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!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Easter on the South Island

So as per usual I've been quite late getting this up, but things have been busy since April--I've been teaching quite a bit around Cambridge and Hamilton and I now have a contract at Cambridge High that will see me teaching Social Studies and PE until at least December.

In addition to brainwashing the next generation into thinking that Canada is the best place there is and ever was, another great thing about being a teacher is the holidays! NZ kids get 2 weeks off around Easter, and thus Lisa and I decided to head south to explore the top end of the South Island. Here are a bunch of pictures with a few notes that hopefully explain what is going on. I have probably forgotten some intriguing tidbits of information due to the passage of time but here goes...

Yours truly taking in some morning air along the 'Desert Highway' on the North Island's central plateau. Tussocks predominate along with chilly winds. The kind of place a Rough-legged Hawk would enjoy.
After a long drive (8ish hours with coffee stops), we made it to NZ's beautiful capital city--Wellington for our noon-time ferry departure. Pictured above are the sheep-nibbled hills along Tory Channel in the Marlborough Sounds. My first sight of the South Island since 2008. While this scenery is undeniably stunning, these hills would have been cloaked in thick virgin rainforest when Captain Cook first sailed into Queen Charlotte Sound in 1770. Joseph Banks, a botanist who accompanied Cook on this first expedition to NZ, described waking to the dawn chorus here thus:
"This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great who seemd to strain their throats with emulation perhaps; their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable to which maybe the distance was no small addition."

His description likely refers to the melodious and mournful songs of the Tui, Bellbird, Piopio (NZ Bowerbird), and South Island Kokako. The latter two are now sadly extinct. Ironically (Given the present-day scenery), Cook had this to say while anchored in the same area:

"Last Night the Ewe and Ram I had with so much care and trouble brought to this place, died, we did suppose that they were poisoned by eating of some poisonous plant, thus all my fine hopes of stocking this Country with a breed of Sheep were blasted in a moment."
On our first two nights on the South Island, we were very fortunate to benefit from the supreme hospitality of Lisa's workmate's Robin and Bruce, who have a wonderful house on Waikawa Bay, just around the corner from Picton (Where the Cook Strait Ferry comes into the South Island). As you can see, the native bush is growing back, and significant conservation efforts are underway to return much of the Marlborough Sounds to their former lush beauty (For BC readers, picture a wetter Gulf Islands).
Bruce even took us to his 'secret' Blue Cod-fishing locales. After getting stuck with bait-fish and sharks for most of the day, I eventually came out with the biggest cod, but at 43 cm he was too big to keep. Back to the water to make little codlets! Fortunately there was plenty of legal cod to savour that evening. Yum...

After leaving Picton, we heading west to the lovely town of Nelson (Not unlike the BC version in many respects), then on to Abel Tasman National Park (Named for the first white guy to see NZ, though he didn't do much here other than get a few crew members killed by Maori then he high-tailed it back to Holland, somehow missing Australia completely (Though he did eventually get Tasmania named after him). Abel Tasman (the park) is a lovely spot, famous for multi-day hiking and kayaking. We opted for the casual one night hike-in, as the weather forecast was looking iffy.
Awww, someone knew we were coming!
Just in case the birders were getting frustrated, here's one: NZ Bellbird. Not impressed with my impersonation.
Lisa surveying Marahau Bay
Our camping spot for the evening: Apple Tree Bay. A gorgeous spot with great swimming, even in fall.
Skipping way ahead here. After Abel Tasman, we headed straight over tot he northwestern tip of the South Island. Climbing Takaka Hill then descending into Golden Bay, where hippies and rednecks mingle in a Kootenay-esque sort of way. Cape Farewell is the northern tip of the South Island and this is the gorgeous Wharariki Beach just to the west. We camped here for a few days--a new spot for both of us.
Also enjoying the beach were these baby seals. #JustHavingAGoodTime
Twas a misty morning but we hiked up to Pillar Point before the rain set in. Here we are looking west toward Cape Farewell and Wharariki Beach.
Looking east, you can just make out the beginning of the massive Farewell Spit (Top left); one of the most important shorebird staging and wintering sites in New Zealand and indeed the western Pacific. It also has a gannet colony at the tip which is uniquely barely above sea-level on some shellbanks.
The rain really started pounding down once we got back to the car, so the rest of the day was spent driving around the Golden Bay area and peering out into the storm. In the small town of Collingwood, where everything was shut for the season, we were happy to spy this flock of Royal Spoonbills.
A Great Egret (Kiwis call them "White Herons") approaches the car. Unlike Australia where it is abundant in coastal areas, it's always a treat to come across them in NZ.
During the heaviest of the rain, we retreated to a cafe in the funky village of Takaka, where the walls were covered in anthropomorphised birds delivering puns.
Rain followed us around a bit as we heading south into the interior of the South Island. Here we arrive at Nelson Lakes National Park. It's name includes "lakes" because there are two lakes; Rotoiti and Rotoroa. Everyone has been to Rotoiti because it's along a highway and has a town beside it (St Arnaud), but neither of us had been to Rotoroa as it's a little out of the way. So here it is. Rainy, bug-infested, but definitely beautiful. Okay let's go to the other lake now.
Lake Rotoiti.... They look so similar I almost wonder if I mixed up the photos somehow...
Like other lakes in the world, people come here to feed the ducks. What's a little different, is that you can also feed the eels! (Fun fact: Maori word for eel is TUNA---that's not a joke).
Meet 'Ming' the lone male Mandarin Duck. He showed up at Lake Rotoiti a year ago and never left. No one knows what his backstory is (Likely escaped from a private collection) but he seems to rule the docks here, especially at bread-feeding time).
We camped on the shores of Rotoiti and spent the first evening and the following morning hiking in the montane forests around the lake. Here, Lisa photographs some beech trees covered in a black fungus filled with sap-sucking insects that secret honeydew back out through their anal tubes. Bird's love it. Yummy anal tubes! Unfortunately, introduced wasps have become a major pests in this ecosystem so the Department of Conservation has mounted a major anti-wasp campaign which has reduced wasp numbers by 80% in the last 6 years or so.

Finally reaching the alpine after what seemed like eons of switchbacks.
The view from St Arnaud Ridge, looking down to Lake Rotoiti.
My kinda okay picture of the uncommon black-form of the New Zealand Fantail (This colour phase is only regularly found on the South Island).
Finally some sunshine as we cut across to the east coast. Here we are driving south from the vineyards of Blenheim to the Kaikoura coast (Kaikoura Mountains visible to the south).
Finally back in Kaikoura, one of my favourite places in New Zealand, and truly one of the best whale-watching/sea-birding towns on the planet. Lisa took this great shot, looking north from Point Kean to the Seaward Kaikoura Range. Way up in the alpine is where the endemic Hutton's Shearwater nests! Unfortunately I don't have any photos from the pelagic we did here on my computer and am too lazy to track them down. You've all seen an albatross right? You'll see plenty more on this blog I'm sure ;)
Okay it's getting late so I'll finish off the trip with a couple rare ducks. As we headed back north toward Picton on our second last day on the South Island, Lisa asked me if I'd like to check out the Blenheim Wastewater Treatment Plant. I told her I had never heard more romantic words escape those lovely lips. As luck would have it, we stumbled upon a fairly rare bird for New Zealand. In fact, it's only the 8th accepted record since the 1950s or something like that. It's the brown duck in the far back (centre) with bright white eye. Appropriately, it's a "White-eyed Duck"--and Australian endemic. Here it is sleeping with the smaller/darker/yellow-eyed NZ Scaup, as well as some Pacific Black Duck x Mallard hybrids in the foreground, and a preening Royal Spoonbill in the back.
I had read that a few Plumed Whistling-Ducks had been long-staying at an urban park in Napier (east coast of the North Island), so on our drive back north to Cambridge (We've taken the ferry back at this point), we detoured to Anderson Park. Man this looks like a sketchy tick!
Thankfully, I managed a photo that didn't have an overweight domesticated Muscovy Duck in the background. Feeling better now. Jokes aside, these birds were very wary and occur in city parks in northeastern Australia (where they are native) as well as Southeast Asia. They wander frequently, especially during droughts and show up in New Zealand every couple of years.