwater
That is New Zealand for you! With no chance of ID'ing it, we kept watching the distant ocean until Joe (again!) saw two Skua harrying some unfortunate terns, which with the help of some other birders we identified as Arctic Skua (or Parasitic Jaegar). Number 112 on my year list!

I had the awesome privilege of being able to show some Texan birders some of our extra-special birds such as NZ Dotterels and Wrybill, and it struck me as odd how we had such different reasons for coming. We were both birding, but Martin was on the lookout for Wrybill - a common bird here - and here I was getting excited about the solitary Curlew Sandpiper we had! When they described their common shorebirds in Texas, they more or less named some of the rarest waders in NZ, none of which I had seen. Anyway, they gave us a lift back to the Centre, where we parted ways - they only had a day and a half in NZ!

Me in front and Joe behind - counting Pacific Golden-Plovers

One of the PGP's in question


In the afternoon, we walked up to Kaiaua where we saw.... lots of White-fronted Terns. We were hoping for the ironically named 'Common Tern' or 'Arctic Tern', but no luck. We had fish and chips and headed back.

White-fronted Terns

A greedy juvenile Black-backed Gull

Variable Oystercatcher and NZ Dotterel


The next morning we got to the hides earlier to catch the Cattle Egret, but it again eluded us. The only bird of note that I haven't mentioned earlier was a Brown Teal off on the shellbank. Our time here was over, and the holidays had started out with a hiss and a roar.

Welcome Swallow by the hide

Monday, 27 November 2017

Australasian Bittern at Lake Rotokauri!

Technically, I was studying on Wednesday morning. Indeed, I ticked many of the boxes. I was up early, ate a decent breakfast, picked up a book.... and jumped into the car.... (If you are reading this, Mr Thomson, sorry)

7:30 and I arrived Lake Rotokauri Reserve, spotting scope over my shoulder and binoculars around my neck. The sun crept into the flawless azure sky, and the common passerine birds were in full swing. Before I even got out of the car I heard Silver-eyes, Greenfinches, and Song Thrushes, along with other abundant suburban birds. For a solid 5 minutes I just stood there, picking out the individual songs and honing my ear-birding skills (who knows, I might go blind one day!). As I ambled along the track I fantasised about flushing a Japanese Snipe from the nearby raupō, or watching a Little Egret fly overhead (Yes, birders have boring fantasies). I was brutally dragged back to the real world by the booming of a male Australasian Bittern! I say booming, but these birds sound exactly like someone blowing air over the top of a glass bottle very loudly. Totally unmistakeable! I couldn't believe it at first - these birds were a 'year lister' for me and I was only a few minutes from Hamilton city centre! I thought that this bird must have been a fluke, but almost immediately after the first another bird answered from the other side of the lake! 2 bitterns in 20 minutes! Hoping I would see one, I edged my way around the track to the lake itself, where I deployed my scope and went into full nerd mode, ticking the Black Swans and Canada Geese dotted around the lake along with the trio of Pied, Little Pied and Black Shags. I also scanned the lake edges for dabchick, but no luck. Mallards were of course present, however no Grey Ducks. I played a Spotless Crake call and soon heard the prrrrrrrr of a nearby bird answering. Another wetland bird!

There is a bittern somewhere in this picture...

The lake itself




Then, another bittern began booming to my left, and I balanced precariously on the very top of the bench trying to see it. No luck, but every time I stepped down from the bench, ready to give up, it began again. After a good 20 minutes of yo-yo-ing I ignored the bittern and began to walk around the lake. Much to my disappointment I couldn't walk all the way around the lake, so I backtracked and went the other way, the bittern taunting me all the way. In the satellite ponds around the main lake I saw White-faced Herons, and Spotted Doves around the houses and gardens, reminding me just how urban this area is. Siamang Gibbons from the nearby Hamilton Zoo briefly caught me off guard, hooting and howling, before I realised what they were. As the day warmed up, Skylarks began their almost endless summer song, while a Shining Cuckoo whistled from a huge oak tree. It was around 10am now, and I headed back, on my way to the lakeside bench. On my way I heard 4 distinct bittern calls from very different points around the lake, bringing my bittern count up to at least 4. And then, as I snuck along the boardwalk, I startled a bittern sitting on the path! It took off frantically, crashing into the nearby rushes, while my heartbeat slowed to sensible levels. Naturally I was ecstatic, as I hadn't seen a bittern in over a year, and certainly didn't expect to see one. Only a few minutes later, another bittern took off from the boardwalk, this one much bigger and greyer. This was crazy!

The only other bittern I have seen, at the Ohautira Wetlands near Raglan.

Nothing amazing after that excitement, and I still didn't get a photo of a bittern, but nothing could get me down after the awesome privilege of two bitterns in a few minutes...