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.