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.


  1. Looks like a great tour! (I say that because my wife and I just came back from going to all those places on our own -- although the kiwis didn't come out onto the beach for us.)

  2. Amazing tour Russ! Those tomtits are super adorable! The Stewart island kiwi always reminds me of the scene with David Attenborough doing the same thing lol!! Congrats on seeing the rare yellow eyes penguin!