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 ☺.

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...

Monday, 13 November 2017

Miranda Banding Camp! - Day 3

My dreams were rudely interrupted by another 5am start, followed by a mad dash to the first vehicle. As I was still almost entirely asleep, this was a race I lost, but eventually I was able to clamber into a car and we drove to the Miranda Orchard once again. Mist nets were up again, and banding started pretty soon after I arrived. Once again, I was struck by the realisation that New Zealand's avifauna must be almost entirely composed of Silvereyes, as somehow these were the only birds I got to band. Luck of the draw I suppose, but it was a bitter pill to watch others band Sacred Kingfishers, Goldfinches, House Sparrows, Blackbirds, Thrushes, a Fantail and a Starling. Regardless, it was a fantastic morning for everyone, and we banded a total of 48 birds that day. I had the privilege of extracting a Fantail from the net, which was simply amazing. Excluding the tail, these are NZ's smallest birds, and to me this bird felt impossibly light and fragile. Again, all birds were extracted without a problem, and we celebrated another great banding session with another amazing lunch.

After lunch, we were given the option of more banding, or birding. As Michael assured me he knew a great spot for terns, I went with the birding option, and George, Michael and I headed to Ray's Rest with the incredible Paul, all the while dreaming of rare birds. Michael got doubly excited when he realised it was low tide, which "is the best time for terns". Like a fool, I believed him.

We saw a total of 3 terns, all Caspian Terns. This was after a 4km walk in the sun, and the price we paid for this infinitesimal victory was 'birder's burn' on our necks due to our ubiquitous binocular straps. Cheers Michael. We then walked on to the main hide, where we saw many more terns, although sadly only Caspian and White-Fronted Terns. No Arctics, Commons or Antarctics for us. We birded around the stilt ponds for a few hours, again seeing the Curlew Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Sharp-Tailed Sandpiper and Brown Teal among the more common birds. Despite earlier disappointment, this was a great time for birding, and we eventually returned to the Shorebird Centre exhausted, as the others regaled us with tales of banding success that afternoon...

After dinner was when the real excitement began. As the sun set, we strung mist nets over the fetid, stinking Stilt Pools, in preparation for Godwits, Knot and Pied Stilts. Adrian, the 'boss bander' of the weekend, staked out with a thermal imaging scope (so jealous 😀 ) while the procedure was explained to us. One or two lucky individuals would be selected to go with Adrian to retrieve the birds, and take them to the banding station we had set up between the two big vehicles. Then another person would have the honour of banding, while the rest of us would watch with envy. The first bird silly enough to fly at night was a Bar-Tailed Godwit, which we banded, measured, weighed and released again. Red Knots began coming in as well, plus a Pied Stilt and a few Wrybill. When it was my turn to band, I reached into the box, praying that whatever was in there didn't have teeth. My hand wrapped around a soft and smooth Godwit, and I drew it out of the box. The first thing that struck me was its leg, kicking to get away. The second thing was the oddly soft, rubbery bill and amazingly smooth feathers. I held the bird in amazement, and the infinitely gentle face contrasted with the seemingly limitless fury of the bird. Eventually it settled down, and I gingerly begun to put the band on, took my measurement and carried the bird out to the mudflats. There I released it, and left, never to see that bird again. But, if anyone ever sees ZUZ again, PLEASE let me know!

I then lay down in the damp grass for a kip, wrapped in my jacket, and got up when it was time to pack up the net. Got into bed at 1am, and for once got up at a sensible hour the next morning, at about 8am. We finally left at around 2pm.