Impressive bird shots

Generally speaking, my camera wasn’t really up to taking pictures of birds, with the exception of the brazen Keas below. I just had a little autofocus point-and-shoot, which couldn’t take pictures fast enough or close enough to be of much use. A few posts ago you may notice some of my fellow travelers having much better cameras than mine – and on the pelagic trips there were some truly impressive lenses, including some several feet long that I’m not sure how they were managing to lift, much less hold steady. Below is one of my favorites, generously shared by Don Reinberg – a Buller’s Albatross (Southern), a truly huge bird with a 6-7 foot wingspan:

The New Zealand bird book is about 2/3 seabirds or shorebirds or some form of water-birds. Hence subjecting ourselves to all the trips to sea :) You can see some fabulous bird shots from our first trip (as well as another account of the pelagic trip from hell) on Mark Rauzon’s website, as well as very good photos of the very special endemic land birds we saw (in that case, not on the same day, but at the same places). Photos are still being passed around, if I get any other good ones I’ll post them here.

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A Kea stole my lunch

Sneaky parrots :) There are three passes on the south island of New Zealand, and one is called Arthur’s Pass. This is in an area of very beautiful mountain forest with lots of native birds, including a parrot called a Kea. There is a little cafe at the top of the pass that is quite popular with travelers, and has an outdoor seating area – with warning signs about not feeding the Keas. Well, they didn’t tell us they were stealth parrots, but quite accomplished they turned out to be. Just look at this guilty face:

These birds are big, at least a foot tall. Yet sneaky, sneaky. I bought a meat pie at this place, which is a very typical New Zealand lunch. It was maybe 3 inches in diameter and an inch deep. I went outside with it on my plate, set it down on the table, and looked around for the rest of my group. I swear I had my back turned for only a few seconds, when a Kea hopped up from beneath the table where it had been hiding, grabbed my pie in its beak, and nimbly hopped away to its pie-eating lair in the nearby underbrush – managing to not break the pie in the process! Of course I had to buy a second pie, keeping a closer watch on it this time. And all the while the Kea was taunting me in the bush, eating my lunch not a few feet away (yes, those are pie crumbs on its beak):

It’s bad when the birds are smarter than you are! Though sadly this food is very much not good for them. They’d be better off not stealing it. I suppose these few birds that hang out down here may not make into the next generation, while other, wilder birds will.

Penguin in a Box

On the fourth day of our trip, we went to an island offshore of Auckland called Tiritiri Matangi, in search of kiwis and many other native birds. All of the predators that have been decimating New Zealand wildlife and birds have been painstakingly removed from this island and the island has been replanted with hundreds of thousands of native trees and shrubs, largely through the massive efforts of volunteers. Then, native birds have been introduced and a couple of species probably wouldn’t survive without this and a few other similar islands where they get relief from stoats, ferrets, possums, rats, mice, cats, and dogs.

Here is what one part of the island looks like:

And here are some of my partners in birding – from the left, a volunteer researcher, our guide Sav Saville, Mike (the most ardent photographer among our group), and Don. Mike’s wife Barb rounded out our group – she was up the trail taking video of parakeets at the time.

One trail on the island led down to the beach and advised that we could see penguins in a box (nesting boxes, that is). Well, I don’t know about you, but the idea of penguins in a box just struck me as inordinately funny, in a Monty Pythonesque sort of way. I couldn’t really believe it, but there were indeed penguins in boxes – really burrows in the ground with glass ceilings for people to look in.

From then on, we had the penguin-in-the-box joke – I just HAD to buy a little stuffed blue penguin in a little box, then there were penguins on postcards in the postbox, etc. But the real penguins were pretty cool.

We also saw a Yellow-Eyed Penguin nesting colony on the east coast of the south island at Oamaru and got to see the penguins coming in from the ocean, walking up the beach, and climbing up to their nesting/molting sites on the hillside. It turns out that penguins climb hills really well, which is just weird. I mean, these were steep hills. But who knows what they’ll do, if they’ll nest in boxes :D

How not to find a bird

On the third day of our tour, we went out to sea on the first of several scheduled pelagic trips. About 2/3 of the New Zealand field guide is seabirds, so us land-folks had a lot to learn. One of the goals of this trip was to see the New Zealand Storm-Petrel, recently rediscovered by our guides after being believed extinct for 150 years.

The day started out well, with excellent weather on the Hauraki Gulf, and great views of all the birds we hoped to see. Cameras were clicking and storm-petrels were flitting over the ocean, trying for the bits of fish we were throwing overboard. We had lunch, then headed out toward Little Barrier Island to see another beautiful bird, the Grey Ternlet.

After watching them roosting on some small rocky islands far offshore, we headed back. Had we gone all the way in at that point, everything would have been fine :) Instead we made one more stop to throw the last of the fish overboard and look at birds… and then the batteries went dead. A look at the batteries indicated that the previous user of this boat had linked up the spares in parallel to the main batteries (probably because HIS batteries went dead), draining all of them.

Some of us were a bit green by now, as the swells had been rising ever higher. Our skipper checked in with the harbormaster, and for a while they tried to find a nearby boat to offer assistance – but no luck. We were just too far out. The owner of this boat was nowhere to be found (it had been rented due to the unavailability of the usual boat for maintenance).

The only recourse was for the skipper to radio his own maintenance crew and have them bring him out another battery and jumper cables – necessitating a bit of a drive for them, locating another vessel, fueling it up, and getting it out to where we were. Fortunately, he was able to make all these arrangements before transmitter power was lost. Unfortunately, it would be 5 hours before they finally reached us.

There was a bit of anxiety toward the end, because we could hear the crew and the harbormaster transmitting, but could not transmit our own coordinates, and we were drifting to the NE (out to sea) with the current. And the swells were getting higher, and at least one person was actively sick and a couple others not too far from it. Then it started to look like it might get dark. Of course we did have flares, and the crew could figure out our probable location from the drift, so we were never really in danger, though sick and hungry.

After they found us and brought a battery on board, the ride home was almost the worst part. For whatever reason, the skipper was in a big hurry and the swells were really high. We were being lifted off our seats and slammed back down, things were flying off the tables, and there was about 3 hours of that before finally reaching the harbor around midnight.

We did have about 80 sightings of the New Zealand Storm-Petrel, more than any trip before us. And we are among maybe 500 people the world over to have seen it. But this was definitely not the way to see it :) Better luck to all who come after!

Stalking the Wild Kiwi

Currently, I’m in New Zealand on a 21-day birding tour, travelling from the northern tip of the north island to the southern end of Stewart Island, and just about every major bird habitat in between. One of the goals of this tour is to see or at least hear all five kiwi species. Kiwis are, of course, nocturnal, so this makes for some late nights.

On the very first night of the tour, we headed to the northeast to the Trounson Forest for a guided night walk. Kiwis were the highlight of the walk, but there was a lot else going on as well, including the call of Morepork (native owls, which we saw later that evening), native trees and the forest to learn about, glowworms, and fish and crayfish in the streams. We had our some of our best looks at a kiwi that first night, right out in the open probing the earth with its bill, finding an earthworm and then throwing it up into the air to catch and swallow. That was exciting and a very good start (normally if you’re very lucky you see a bit of a kiwi skulking in the deep underbrush or darting across a path).

Our second try was on Tiritiri Matangi island, an island that has been completely restored from farming and all non-native predators removed. We stayed in the bunkhouse with the researchers and had wonderful access to the island when the day-trippers were not there. However, we were pretty exhausted by a rescue at sea the night before (more on that later), and most of us just gave up after about 10:30. The kiwis were out – no-one saw them but we heard them calling about 1-2 am. And to see them, we would have had to get up and disturb the researchers.

The third try was on the northwest coast of the south island, searching for the Great Spotted Kiwi – a bird that basically no-one ever sees. We started out the evening well by seeing a Weka – a giant rail. Later we were standing around silently in a clearing, and a clearly confused young bird darted out to see us and then zipped back into the forest. Once located, we got several good looks at it, a fact that our guide couldn’t resist mentioning to every other tour group we ran across, since none of them have ever seen it. It was even a lifer for our guide, which doesn’t happen often.

Then followed the death march of kiwi hunting. This is one of those things no non-birder would understand. The Okarito Kiwis are the most endangered of all the species, and we went out with a local ranger to see them. He handed us vests, flashlights, gloves, and mosquito nets, then forbade us to make any sound, drilling us in precision maneuvers (not kidding here) to make sure everyone could see a bird if we had a chance. The mosquitoes were fierce and we had to be absolutely motionless and silent or risk a talking to. We were out until midnight and did eventually see a single kiwi run across the clearing…

Lastly, the reward for all our travails. On Stewart Island, we took a beautiful boat ride across the bay, seeing blue penguins and a yellow-eyed penguin on the way, to walk across a little peninsula. There we saw many kiwis feeding on little amphipods in the seaweed on the beach, right out in the open beside the crashing waves, in a beautiful moonlit night. That was pretty magickal.

So, in the end, 4 out 5 wasn’t bad. If we’d known we’d do so well, perhaps we’d have tried harder for the 5th – but that’s another story.

Travel Adventures

It seemed like the universe was trying its best to keep me from New Zealand, first with health problems, then with travel hurdles. On the day of the trip I had both a cold and a migraine, but managed to find those quiet lounges hidden away in airports for executives and for surprisingly small amounts of money, was able to rest in them, take medicine, get water and food, etc. Priority economy class allowed me to skip security lines and preboard, at a time when it was extremely helpful. Sometimes throwing $$ at things actually does help…

But nothing was going to get me around my cancelled flight to New Zealand. Apparently a cyclone was hitting Fiji (where I was routed through) and the entire 727 was being diverted onto Qantas – an airline I initially hadn’t chosen because it was so expensive. Unfortunately they were routing us through Sydney – and our huge planeload of people quickly filled up all the Sydney to Auckland flights on yet a third airline, who had no real interest in our story of woe and thus was not particularly helpful.

Thanks to my early arrival in LAX, I managed to snag a flight with “only” six hours layover in Sydney. Some people weren’t so lucky, nor were the people just trying to transfer to their own flights standing behind us at the Sydney international transit desk. I have to say, Sydney is ranking right up there with the worst airports I’ve ever been in, along with Heathrow and Houston. The restaurants were actually quite impressively good (oysters, caviar, and sushi), but there’s not an airline representative to be found to answer any questions, and the layout is sprawling, confusing, under construction, and extremely noisy. But, after some excellent espresso and a good lunch, the last vestiges of my migraine finally disappeared and the cold was tailing off.

Along with various other baffled customers just trying to get to Auckland, we eventually located the right gate and found out how to get our boarding passes (a story all its own). Finally on the plane – only to encounter thunderstorms and be in a holding pattern on the ground for about an hour. I thought we would never get there, and worried quite a bit about the B&B people who had arranged to meet me at the airport, as it was getting now ever later at night.

However, the quite comfortable Air New Zealand plane finally took off, and finally landed, and I got through customs easily thanks to the excellent instructions of my guides, and it turned out that they appreciated my late arrival because it was the birthday of my hostess. They had planned a fancy dinner out, which the original arrival time of my rerouted flight would have disrupted, but since it was late, the timing was perfect. They checked in advance, happily enjoyed their excellent meal, and picked me up just at the right time.

I slept wonderfully at what seemed like my usual bedtime, and it appears that I’m all adjusted, time-wise, due to the gradual 36-hr travel process. Today I spent most of the day walking in the beautiful parks of Auckland, getting an early start on my bird list. The B&B has an amazing view of the Harbor and is well located for restaurants, etc.

All’s well that ends well! Neither cold nor migraine, nor cyclones or thunderstorms could keep me from my appointed vacation :)