Friday, 27 November 2015

India bound

Well it has been another quick turn around at home, this time four nights at home.  Managed to get a heap done, with some work around the house, planting of vegetables, five minute bird counts around Esk Hills, an evening talk at a local Rotary group, finishing off the trip report for the last 21-day tour, finalising end of year tax with the accountant, backed all the latest images up to my servers, completed a 'Security Awareness Training' course online, and even got a mountain bike ride in! Phew!  It is good to be busy, but this is pushing things a little.  I keep telling myself that next year will be different...and at this stage it is.  Not the monster 7.5 months overseas that this year has seen (plus local NZ away time like this last NZ tour), with some bigger gaps in between each trip.  At least that is what it looks like now...let's see if I can keep it that way.
So this evening I head for a country I have long dreamt about visiting, and can't actually believe I will be there in less than 24 hours!  I remember buying a book when I was about 14 on Bharatpur (apparently called Keoladeo National Park) in India...that had me hooked, a place I wanted to visit big time.  It is hard to believe that that was actually over quarter of a century ago!  Damn it, time flies!  Unfortunately, because of my schedule this year I haven't even been able to add some time on to either (or both!) ends of the trip, so it is straight in to Mumbai, onto the ship the following day, and then off the ship in Male, Maldives and home about two weeks later.  However, this trip with Zegrahm Expeditions - India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives - is going to be my first visit through each of these places.  I think I have everything packed...better get to the airport!

Beaut mute

With bags packed for the last time we headed off towards Christchurch.  But it wasn’t over yet!  We had a mission to complete, to really nail home that defeat, and get one more bird for the list.  Sure it is not all about the numbers, but hey, we had done so well, why not strive a little further, going a few minutes out of our way for a….a…..mute swan!

On the way we stopped and grabbed some lunch and some grabbed got their hands on what is possibly New Zealand’s best pie…a big call, but heck who would have thought a Salmon and Bacon pie would work so well together!  The Fairlie Bakehouse really know their stuff and it was described as some in the back of the bus as ‘Orgasmic!”.  I’ll leave it there it think!

As we got closer to the coast we entered the Canterbury Plains, the low flat arable land that surrounds Christchurch and the other coastal cities.  Crossing several large braided rivers we could easily see the extent of the weed problem with most of these rivers choked with introduced lupins and other weeds.  The Ashburton River however did have a large black-billed gull breeding colony which was great to see, and hopefully they are successful in rearing their chicks to fledging this season.  We then turned further to the coast as we neared Christchurch, and there in front of us, in all their splendour, were about 20 mute swans!

We then headed in to Christchurch city, seeing the extent of the repairs still being undertaken in the city from the earthquake in 2011.  We dropped Laurence off at his Hotel in down town, and bid him farewell, then headed out to the Airport for everyone else.  After 21-days on the road we said our good-byes to new friends, hard to believe it was all over.

Day total – Seen = 31; new for the trip = 1; total for the trip to date = 172 (inc heard great-spotted kiwi – this is a new record).

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Sneaking up on stilts

I don’t know what it is about Oamaru, but it always seems to look like it is going to rain in the morning when we are there?!  Anyway, loading the van, and starting the drive inland, it was clear we were in for a pretty decent day weatherwise in the dry Mackenzie Basin.

We spotted a few black-fronted terns in the fields as we drove, as well as a few South Island oystercatchers.  After a bit of driving we then made a quick stop to search a couple of small lakes.  We found lots of scaup, some with ducklings, and several crested grebes which gave beautiful views.  There were a lot of coot around, and we scanned the edges for any skulking rails, but no luck.

We then grabbed some lunch at a bakery, and headed to our first black stilt site.  As we arrived we scanned and checked the edges of the lake, nothing, nothing, nothing…bingo!  There was a black stilt on the edge of the lake, albeit standing next to a pied stilt, but a full adult plumaged bird.  We spent some time watching the bird, and the photographers had a bit of fun getting closer to take some images.  We then went a little further and found a second adult bird, which we again got reasonably close to and got some nice images.  They really are stunning birds, just such as shame the issues facing them are so huge!

We spent time scanning for other birds, seeing a few banded dotterel and black-fronted terns, and then decided to carry on to another spot.  On the way we drove slowly hoping for a stripy chicken…and blow me down if there weren’t two of them.  A male was standing looking around, whilst the female was enjoying a good old fashioned dust bath!  We pulled up in the van, got good views, and then everyone got out and viewed the birds unobstructed.  They were pretty calm, and so in the end the photographers moved in and managed to get surprisingly close and get some nice shots.

We then headed off to our initial target, a small lake, where we pulled up and enjoyed our lunch in the sunshine overlooking the lake.  The wind was a bit blustery, but a nice sunny spot out of the wind was found by all.  There were no black stilt, so we tried for some Baillon’s crakes, with perhaps a glimpse of a bird…  We then headed on down to another small lake, and found another adult and two juvenile black stilts.  There were several pied stilts present also, but we focussed on the ‘all blacks’ and enjoyed more excellent views.  The photographers decided to have another go, and got reasonably close ;) (see photo).  The funny thing was they just stood there and the stilts came to them!

We enjoyed the spot for a little longer, and then headed back to a spot with a fantastic view out over the surround lakes and scenery.  We managed to find a few butterflies on the top – the targets were the common tussock, and we managed to find a few of them despite a fairly hefty wind.  A rather relaxed and confiding New Zealand pipit was also nice to see again.  We then headed off to our last spot of the day, a local lakeside area where we hoped to find Baillon’s crake.  This bird can be pretty difficult, and although being found in many parts of the World, many people have not seen it.  New Zealand also has an endemic subspecies…

So we headed to the spot, and decided to all spread out and survey various parts of the wetland.  It wasn’t too long and a call went up…and the sharp eyes of Karen had struck again.  She had spotted a crake moving in and out of the vegetation on the edge of some water.  We all got into position and had pretty good views moments later of a crake moving around underneath the vegetation, feeding in shallow water.  It then moved off out of site, and we waited for another view, but to no avail.  We decided to spread out a bit in the hope of spotting it again, but again nothing.  Even a little playing of calls elicited no response.  So we decided we had been pretty lucky to have all seen it, and headed to our accommodation.

We checked in, had a little time to relax and repack things for the journey home, and then headed out for dinner.  A beautiful slap up dinner, with some really nice food at a local winery.  A nice way to end an incredible trip!

Day total – Seen = 42; new for the trip = 3; total for the trip to date = 169 (except Fulmar prion now accepted so, 170 sp seen, plus great-spotted kiwi heard).

Sneaky, sneaky

Black-fronted tern in flight

Even sneakier...

Black stilt adult up close

Male chukar with female in the background

Apparently you don't need to be sneaky, the birds come to you to have their photo taken!

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Wind and spray on the ocean waves

We boarded the ferry and as we headed out of the bay the wind was ripping across the surface of the sea and whipping up spray in all directions…this was going to be exciting.  We spotted four Fiordland penguins on rocks, and then it was out into the open water.  The swells picked up, but still in the lee of the island it wasn’t too bad.  As we got out a little further the swells got larger and the spray and wind increased.  Most of us were on the back deck, and despite the spray, it was worth it.  The swells were never huge, perhaps just over 2m high, but the spray and winds were impressive.  But even better was the fact we got distant, but identifiable views of at least two Buller’s albatross, new for the trip.  A single broad-billed prion also showed briefly, and small numbers of common diving-petrels, white-capped albatross, and sooty shearwaters were seen during the trip.

We arrived into Bluff and grabbed our gear, loaded the van, and then fought the winds, which must have been in excess of 40 knots, as we headed to a nearby estuary area.  However, the tide was incredibly high, and the wind was forcing the water right in to where we might have expected to have seen some waders, so there was nothing evident.

We continued on northwards, grabbing some lunch along the way, and then eating a beach site.  We went for a walk along the beach after we had finished eating, and saw five Hooker’s sea lions resting in various places along the beach.  There were two rather large males, what looked like two large females and a small sub-adult.  All looked healthy and happy, enjoying the sunshine, despite the wind.  We took a few photos and then headed back along the beach, enjoying the chance to stretch our legs.

It was then back into the van, and further north.  Late in the afternoon we made a stop at a beach to look for yellow-eyed penguins.  As we walked out to the viewing spot, an adult yellow-eyed penguin came up out of the surf and waddled up the beach.  It paused several times and we had great scope views of it standing on the beach, preening, and then gradually heading up to where it must have had a nest in the coastal forest.  We thought that was a great start, but after almost an hour and a half, not another single penguin had shown its face!  We did have excellent views of both pied and bronze morph Stewart Island shags flying past, a perhaps soon to be split species.

We then headed to the accommodation, checked in, and then headed in to town to dinner.  Another excellent dinner, a few wines to celebrate new grand children and the reaching of 4000 species (Southern brown kiwi as your 4000th bird can’t be bad!), and then off to bed.

Day total – Seen = 49; new for the trip = 2; total for the trip to date = 166

Island of prions

I’m sure we all did the same thing this morning…got out of bed and quickly looked out the window!  Today was a pelagic with a lot of potential, so close to the Southern Ocean that almost anything could turn up, yet so close to the Southern Ocean that it might be the stomachs turning.  But we were in luck, the weather looked perfect, with a northerly forecast to be moderate, and a sea state that would provide a feeling of being at sea, rather than being in a washing machine.

We had breakfast and headed down to the boat, Aurora Charters, skippered by Ty, and with Matt Jones onboard as well.  We went through safety stuff quickly, and then cast off and made our way out into the bay.  Our first stop was for Fiordland crested penguins, which we had already seen, but could do with better views.  And that is exactly what we got.  To start with there were four bird poking out of a crack just above the water line, but in short order we had at least six birds, including a juvenile that was pretty close to fledging.  It was obvious to see with dark face and overall pale blue grey colour, and much smaller less defined crest.  The youngster was bullied into the sea by one of the adults, but made its way back out onto the rocks and into the crack again.  Clearly there was quite some cave in there to hold all those penguins!

We spent a little time with them, as several birds hauled out onto a rock closer to us, and Ty got the boat right in nice and close for awesome views.  Then we decided to carry on, heading to the Muttonbird Islands and having a look there.  But on the way Matt started to throw some of the blue cod frames used as chum overboard, and before long a cloud of 30+ albatross had gathered and were following us, something that was to be with us almost the whole day.  Most were white-capped albatross, but we also had a few Southern Royals start to appear, and a smattering of Salvin’s albatross.

We searched for yellow-eyed penguins around the islands, but weren’t able to find any.  There were lots of New Zealand fur seals around, and plenty else to watch, including a pair of brown skua that came in to the boat for a look.  We then carried on our way out, aiming for Wreck Reef, and with the sea being pretty nice, and the wind being perfect we were hoping for good things.  The number of albatross slowly increased as we got closer, with more Southern Royals, and then as we got to the reef the number of sooty shearwaters wheeling and feeding around the reef was impressive.  So too were the big swells crashing onto and breaking over the reef itself.

We started to chum, and pretty soon a large group of albatross had gathered, and other bits and pieces started to come in.  There were lots of common diving-petrels flying past, but several Northern giant petrels made an appearance, and then the first of probably 5+ Campbell albatross made an appearance, a stonking adult with bright honey-coloured eye and orange bill.  It came in pretty close and wheeled around a few times and then settled for a little while, but several of the birds later in the day were voracious, snatching chum from other birds and really being a lot more aggressive than their smaller size should allow.

After a while we seemed to stop seeing new birds, and so decided to head out a little further.  We steamed on, chumming as we went to keep our albatross horde.  We basically steamed, then chummed, steamed then chummed right out into deeper water, getting a good distance off the island.  Each time we did so, we seemed to pick up something new.  Our next stop we got a broad-billed prion, which showed really well, and then several minutes later another prion, that ostensibly looked like a broad-billed and behaved more like it than a fairy, but the bill was too small.  I called it as something different and everybody got onto the bird as it circled just off the boat for at least 2-3 minutes, giving great views.  It had a prominent collar, flew strongly and swiftly, and had a slightly narrower black tail band, with a well patterned face, having a dark stripe through the eye and broad bold supercilium.  At the time we thought it could well be an Antarctic prion and subsequent reviews of images show what has to be an Antarctic prion – an absolutely spectacular bird for the main part of New Zealand!  What a cracking bird.  The next prion came in ten minutes later or so, being much paler and more buoyant in flight, at the time we called fairy, but on subsequent review of those images they show something that just can’t be a fairy prion, and surely show a fulmar prion!  Another spectacular bird – but we need to do some more research on this one before being conclusive.

We picked up several more Campbell albatross, then several white-chinned petrels showed up.  A single black-browed albatross came a little later, and then a smattering of fairy prions and a few more broad-billed.  As we got out further the call went up for mottled petrel, and we had our first of probably 15+ birds, the first showing reasonably well, with some of the later birds showing really well, and some actually circling the boat.  Then we had the first of at least 4-5 grey-backed storm-petrels, at times feeding very close to the boat, although often out in the sun, and lastly a single black-bellied storm-petrel whipped past the boat, giving a single flyby that most managed to get on to.

We carried on chumming, till about 4:30pm, as every time we thought we might move something good would appear, but finally it was time to start heading back.  We chummed as we went, seeing another 5+ mottled petrels in the first bit, and then at least one more very showy broad-billed prion, that followed us and came right into the back of the boat as we steamed!  The sea had flattened off a little and we eventually got back into the islands, having another search for yellow-eyed penguin, but unsuccessful.  So it was time to head in for port, slowing and having a look at the shags on a rock just in the bay, and then coming alongside.  What an incredible pelagic!  We had seen everything we hoped for and more!

We headed ashore, having dinner and then going for a walk and spotting several long-tailed bats, and hearing a male kiwi call.  A superb end to another fantastic day!

Day total – Seen = 46; new for the trip = 7; total for the trip to date = 164

Campbell albatross in a stall

Broad-billed prion

Antarctic prion

Antarctic prion

Antarctic prion

Antarctic prion

Mystery prion

Mystery prion

Mystery prion

Fairy prion, one of the number that we saw during the day

Black-bellied storm-petrel making a brief pass

Mottled petrel flying past the boat

Broad-billed prion following the boat