Thursday, May 14, 2015

Borneo back from the dead!

Was just getting around to updating the blog on all the great things happening down here in NZ when I came across an old blog draft for Borneo. I was in Borneo in Feb/Mar of 2013 but life was crazy and it took me a while to get around to posting some blog stuff on it. Unfortunately before I could get through the 1.5 month trip, I lost a bunch of photos on my computer (Always back-them-up!) including all of my Borneo shots. So it was a bonus to find a few extra photos buried away on this blog site. Unfortunately it did not include any of my adventures in Brunei or Sarawak but hey... still have the memories! So as a random interlude into all things NZ, here are some shots from the Tawau area of Sabah (Malaysian Broneo's northern state). 

For some background, Tawau is the only city in Sabah that does have tourists. Or at least that was my experience. It's a city of several hundred thousand, and yet there is not a single hostel anywhere and in my 4-5 days there I did not see a single Caucasian person other than the 2 Canadians and 2 Swedes that I convinces to follow me to this area.

When I first arrived in Tawau I was alone as the rest of the gang was scuba-diving off Semporna to the north. I took the time to explore the area on my own, at first in the city, and then by hitching rides out into the countryside. As a white non-local measuring over 2 meters tall, I was obviously a novelty and had to get used to gangs of kids and adults following me around and inviting me to various parties. As luck would have it, I ate some dodgy chicken at a Pakistani restaurant which meant that my forays into the countryside had to be scaled back a bit. More on that soon...
Sabah seems to be the heartland of Islam in Malaysian Borneo, and Tawau is probably one of the more Islamic areas of Sabah. (Note the mosque above and my bank of choice in Borneo). On our bus journey over to this side of Sabah, we were stopped several times by military personnel who were obviously searching for something in particular. It wasn't until after we had just left Tawau (headed back for KK on the west coast), that we found out that during our stay, a large party of Islamic insurgents from the southern Philippines had landed nearby and were hiding out in palm plantations. Clashes with police and the army ensued and a number of fighters were killed. This resulted in the closing of eastern Sabah to tourism so we were very lucky to have explored this area ignorant of some of these dangers. In many ways, Sabah feels more apart of the southern Philippines than Malaysia as most coastal settlements now are teaming with Muslim-Filipino illegal and legal immigrants. Many Mulsin Malays are also sympathetic to their cause and their is a historic link between these regions dating back to the Sultanate of Sulu in the 15th century.

This one is for Blake ;)
The unfortunate coincidence that I experienced my most hellish reaction to dodgy chicken on the same night I opted to rent the cheapest room in Tawau. No windows, a malfunctioning toilet, and a high risk of bed bugs (hence the newspaper). That was not an evening to remember. Thank god for the Pizza Hut across the street! Needless to say, I paid the extra $15 for a 3-star hotel room with A/C, TV, and a great view the following day.
Once the gang showed up, I was itching to get out into the jungle, so we headed for Tawau Hills Park. A beautiful reserve with very few visitors. For most of our 3 day stay we had the place to ourselves... well other than the mobs of macaques that came out each evening to try and score some grub.
Some sort of a babbler... my memory is too hazy right now and I don't have a field guide with me. I would guess it's a Short-tailed Babbler as there were a lot of them around. I scored around 36 lifers at Tawau Hills including these favourites: Blythe's Hawk-Eagle, Brown Hawk-Owl (Northern Boobook), Diard's & Orange-breasted Trogons, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Siberian Blue Robin, and Bornean Spiderhunter.
Erik the Swede, being Erik the Swede
One one day we did a long hike to some hot springs. The springs turned out to be luke-warm and pretty disappointing but still a great day.
The gang after a misguided decision to hike to the World's tallest tropical tree at night with only one light. I also was stoked with my idea of wearing sandals, especially when I stepped on a mass of fire-ants. In the darkness my screams were left open for interpretation, so let's just say there was some panicked running and screaming by everyone before I could explain what had actually happened.

The tall tree in the daytime. I believe it's around 91 meters. Didn't seem that much taller than the other trees though....
The sun sets over Tawau in the hotel I decided to splurge and pay $20 for.
Soooo much better than the $5 one!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Return to Oz

Many of you loyal blog readers will recall with fondness my 6-month stay in Australia in the winter of 2012/2013 (well.... it was summer down there). Many adventures were had, cool reptiles touched, and several vehicles barely made it out of the outback. Not only was Australia a lot of fun but it's also the main reason I jumped over to New Zealand to visit some friends--one by the name of Lisa... and well... the rest is wonderful history! To crank the nostalgia dial back just a little more, the main reason I came to Australia, was because I had bumped into Nigel Jackett and Jaime Hall (an Aussie-Canadian and Canadian-Canadian respectively) in BC as they were completing their cross-Canada cycling birding big year. Nigel jokingly invited me down to Perth where they lived, and I took it seriously and showed up on their doorstep a few months later. Well all these 2 years later Nigel and Jaime were getting married and Lisa and I were more than happy to hop the Tasman and make a holiday camping week of it!
Russ & Lisa: Back in Oz together for the first time since a brief Easter weekend together in Adelaide in 2013. I think this was taken on the waterfront in Ulladulla--a few hours down the New South Wales Coast from Sydney. We were both filled with Thai food, love, and the inherent joy of picking out a lone Long-billed Corella from a flock of Little Corellas.
Waiting for the clouds to part at Fitzroy Falls. (Can you spot me betwixt the Asian tour group?)
Ahh that's better. Clouds gone, sun out--beauty!
I must say that the Hawkesbury Sandstone valleys of the Blue Mountains and Southern Highlands of NSW are one of my favourite vistas I've seen. Almost like if the canyons of SE Arizona were filled up with rainforest and a few chattering lyrebirds.

Not far from the tall Fitzroy Falls are these "Twin Falls." And just like my visit with Jukka several years ago... no Rock Warbler!
Lisa going for a fully-clothed dip in this 'infinity-creek'
Still no Rock Warblers... but my eyes were still happy.
It was a sticky afternoon along the muddy Nowra River, so we kept our walk here short and opted for a nap in the shade. Another bust on Rock Warbler but Lisa bagged her lifer Striated Heron and Chestnut Teal, in addition to a pleasant reminder of out New Zealand home: European Blackbird.
After a long night arguing over whether the foul smell was my breath or some nearby cow paddies, Lisa discovered our answer the following morning: Dead Wombat.
As we meandered south (killing time before the wedding), we drove into a gorgeous isolated spot called Pebbly Beach. The rip tide here was a little disconcerting while swimming but the drive in through wonderful lowland forest was mucho fabuloso and the setting on the beach was stunning. Lisa and I were also lucky enough to watch a male Superb Lyrebird sing and display for a rather bored-looking female. Probably just playing hard to get.

Some of the pleasant forest we drove in over the course of the week. White-throated Treecreeper City.
Of course we did many other things that didn't involved nature. Most of that was eating ice-cream but we also did a fair bit of small-town art gallery and general shoppingy stuff. In this photo I was getting pretty hot and thus perhaps a little over-excited to find a 1970s country record of an artist I had actually heard of.
Next up was a day trip to Congo. Congo Beach that is, with its blood-red creek that mingles with the green salt water for some very cool colour combos.
Looks like an amazing beach right? Then why am I the only person swimming here? Well as it turns out, this area is thick with sting rays and just after this photo was taken I almost body-surfed on one that must have been 1.5 m across and was apparently visible to everyone watching from the beach! #TotallyWorthItButDidn'tSwimAgain
Ah and now finally for the main event. The wedding was held up in the hills above Berry (Nigel's parents' place--where I stayed a few times on my first Aussie tour). We didn't take very many shots at the wedding since pros were doing that, plus it's hard when you have wine in your hands. As you can see from this shot of the Mambo Big Band tent, the setting was wonderful. Everything was spot-on, from the touching ceremony to a great group of friends and family, wood-fire pizza, pig on a spit, amazing desserts, dancing, dancing, dancing, and a good number of us nerdy bird-watchers keeping a 'wedding list' that included Topknot Pigeon, Brown Cuckoo-Dove, Eastern Yellow-Robin, and Peregrine Falcon. A massive thank you to Nigel and Jaime for the invitation to such a fun night--and if you're reading this, expect another visit some time in the future!
Gettin' all spiffy for the wedding. And capping off a wonderful week in Australia!

Still to come: A summary of what's been happening lately in New Zealand including where I am living, my first time teaching AND getting paid, and various other random highlights from February!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hauraki Gulf Pelagic

As many of you know I spent most of 2008 living in New Zealand as part of a university exchange. I was mostly stationed way down in Dunedin (University of Otago) near the south end of the South Island. It was a fantastic year and I saw plenty of seabirds but since I never managed to get out on a North Island pelagic, that was one of the avian gaps I was hoping to fill during this chapter of my Kiwi Life.

Well it didn't take long to get out as Lisa surprised me with a wonderful early birthday gift--2 tickets to the Hauraki Gulf with Wrybill Tours! What does that mean exactly? Well, the Hauraki Gulf is the large bay NE of Auckland (Auckland is in the bottom left corner of the map). Out toward the northern edge of the gulf are several islands that represent some of the most important seabird nesting sites in the SW Pacific. Especially the large red one (Little Barrier Island), and the smaller red ones in the top left corner (Hen & Chickens). The former site hosts the largest Cook's Petrel colony in the world with ~286,000 pairs calling it home, while the latter is where 100% of the World's Buller's Shearwaters nest. Needless to say, if you take a boat out around these islands in the Austral summer, you're bound to see a couple seabirds, with the #1 target being NZ Storm-Petrel. Before 2003, this species was only known from 3 specimens collected in the 1800's (allegedly near Christchurch which is odd in hindsight). Therefore it caused a bit of a sensation when several parties of pelagic birders photographed odd storm petrels with streaked bellies in 2003. They were soon confirmed as the previously presumed extinct New Zealand Storm Petrel, then the race was on to figure out where these birds nested. Sightings further north close to New Caledonia and other areas concerned some Kiwis as perhaps it didn't even nest in the country at all! Thankfully, in 2013, the first nest and egg were located on yes---Little Barrier Island, and after several decades of mammalian predator control on this island and others in the gulf, this species seems to be increasing in numbers and is now fairly easy to find in summer on the Hauraki Gulf. So did I get it? Scroll down to find out!

YAY! There it is (on the left), with a White-faced Storm Petrel for comparison.
A rather serious group looks on
Getting good photos of birds with a point-and-shoot can be tricky, but I've done my best to get a few of the common species. This one is a Flesh-footed Shearwater (13,000 pairs locally). Always great to see some of the birds that make it all the way up to Canada.
NZ Stormy doing a little jig. Note the streaky underparts.
I never get tired of large numbers of storm petrels. Here comes a happy gang of White-faces
Bit of a unique shot--I think Lisa snapped this one. Flesh-foot in the foreground with a molting Fluttering Sheawater swimming away and a White-faced Storm Petrel in behind.
Out toward the northern edge of the Hauraki Gulf is a small set of rocky islets known as the Mokohinau Islands. A small gannetry has been established as you can see.
On this particular stack was a number of birds completely new to me: Grey Ternlets or "Gray Noddy" as they are more commonly known (AKA Blue Noddy I believe). In Kiwiland everything has a different name.
A Grey Ternlet/Noddy and several years of sewage.
It wouldn't be a pelagic without a bit of chumming. Fortunately no humans seemed involuntarily contributed to the burly today but the skipper was able to keep many Flesh-foots happy. Also in this photo are Parkinson's (Black) Petrel, NZ Storm Petrel, White-faced Storm Petrel, Fairy Prion, and Cook's Petrel. I'll let you try and find them yourself ;)
Nice comparison of two local seabirds that are similar but different: Parkinson's Petrel (front with dark legs, yellowish bill, and blackish plumage), and Flesh-footed Shearwater (Pink legs and bill, with brownish cast to body).
Lisa managed this wonderful capture of a Fairy Prion floating away. Very similar to our (BC's) Fork-tailed Storm Petrel in some ways. Unfortunately I never got a presentable shot of a Cook's Petrel despite seeing hundreds today. Too dang fast and arc-y.
Toward the end of the day we stopped in at Little Barrier Island. The public is not permitted to land, but anchoring close to it can give you a chance at some forest bird endemics that are abundant on the now predator-free island. Given its importance to seabirds and other species, it was a supreme honour to be this close to such a fantastic conservation story.
Virtually all of mainland NZ and much of its nearshore islands were overrun with rats, rabbits, cats, and in many places weasels and stoats. This (along with forest clearance for farming) devastated the birdlife of NZ which had evolved without mammalian or marsupial predators. Little Barrier's saving grace was a combination of its remoteness but more-so its steep and rugged landscape, making for difficult boat-landings, and even harder farming. As a result this island remained a safe-haven for many species of native birds, plants, reptiles, and insects. In addition to the NZ Storm Petrel, the most notable was the Stitchbird (Hihi) since at one point, the entire world population was on this island--until captive breeding programs and predator control on other islands were able to establish colonies elsewhere. Similarly, the North Island Saddleback was reduced to a small colony on Hen Island (remember? Top left corner of map above). Now saddlebacks are common in most predator-free sanctuaries including Little Barrier (pictured above). We also saw Red-crowned Parakeets and Kaka (parrot) flying high over the canopy, along with NZ Pigeon, and a few other birds. A great way to end a great day!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Taranaki/Whanganui Roadie

Oh boy, I'm already starting to fall behind on this blog. That's the trouble with busy summers of travel, fun, and far too much good food! Lisa and I have just returned from a wonderful camping trip to Australia where the main event was the fantastic wedding of two great people--Nigel Jackett & Jaime Hall! More on that in another post.

Below are a few photos from a great little roadtrip Lisa and I took in early Jan down through the King Country, over to the Taranaki Coast (the western nob of the middle North Island), back up through the Whanganui River Valley, and home to Cambridge via Tongariro National Park and the west side of Lake Taupo. All of these places are worthy of write-ups of their own but given my time constraints and the fact that the camera was only brought out here and there, I'm afraid you'll have to live with my typical abbreviated notes below!

Our journey began dark and early, as Lisa suggested we rise before 5am to give us a good shot at Kokako in the Mapara Reserve over an hour's drive to the south--is she a keeper or what? We arrived at Mapara around 6am. This lovely reserve is unfortunately just a fragment of the native bush that used to abound in this area. It's almost completely surrounded by non-native pine plantations or sheep paddocks and much of the reserve itself is second-growth forest. Still, it has proven to be a tremendous haven for native bird-life with its flagship species being the ethereal North Island Kokako. Few of these birds remain in mainland New Zealand (and their south island cousins are presumed extinct), but habitat-management and predator-control programs in areas like Mapara are showing signs of stabilizing populations at the moment. Still, Kokakos are never easy to find. They tend to sing only very early in the morning or close to dusk, and forage in thick bush, often high in the canopy. As we reached the first ridge of the forest walk we were delighted to hear a couple birds giving their mournful songs from across a gully. Even hearing one was great, but around the corner our luck was to continue! A bush shook as 3-4 clumsy birds hopped away from us (these birds have powerful legs but are not strong flyers apparently. Thus they prefer to leap through the canopy). Although we could not see them yet I felt these had to be kokako. Then 2 flew up to a bare snag above us--sure enough: sooty-coloured jay-sized birds with black masks and blue disc-shaped wattles--KOKAKO!
Granted, not a fantastic shot but it was backlit in the early morning and regular readers of this blog will know that this is actually a fantastic photo ;) At least the moss is in focus!
Mapara is actually quite close to the farm where Lisa grew up, however this was a new place for her. We also took this opportunity to visit a few other great spots near her old stomping grounds. Of course I neglected to photo-document these places so they will remain top-secret...or at least limited to the select few of you that are on Facebook. Oh look...we're at the beach now! This turned out to be a pretty big day. After a few hikes, coffees, and waterfall visits, we hit the black sands of the west coast.
Lisa getting close to an ancient sandstone god.
The "Three Sisters" (minus one of the sisters--to the left--but Lisa is doing a great job filling in. For the bird-people reading this wondering when I'm going to mention a bird next---there are White-fronted Terns nesting on these stacks. Satisfied?!
Getting artsy
In addition to meat-pies, beaches, and netball, NZ is also really good at growing foreign plant-life. Here Lisa (and Scarlet--the car) pose in front of a small piece of the impressive Redwood stand that dominates Lucy's Gully--a pleasant place on the Taranaki Coast (SW of New Plymouth) to escape the mid-day heat.
Here stands the Cape Egmont Lighthouse, the westernish-most-ish point in the middle North Island. I visited here in June 2008. Great to be back in warm sunlight. My first albatross of the year was sailing offshore (unidentified mollymawk--likely White-capped).
I must say, while illegally camping around the west coast, Lisa and I found some great places to eat supper. Here we are watching the tide roll in over Opunake Beach. I believe it was Huevos Rancheros wraps that evening.
Ah finally, my first identifiable albatross--White-capped. Not far from Cape Egmont where we spent the night. The sky larks were very noisy here but that's the price you pay for rural paradise here in NZ
We figured we had seen enough beaches for the day so we chugged up into Egmont National Park (Dawson Falls section) and did a small hike in the foot hills of Mount Taranaki/Egmont. He's a beauty of a mountain as you can see. Lisa has summitted it and hopefully later this year I will too. Great looks at wee Riflemen on this walk--essentially the Golden-crowned Kinglets of NZ. Alas, too small and quick for my blundering camera fingers.
Another look at lovely NZ bush with Taranaki look splendid.
Dawson Falls, Egmont National Park.
We rolled into the city of Whanganui with napping on our mind. Little did we know that we had stumbled into the lair of a psycho! Meet Steve, the hungry New Zealand Scaup.
Like all the other diving-ducks of the world, NZ Scaup are general wary of humans and rarely get too close in city ducks ponds. Here at Virginia Lake in Whanagui however, scaup not only walk along gravel paths with mallards picking up bread etc., but they will happily nip your fingers in the hopes of a bite to eat! This fearless attitude has led to the extinction of many of NZ's avifauna. At least here it seems to be working out for Steve and his buddies. Also note my year-bird Eurasian Coot in this photo (as well as a juvenile Black Swan Head in the foreground). Waterfowl diversity at its finest!
Probably my favourite part of this road trip was journeying up the east side of the Whanganui River Valley. This remote and storied area is rich in both scenery and interesting people. The road was only paved last year so get in before other tourists like me find out about it!
More Whanganui River. Well known for its multi-day canoe-camping opportunities, now an easy day drive as well. In the background on the right is the settlement of Jerusalem. Once a cult retreat of the late NZ poet James K. Baxter, it has long been known as the site of a picturesque Roman-Catholic Mission (Tower visible in this picture). Its a lovely little place to explore. More HERE.
Colourful bee-hives, with blooming Manuka forest in the background (a favourite of bees)
More Whanganui River with the lovely Lisa for added beauty :)
As we headed deeper into the interior, we decided to pop down to the Ruatiti Domain for Blue Duck (Whio). This was the "classic" spot for them when I lived in NZ in 2008 but apparently they have been gone for a couple years. Well we didn't know this so naturally we rocked up and there were 2 resting on a riverbank including this chap, unbanded to boot. These fast-river-loving ducks have declined a lot due to habitat alteration and mammalian predators.
The mighty Mt Ruapehu in the distance. Time to get home and sleep-in!