Thursday, December 17, 2015

NZ Tour 2015: Part 2

Well after our long day travelling from Stewart Island, we awoke on the shores of massive Lake Te Anau under showery skies. Somewhere over there in the distance is where the flightless Takahe was discovered to not be extinct in the 1940s, and up the valley to the right (north) was our destination for the day: Fiordland National Park (and more specifically: Milford Sound).
On our way to Milford Sound we stopped at the Monkey Creek x Hollyford River confluence to check for Blue Duck. No luck there but we did nab our first Keas (alpine parrots) of the trip. Will post a photo later of birds that weren't soaking wet! 
The water-gorged limestone formations known as "The Chasm" is always a great place to stop after crossing through the Homer Tunnel from the east side of the mountains, down the hill to the Tasman coast at the head of Milford Sound.
Once at Milford, we boarded a tour boat (Thankfully covered as it was still raining steadily) and headed out into the fjiord. Two important points: Kiwis spell fjiord "fiord" for some reason, and yet call all of their fjiords/fiords "sounds" even though the true definition of a sound as we discovered, is a ocean-filled valley carved out by a river, whereas a fjiord is carved out by a glacier. These inlets are all glacier-carved so really it should be Milford Fjiord. That word wasn't commonly used in Captain Cook's day so they made due with sound...anyhoo! To avoid confusion, they should really call this place "Lots of Waterfalls Land" because that's really what it is. I'm only including about half of the waterfalls I photographed so enjoy below. 

A couple Fiordland Penguins sticking to the correct habitat.
Any birding trip to Fiordland National Park is of course incomplete without a stop at the Homer Tunnel boulder fields. This is where 99% of visitors attempt to tick NZ Rock Wren--an amazing wren-sized bird that attempts to survive in avalanche chutes year-round. Evidently on rainy days they prefer to remain hidden!
Skipping forward to the next day, our hope was that cruising further north and east into the heart of the South Island would give us some respite from the wet weather. This turned out to be partially true as the dry Okanagan-like valleys of Central Otago did indeed sport some blue skies though wind kept the temperatures somewhat cool. Pictured above is a northward view of Lake Wakatipu, not unlikely the Peachland area but with higher mountains... The bustling tourist mecca of Queenstown is at the far end of this lake and we soon discovered that on marathon day it gets ridiculously busy so we quickly scampered north to the quieter town of Wanaka.
Whao! Fast-forward again--no photos of Wanaka? Here's the next best thing, the gorgeous Lindis Pass and its tufts of Golden Tussock. One can easily imagine 'heard' of Upland Moa grazing these hills, keeping an ever-watchful eye above for the 4.5 m wingspan of the Haast's Eagle. Instead today there are grazing Red Deer and singing Yellowhammer (Both introduced but pleasant on the eye, all the same).
Our reason for crossing the pass from the Otago region into the 'Mackenzie Country' was simple: To see one of the world's rarest shorebird species: The Black Stilt (Kaki). With less than 100 individuals left in the wild, this once wide-spread endemic has suffered immensely from mammalian predators as well as hybridization with the commoner and recently (Last couple hundred years) self-introduced Pied Stilt of Australia. Here, the pressure is mercifully lifted early on in the day, as we scored several Black Stilts at this wetland near Twizel, including a copulating pair. 
Mr Kaki
Another NZ celebrity bird: The Wrybill, the only vertebrate in the world that produces a form of consistent asymmetry (There's probably a more technical term than that). Basically it's bill ALWAYS curves to the right. This is used for scooping prey-items from underneath rounded river stones, though geneticists are still struggling to discover the evolutionary mechanism that produced this adaptation.
The glacier-blue waters of Lake Pukaki, a man-made reservoir built in the 1960s. Not great for birds but looks nice on a sunny day.
Although we had already found our main targets for the day, we cruised up to the north end of Lake Pukaki where the braided Tasman River delta provides many miles of great habitat for nesting Black Stilt and Wrybill. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing 100 km/hr so we ended up doing more of this than actual birding. Somewhere behind those clouds lies Mount Cook (Aoraki), the highest peak in Australasia.
On the drive back to Wanaka we stopped along the Ahuriri River--another possible Black Stilt site--where the lupines were in full bloom and looking dandy! If you squint, you'll see that the central river bar in the distance is white. That's because it's covered in endemic Black-billed Gulls (nesting colony).

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

NZ Tour 2015: Part 1

Well it's certainly been a long while since my last blog post and now enough 'stuff' has happened that there's really no excuse for not posting some new material. I plan on doing a 2015 summary post from all the small adventures Lisa and I have been on since Samoa but in the meantime I'll start pumping out some highlights from a recent tour I led for the Canadian company--Eagle Eye Tours. This was a 19-day tour of the North, South, and Stewart Island so pretty much full on travel every day along with great birds and great food. For those that enjoy photos of food, I'm afraid those won't be included in this post ;)

As per usual, I'm feeling rather lazy and there are so many things to get through, so I'll simply put up some photos, and try to briefly explain what's going on in the caption. You'll get the idea!

Fittingly our first official day on tour (12 Canadians plus myself and Paul Prior as guides) was in my old stomping grounds of Dunedin near the south end of the South Island. I spent a year on university exchange in 2008 at the University of Otago--NZ's oldest uni founded in 1869--where I met Lisa for the first time and enjoyed many expeditions throughout the South Island. Of all those places, the one that I visited the most was Taiaroa Head. The tip of the Otago Peninsula--about 45min drive/hitch-hike from Dunedin--Taiaroa Head was an important place for Maori pre-contact, later fortified for both world wars, and most famously, as the only mainland albatross colony in the world. Not just albatross, but one of the largest flying birds in the world--the Royal Albatross with a 3.5 m wingspan! Above is the group viewing Taiaroa Head from a boat. Other seabirds nest here too including the endemic Spotted and Stewart Island Shags.
A pair of Royal Albatross doing a courtship display
After viewing the albatross, we returned to land and headed over the hill to a private farm known as "Penguin Place." If you squint, you'll see a Yellow-eyed Penguin (one of the rarest penguins in the world, and the largest penguin nesting north of Macquarie Island in the subantarctic) dashing up the beach. Unlike most other penguins, Yellow-eyed are very shy and can be easily disturbed by humans. Therefore it's best to view from a safe distance or using another strategy...
The operators at Penguin Place have developed a complex system of covered trenches and viewing hides that allow for amazingly close views of nesting Yellow-eyed Penguins without disturbing the birds. The penguins nest under dense vegetation throughout this dune area and if you look closely in the middle and right area of the shot you'll see some of these structures.
En route to penguin-viewing. Incidentally, these trenches have turned into wonderful fern gardens!
The team watching adult Yellow-eyed Penguins on the beach
An adult yellow-eyed Penguin nesting under one of Penguin Place's A-frame strucutes. A brown-coloured chick is visible at near the feet of the parent.
Day 2 saw us on our way south through the beautiful Catlins region. Here we are scoping seabirds at Nugget Point. Offshore were many Sooty Shearwaters, Cape Petrels, and White-capped Albatross, along with a single Black-browed and Salvin's Albatross, and a brief sighting of a Fairy Prion.
Purakaunui Falls is always a great place to take a break from the road. 
These fledgling tomtits were right by the parking area for the falls. Cuties!
The Catlins region is beautiful and also far from the main highway so it's not unusual to see amazing beaches with nobody on them. This is Tautuku Beach.
Adding a little excitement to our day, and a new experience for me--was our evening flight over to Stewart Island. These planes only take 10 people (including the pilot) so it was an intimate flying experience!
After touching down in Oban, the only settlement on Stewart Island (off the southern tip of the South Island), we settled into our accommodations, had an early supper, then met up with the Bravo Adventures team for a Stewart Island Kiwi trip! This required riding a fishing vessel out to a remote beach where we hoped to spy one foraging for sand-hoppers and other inverts. The weather was kind to us as you can see from the photo above, and though the evening was a little chilly, we had high hopes for our first kiwi of the tour.
Kaching! Female Stewart Island Kiwi foraging for around 10 minutes out in the open for all to see. What a fantastic way to kick off the tour! Kiwis are unique in that their nostrils are at the tips of their bill. This means they have to 'sneeze' a lot to clear the sand out. Funny to watch.
The following day we joined local guide Furhana for a tour of Ulva Island, a 667 acre predator-free sanctuary for many rare endemic birds. Like many Pacific islands, NZ never had land mammals until the arrival of humans so many bird species were severely impacted by the introduction of rats, stoats, and weasels etc. Islands like Ulva have been cleared of these predators and are now critical to the on-going survival of NZ's rarest species.
Forest birding on Ulva, where we tallied some great birds such as South Island Saddleback, Yellowhead, and Red-crowned Parakeet.
NZ's two large parrots, the Kaka (pictured above) and the Kea (more on that one later) are very inquisitive in a similar way to Gray Jays back in Canada. The different being that they have powerful beaks that allow them to get up to a fair bit of mischief (not unlike our bears).
Starting to see why so many NZ birds are rare? This trusting Stewart Island Robin has come to investigate the earth beneath my hiking boot for tasty treats.
Here a Weka, a large flightless relative of the Virginia Rail, patrols some rock pools for crabs.
Tour-member Ian was more than happy to lend a helping hand...
Jumping forward to the next day, we boarded another local fishing vessel in the hopes of getting down the east coast for some pelagic species. Unfortunately high winds meant that we couldn't really get out past the closest islands however we still enjoyed a great morning. Pictured above are three endemic Fiordland Penguins, not far from Oban.
We made it as far as the "Titi" or "Muttonbird Islands" named for the plentiful Sooty Shearwaters that nest here. Yes--these are the same birds we see off British Columbia in summer! We also had great looks at a pair of Brown (Subantarctic) Skuas, as well as a small family of Orca. While I didn't document the rest of the day with photos, it turned into quite the adventure since the winds continued to rise meaning that it was unsafe for planes to attempt landing on Stewart Island. This meant that our only way off was via the ferry. Of course the high winds meant high seas and so the crossing took us through some of the biggest waves many of the tour participants had ever seen and it was not a large boat! We made it to land safely though, shuttled to the Invercargill airport where our vans were waiting, and then hit the toad for Te Anau a couple hours behind schedule. We tucked into a later supper at the wonderful Kepler Restaurant (Chilean cuisine in the hard of NZ's Fiordland region). Up next: Fiordland National Park, Wanaka, and the West Coast.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Talofa Samoa

Since New Zealand experiences winter in July/August, there's no Christmas to worry about--however students (and teachers) get a 'winter break' of 2-3 weeks (Depending on the school). Naturally Lisa and I thought we'd escape to somewhere warm and so a while ago we decided to check out Samoa--a new country for both of us, and my first time to a proper Pacific Island. The first Polynesian country to gain independence in 1962, you may also be interested to know that it was briefly administered by Germany prior to the First World War (When WWI began the NZ army easily took over the islands).

For your reference, below is a map of Samoa.

The population is around 180,000, with all but 40,000 living on the island of Upolu.

Immediately upon arriving at the airport, we got a taxi over to the ferry terminal at the west end of Upolu. Here we walked onto the main passenger ferry to Savai'i (The 'Big Island'). As you can see, a number of students returning from a dancing performance in Apia (the capital) were happy to see us.
Everything is colourful in Samoa. It seemed like an entire school walked onto this ferry, all decked out in green and yellow. Lifers seen on the ferry crossing: Red-footed Booby, White-tailed Tropicbird, and White Tern.
Out first night on Savai'i was at a place called Lucia's Lagoon. Although it's not the fale we stayed in, here is an example of the charmingly rustic accommodations typical of the country.
Sunny start to our first full day in Samoa (Lucia's Lagoon). Little did I know how different I would feel come nightfall...)
Our first endemic bird of the trip: Samoan Starling. Common in virtually all habitats.
Christianity is extremely important to the Samoan people, and all denominations seem to be represented. Early missionaries must have been excited to discover a Samoan prophecy that a new religion would come from far away to replace traditional practices. Therefore today, Christianity is a crucial part of Samoan culture, and as we soon discovered, basically nothing happens on Sunday that is not related to Church or feasting. Above is one of the many churches that dot the countryside (Almost seemed like one per 100 people of population). It seems clear that much of the local village finances go towards building and maintaining their churches, while the average house is fairly basic.
One of the few photos we got of an 'open fale'--a village meeting place for dealing with local politics and hosting feasts. Some are large and colourful while others are a bit more simple like this one (We were usually whizzing by on buses, thus the poor photo). As a birding side-note, even though it's the boreal breeding season, Pacific Golden-Plovers were still fairly common in short grassy lawns like the one above.
From Lucia's, we got a ride to the NW side of Savai'i where we checked into Va-i-moana, where we would spend 4 nights. While it's definitely set up for tourists, it's a lot more laid-back than the resorts back on Upolu. Very friendly staff and some decent snorkeling in the lagoon. Unfortunately, on our very first night, I awoke at midnight and spent the next 5 hours ridding my body of all solids of fluids (I'll leave the mechanics up to your imagination). Not sure what it was in the end as it basically took me out of commission for the next three days. Lisa was fine that first night but then got hit by the same thing the next night. Soooo, unfortunately we basically did not move from the area in this photo during our entire time on Savai'i. Not a bad place to be, but feeling constantly ferverish and sick was not fun. 
Every now and then I'd crawl out of bed and walk around the ground. One of the most common birds here was the Polynesian Triller (Pictured Above).
Eastern Wattled Honeyeater--another common bird throughout the country.

After an epic travel-day, in which sickness-weary Russell and Lisa took a 2 hour cramped bus (Crankin' the 2014 pop hits on loop), from one end of Savai'i to the other, then caught a ferry to Upolu that was a quarter the size of the last one but with a similar amount of people plus that truck filled with fermenting coconuts, then hopped in a taxi and drove to the eastern most tip of Upolu....... we arrived here: Lalomanu. I should first say that while it was a long and tiring journey, I never get tired with the Samoan countryside. It must make a wonderful place to cycle tour at your own pace, with each village more friendly and colourful than the last one, though the stray dogs can cause problems. Anyway, LALOMANU! Perhaps the most famous beach on the island though sadly it was hammered by a big tsunami a few years ago which smashed up the famous coral reef here and destroyed the village just behind where this photo was taken. Fortunately, many of the houses and businesses have been rebuilt and the coral is gradually recovering as we saw plenty of awesome fish during our stay here. The island in the middle of this shot is Nu'utele--Somewhat of a mysterious wonder for birders as it's very difficult to access (Surrounded by coral reefs and dodgy swells and many locals believe it to be haunted/sacred), and it is home to a unique storm petrel that is completely dark (Perhaps a morph of the Polynesian Storm Petrel but maybe a separate species), and more importantly--it's supposedly the best place in the country to see the most famous Samoan endemic--the Tooth-billed Pigeon--the closest living relative to the Dodo! (Or so some say). Now that I've built things up, I'll say that the swell was such that safe landing was impossible plus in my still-recovering state, I was not feeling up for the vertical climbs through the jungle that exploring the island might entail. Instead I was happy to relax in our fale and get out for the odd swim among the fishies. Boobies were plentiful (It's impossible to avoid this pun), as both Brown and Red-footed nest on that island as well, and we tallied our first Pacific Pigeons of the trip here as well as 'heard-only' Many-coloured Fruit-Dove, and Crimson-crowned Fruit-Dove. With such great names I hoped we might see them later at some point.
It took a while, but we finally got up the strength to visit our first tourist hot spot of Samoa! This is the To Sua Ocean Trench (More of a sink-hole). While it can get a little crowded with tourists, it's a very cool spot. You can jump into the pool from above (Though we opted for the ladder as it's fairly shallow-bottomed), and the ocean currents sweep in from one side, then drag back out again, which makes for an interesting sensation in a seemingly peaceful-looking pool.
Beautiful (albeit it grey) coastline scenery at To Sua.
Oh man, I almost forgot about this place! After our 3 days at Lalomanu, we needed to taxi back to Apia to get some cash (Because there is literally no ATM on the eastern side of the island apparently). We hadn't booked accomodation for this night so the night before I tapped into some WiFi and booked this place online. It looked decent enough, had a great special on the 'Deluxe Suite' and was not too far out of Apia on a nice-looking bay. Well.... after catching a ride to Apia, getting cash, then driving back to the village of Solosolo where this place is near, our driver dropped us off then said goodbye and headed off. I walked up to the office... it's closed. That's odd. "Hello?" No one around. I walked up the steps to the second level; there's the retaurant and pool, seemingly ready for business... but not a soul in sight. When I got back down Lisa had been able to easily open one of the room doors to use the washroom. All the beds were perfectly made up. But search as we might, there was no a single person (Employee or patron) in sight (This is only one third of the building in the photo). WTF?I had received a "booking confirmed" email the previous night. Here was a hotel is fine working order, and not a single person around. Had we been well-stocked with food in our bags we might have considered just sleeping in one of the open rooms for the night, and lounge by the pool, but we were hot, hungry, and tired, and this just seemed ridiculous, so we stuck our thumb out and thankfully the first guy who passed us stopped and drove us into town. Tao apparently was a former economics adviser (Or something like that) in the Samoan government and had even been to Ottawa on a business trip. Now he is semi-retired and runs a small milk business along with other farm-related activities. He dropped us off in Apia and we did eventually find a place to say (This story is much longer--i.e. We almost repeated the same experience again---but I'll save it for a personal encounter sometime in the future). I should mention that this was a Sunday. REMEMBER: DON'T DO ANYTHING ON A SUNDAY IN SAMOA. Just chill.
After a shower, a big lunch, and watching some riveting Samoan TV, we decided to explore Apia a bit in the evening (Our first time in the only city in the country other than my 10 second visit to an ATM earlier that day). Here's an interesting clock-tower/lighthouse round-about thingie.
With the All-Blacks first visit just days away, many buildings were starting to show their support for the local side: MANU! (For Canadian readers, the All-Blacks are NZ's national Rugby Union team and arguably the best squad in the world in that facet of rugby. Many great All Blacks over the years have been of Samoan heritage and so it is almost shocking that the NZ side has never been to Samoa for a test. $ I guess? Well, you could tell it was a BIG DEAL for Samoa as you will see later on. The Samoan national team MANU SAMOA or "The Manu" essentially means 'The Beasts' as in..'That guy is a Beast!' (For anyone born before 1980, that's like saying, 'A Force to Be Reckoned With!')

One of the bigger churches in Samoa. Also got their Samoan pride waving away.
Apia Harbour at dusk. Hundreds of Brown Noddies were massing in the skies prior to heading inland to breeding colonies in the mountain forests.
As the match draws nearer, the traffic and flags started to increase! Unforuntatley when we booked our flights we didn't know about the rugby game, but it was still cool to be a part of all the festivities leading up to it. Every village on Upolu was decked out in the red and blue of Samoa and the black and silver of the All-Blacks. It almost seemed that many Samoans wanted the All-Blacks to win--they were just so stoked to have them in the country.
A LOT of flags and T-shirts got sold that week, including one for me. GO THE MANU!

This guy even customized his ride (This is just outside Apia's one and only chain restaurant: McDonald's). In fact, as we discovered on our last day in the country (The game was starting as we boarded our plane), the entire stretch of road between Apia and the international airport (About a 45min drive) was covered in flags and banners welcoming the All Blacks and supporting the home team (as well as an assortment of other random rugby clubs from NZ and Australia... I think people were just excited about rugby in general). Alas, NZ won by a few points but that was a vast improvement for Samoa as their previous meeting was a massive blow-out loss to the Kiwis. I'm sure they're still smiling back in Apia.
While we visited the city a few times in those final days, it was wonderful to escape the buzz and excitement by retreating to Dave Parker's Eco Lodge, perched up in the hills above town, and surrounded by small plantations and extensive primary forest. You're above the canopy here as you look back down a narrow valley to Apia and it was my first time in undisturbed Samoan forest so I picked up a number of new birds here, and both of us enjoyed the quiet vibe and wonderful Samoan food put on by "The Chicken Man" (We can't recall his real name--Also quite the poolshark).
Though this photo is horrible, it was truly one of the great highlights of the trip for me, to see 15+ White-tailed Tropicbirds soaring around the forest below us throughout the day. I've always thought of tropicbirds as ocean-going and perhaps nesting on a rocking stack or isolated shrubby atoll, but here they are (along with Brown Noddies and White Terns) just cruising around... so cool!
Another site from our bedroom window was this roost of Samoan and Tongan Flying-Foxes. There are no avian raptors on Samoa so the Samoan Flying-Foxes fly around and feed throughout the daytime. Certainly through me off the first time I saw one of them thermalling high above me in the sky. Black Vulture??? Oh it's a bat!
The view of Apia from our hilltop roost at Dave Parker's. Dave seems to be somewhat of a music legend here in Samoa. Sort of like a 1970s Hawaii-style Elvis.
Lots of birds around. Here's a male Cardinal Myzomela. Common throughout Samoa though could I get a good photo?
After hearing but not seeing them in several places, we were thrilled to get some fabulous looks at both Many-coloured (Male pictured) and Crimson-crowned Fruit-Doves.
Famous Scottish write Robert Louis Stevenson moved to Samoa later in life and absolutely loved the place. He was a champion of helping Samoans achieve more autonomy and still today he is greatly respected by everyone we met. His house, just outside of Apia is now a museum, and there is a popular hike to his tomb on top of Mt Vaea. Well, even though it was wicked hot and humid, we did it. Lost a couple kilos of sweat and should have brought more water... but I can say I saw the Treasure Island guy's resting place.
My herping friends will scoff but I'm so lazy I haven't even looked up what skink this is. There are only around 5 species in Samoa so I'll figure it out eventually. I would guess this is the Pacific Black Skink. Sounds about right. There were literally hundreds of these guys scuttling along the path as we hiked up.
I have a suspicious this is the endemic "Samoan Skink."

Thar he lies...
Checking out Robert L Stevenson's house from the top of Mt Vaea
Managed to picked up a few extra Samoan endemics on this hike including Samoan Fantail and this Samoan Whistler.
Like many other Pacific islands, Buff-banded Rails are abundant in almost any open patch of grass near dense cover. There were around a dozen cruising around the RLS Museum and we even had one beside the tomb on top of Mt Vaea. These birds occur in NZ but are now very shy and restricted mostly to mangrove wetlands in the far north. Another example of why not to introduce weasels to NZ.
Let's end on a HIGH NOTE SHALL WE??? Kiwi readers are probably cringing. Yes we did see John Key get off the plane in Samoa. As we were waiting to leave he and other 'dignitaries' had flown in on a NZ Air Force jet to take in the rugby festivities. For Canadians, this is the prime minister of NZ... kind of like their equivalent of Stephen Harper in more ways than one... Nice to see the NZ secret service guy dressing up for the occasion as well (far left). Ah well, as I type I'm back at school and back to work. At least the weekend's coming up!