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!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

New Years, Coromandel Style!

Well yes indeedio I'm finally in NZ and should be down here for a couple years at the very least. The plan is to score a teaching job in the bustling Waikato region while working on a few side-projects such as a new bird-related book, and of course exploring the North Island and beyond with Lisa! Below is the first chapter of my new life Down Unda!

After unpacking my bags and getting set up at our place in Cambridge (Will post something on my new digs at some point), Lisa whisked me away to the summer town of Whitianga up on the Coromandel Peninsula. Thanks to a remote vibe and plethora of great sandy beaches, it's becoming more and more popular for those wanting to escape the busy city life or monotonous farm chores. So in that sense, it's becoming less remote each year but that hasn't encouraged anyone to make the roads wider. I pity the poor cyclists that attempt those windy hills during the busy holiday season. Anyhoo, despite the crowds, there is still plenty of beautiful for everyone. Here's a short from the deck of our "Bach" up on the hill north of Whitanga--looking down to Mercury Bay.
Back in the winter of 2008, my friend Natalie and I traveled up through the North Island and all the way out to Opito Bay, north of Whitianga. It's a beautiful spot that retains the chilled-out attitude of real New Zealand. I was stoked that we were visiting in summer as the water would be primo for swimming and potentially gathering the odd shellfish. This photo captures a bit of the beach (on a hazy morning) and some lovely pohutakawas that are starting to bud. These "New Zealand Christmas Trees" will soon explode with marvelous red flowers, and really make North Island beaches some of the most eye-pleasing in the world I reckon.
Bit of a slanted shot here--what's photoshop?--showing some blokes out gathering pipis. This is a type of shellfish that are relatively easy to dig up in the sand on a lowtide. We gathered a bunch and fried them up for an appetizer. Mmm mmmm! In the background are some of the Mercury Islands, home to most of the world's Pycroft's Petrels I think.
Even better was Lisa's mate Francis who put on his scuba kit and swam out and nabbed us a bag of scallops! Ironically he's allergic to all shellfish but thankfully he's more than happy to bring home the proverbial sea-bacon!
As this was New Years Eve, a bunch of friends and family joined us up at the Bach. Here young Max is clambering for some tasty scallops, complete with their bright orange roe (stomachs I think?) that is richer, tastier, and creamier than the typical piece you get in most restaurants. Add a couple of cold brews to this image and you can imagine I'm enjoying myself.
After a fun New Years with all the usual consumption and firework near-misses, we spent New Years Day heading to New Chums Beach which just recently made a "Top 20 Beaches in the World" list compiled by who knows--somebody who found a great way to get paid. Anyway, now that it's on a list everyone and their ferret decided to join us to see what it was like. First you drive to Whangapoua Beach (pictured above; tractors make an idea boat-launching vehicle and are a common site on North Island beaches at this time of year), then you hike around a rocky point to get to the fabled New Chums. 
After a lovely stroll through Nikau Palms and other jungley vegetation, here's Lisa at one of the best beaches in the world! (Note the pohutakawas blooming in the background). It was indeed pretty darn nice although there was a lot of seaweed in the surf. We were lucky to arrive before the big crowds but presumably this would be a great place to visit during the non-peak season.
The endemic New Zealand Dotterel is a fairly common site on Coromandel Beaches. This one was along Whangapoua Beach.
On one afternoon a raft of Fluttering Shearwaters put on a good show for us, though it seems these fishermen had a better view. This is the most common tubenose encountered in summer off the North Island with many nesting on the islands and headlands around the Coromandel Peninsula. I suppose they're somewhat like the Black-vented Sheawaters off southern California.
Paddle-boarder getting in on the shearwater action
We returned to Opito Bay on a sunnier day. I hiked up one of the nearby headlands and took this photo of some of the Mercury Islands. A little slanty but you get the idea.
Looking back across Opito Bay itself.
And looking down on Francis snorkeling below. Today he not only snagged some more scallops but a few sea-urchins as well. Tastiness overload!
Well that about sums up the first couple days of my year! Stay tuned for road trip adventures with Lisa!