Monday, December 19, 2016

NZ Big Day Record Broken!!!

Preamble (Skip to the next section for actual bird report)

“Big Day”, “Bird Race”, “Birdathon”, “Twitchathon”—whatever you want to call an all-out attempt to see as many bird species as possible in 24 hours. I love them. Why? Well they’re a lot of fun for starters: Friendly competition, the comradery between teammates, and the extremely lame jokes that somehow become hilarious after many sleepless hours. What veteran big-dayers know well though, is that the most important competition is not between your team and other teams; it is between your team and time. And therefore it becomes more than just fun in the great outdoors—it is an epic challenge of planning, time management, knowledge of bird distribution, and of course identification skill.

I’ve been doing these crazy things since I was nine years old, growing up in the Okanagan Valley—a birding hotspot in western Canada. When I first visited New Zealand in 2008, I had heard about an epic record (for NZ standards) of 104 species that had recently been set. I wanted desperately to have a go at this, but being so new to the country, I didn’t feel properly prepared to give this number any sort of challenge.

Fast forward to today, and I’ve been back living in New Zealand for close to two years. Lisa and I have been exploring widely, and I felt that I now have a much better handle on bird distribution and other useful logistical info (e.g. Access to key sites, driving times, ideal times of day to visit key sites…). The time was ripe for a challenge!

The next step was finding team-members that are equally or more crazy that you are, own scopes, can co-exist with other humans in confined spaces for long periods of time, and know what birds are. I found this and more in Dave Howes, Harry Boorman, and David Thomas. Dave H even has a boat! Tragically, Harry’s friend had the preposterous notion to schedule a wedding on the same day as our bird race, so he was only able to join us halfway through as a companion. His salt n’ vinegar rice cakes were also a welcome addition!

Our two modes of transport for the day.

While David T technically is a Kiwi, his parents are ex-pat Brits and I think he has dual citizenship. Harry is English, Dave H is from South Africa, and I’m Canadian, so this foreign theme, mixed with a national debate on the legitimacy of feral chickens, our post-winter skin-tone, and a love of shorebirds—led to our name: The Feral Whiteshanks. Upon reflection this could be a Neo-Nazi punk band name, but I assure you we’re just a bunch of nerds…

With a team in place, it was time for a date. Ideally you would just scout your route for several weeks then pick a day with a good weather window. Unfortunately most of us lead busy lives (I’m a high school teacher) so it’s hard to be that flexible. Tide tables are also a factor, as shorebirds make up a good chunk of any would-be 24-hour birding record in New Zealand.  That’s how I settled on the weekend of Dec 17-18, with high tide times matching up with our route, and peak daylight hours being at that time of year.

In North America, one rule about official ‘Big Days’ is that they must be within a single calendar day (e.g. midnight to midnight on a Sunday). In New Zealand however, birding teams have traditionally been allowed to select any 24-hour period that suites them (e.g. noon to noon on Saturday + Sunday). This later style allows teams to use the night time (When birding is slower) as travel time, meaning that you could conceivably include two very distant locations as part of your day, whereas North Americans must cram all daytime birding into one single stretch. As you will see from the trip report that follows, in planning our route we attempted to exploit the dark hours as much as possible.

The final step in setting up this weekend, was creating a bit of competition by inviting other teams to head out during the same time period, and to encourage teams and their supporters to raise funds for a worthy conservation cause. This year, in light of the recent earthquakes in Kaikoura, we thought it most appropriate to support the Hutton’s Shearwater Charitable Trust. The Hutton’s Shearwater nests only in the mountains above Kaikoura and so any damage to the colony burrows could have a significant impact on the global population. To learn more visit this site:

Okay!—Birds now, I promise!

Dave’s boat is in Mangawhai and since pelagic birds are key to any 100+ attempt in NZ, this seemed like a great place to kick off our birdathon since it’s a good point to access the plentiful seabirds of the outer Hauraki Gulf just north of Auckland. We had decided to ‘start the clock’ on Saturday afternoon, but having nothing better to do in the morning, we got up at 630am, cooked up some bacon and eggs, made a bunch of sandwiches and wraps, loaded up our gear, and launched the boat around 10 am. The sun was shining, the wind was down, and a small group of BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS greeted us at the Mangawhai Harbour mouth—life was good!
A couple of bottlenoses with Mangawhai Sandspit in the background. Great way to kick off an epic 24+ hours of birding.

Hitting the water earlier gave us plenty of time to scout for the birdathon, but it can also lead to painful moments when you know you can’t “count” a bird you just saw. This was definitely the case when we got about half way out toward Hen Island and an adult BLACK-WINGED PETREL came in and circled the boat! This was a lifer for all on board (I believe) and one I had wanted for a while. Sadly though, it along with several LITTLE PENGUINS could not go on the list (yet)!

We spent the next 3-4 hours scouting some of the likely areas we would be visiting in the boat, then after a pleasant lunch behind the Mokohinau Island (There was virtually no wind!), we headed offshore a little more, hoping to start our official count with one or more birds that aren’t normally in the gulf at this time of year (e.g. any albatross, giant petrel, etc.). On the way we ran into a sizeable group of PILOT WHALES, a couple of which swam directly under our boat!
My only usable shot of a pilot whale from the day. 

We picked a likely spot, and started chumming. For a while it seemed like no birds existed in the Pacific Ocean, but eventually birds started to turn up. We decided to start the clock at 2:45pm which is precisely when a GREY-FACED PETREL flew by. BLACK PETREL also came in for a snack, WHITE-FACED STORM PETRELS danced in the salmon burly slick, and COOK’S PETRELS and BULLER’S SHEARWATERS came by to investigate periodically. To be honest though, it was pretty quiet out there, so we made the call to boogie back to the Mokohinau Islands (aka “The Mokes”) where some baitballs were attracting large flocks of FAIRY PRIONS and other new birds for our list including FLESH-FOOTED, SOOTY, SHORT-TAILED, and FLUTTERING SHEARWATERS. A couple of the few WHITE-FRONTED TERNS for the day flew past, and we felt especially fortunate that a pair of GREY TERNLETS were occupying one of the ledges on the ‘Maori Rocks’.
Life is good when you're not on chum duty/
Our first bird of the "official" day: Grey-faced Petrel.
Black Petrels squabble over a fish while a Flesh-foot and Fairy Prions look on.

We left the Mokes with 14 species, and made a B-line for Hen Island. Side Note: As part of the challenge of seeing more than 104 species in a day in NZ, we had pledged to not visit any predator-free islands or mainland reserves with large populations of re-introduced endemics like Takahe, Stitchbird, Saddleback, and Kokako. Some birding purists feel these sanctuaries, while being great places to visit, are uncomfortably close to zoos when it comes to setting a 24 hour bird record since many of the birds are somewhat tame and still rely on various forms of human assistance. This is a controversial listing topic here in Aotearoa NZ, so we wanted to avoid this issue just in case.

HOWEVER, it must be said that Hen Island (I believe) is technically a predator-free bird sanctuary. What is different to places like Tiritiri Matangi and Zealandia, is that none of the birds have been introduced. They are all long-established natives on the island and in fact, this was the site of the last surviving North Island Saddleback population.

Approach to Hen Island.
A beautiful day for an island drive-by. Saddleback in bottom left if you squint (kidding).

The public cannot land on the island without a permit, but we were in a hurry anyway and the weather being so lovely, we figured we could probably add a few new birds by slowly skirting the south shore and watching and listening. Sure enough, the ticks starting coming: SADDLEBACKS sang and flitted between flax bushes, KAKA and NZ PIGEON circled high overhead, RED-CROWNED PARAKEETS chased each other through blooming Pohutukawas, and both TUI and BELLBIRD sang from their perches.

Leaving the island we were now on 23 species, but lacking a few birds we had hoped to have at this point: Little Penguin, NZ Storm Petrel, Little Shearwater, and Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaeger) chief among them. As we approached the coast of Mangawhai, penguin and skua were the only realistic ones we could still get, but despite constant vigilance, we could not come up with either.

Entering the harbour meant that our list ballooned with common town and estuary birds, and by the time we had towed Dave’s boat back to his batch, washed it, put it to bed, re-packed the vehicle, and stopped by a few quick sites on our way out of town, we were sitting on 60 species at 8pm.

We had missed the Fairy Terns that are often around the Mangawhai estuary so we drove up to Waipu Cove where the classic Johnson’s Point roadend is considered a “Gimme” site for them. Not this evening! We scanned and scanned and scanned, picking up a few new birds like BANDED DOTTEREL, RUDDY TURNSTONE, and REEF HERON, but could not get onto those teeny terns anywhere. Then just as we were about to give up, I spotted a pair of them flying just over the dunes, and after all three of us got onto them, they disappeared completely. Phewf!

With light fading fast, we headed up into the hills above Waipu where we had nesting AUSTRALASIAN GREBE staked out on a nest: tick. Also present were pure-looking GREY DUCKS (Pacific Black Duck), NZ DABCHICK, and nearby we scored BROWN QUAIL and FERAL PEAFOWL. On our recon trip the night before turkeys dotted the hills as far as the eye could see. Not today! Again we scanned and scanned, and David and I gave our best gobbles, but no turkey would present itself. As Harry would later quip (He didn’t join us until around midnight due to the wedding issue), “It’s a tough time of year for turkeys.” Maybe some Northlanders collected Xmas dinner on Saturday morning? We didn’t have enough time to stick around and find out…

Sun goes down over the Waipu hills. A male Brown Quail was down near the bottom of this gully. No turkeys in sight!

From Waipu we motored south to Auckland where we picked up Harry who had just finished up a wedding. From there we headed east into the Whitford/Maraetai area, a surprisingly rural area that is so close to Auckland. The roads are rather windy so it takes a while to get anywhere. Not ideal for a Bird Race, however when you’re going for a record, you need to use every hour of the day to add birds, even at night. Why were we heading here? For two birds: Mute Swan and Weka. There are several wetlands in this area that host Mute Swan and we had scouted out a pond with at least a pair on it. There are no other truly wild Mute Swans on our route so this would be our only chance to add the species. As for the Weka, there is a little-known population of Weka inhabiting the Kawakawa Bay region. But would it be worth our while driving this far out of the way for two birds? Would the gamble pay off? Or would we waste multiple hours chasing phantoms?
It didn’t start well. We hopped out of the vehicle opposite the pond where two Mute Swans had recently been seen. We had also hoped to chance upon some calling crakes or booming bittern here, but we immediately realized that this would be unlikely, due to a live rock concert that was playing out just across the wetland from us. As “The Summer of ‘69” blared out across the hillside, we desperately panned our torchlights across the open water. New birds were added including NZ SCAUP and AUSTRALASIAN SHOVELER, but NO white swans were visible. We tried moving around for different angles, and I could hear a voice in my head tisk-tisking. “Shouldn’t have taken this risk. Why didn’t you check this at night previously? They’re probably tucked away in some grass. You’re just wasting time now. Don’t blow another minute on one bird. It’s just a Mute Swan after all!” I could feel the momentum of our day waning in this single moment as our long side trip had so far turned up nothing of value. We made decision to move on and check one more potential angle as we rounded a bend. High raupo made visibility of the open water tricky, so I had to climb up on the side of Dave’s LandCruiser to get a better look. Anyone who has met me knows I’m not a shortie, so with arm extended high over my head, I shone the light over the reeds for one last desperate attempt. Two long white necks… “I’VE GOT THEM!!” Jubilation ensued, as the rest of the team piled on top of the bullbars to catch a glimpse of two MUTE SWANS swimming away.

It was just on midnight, and we were slightly behind schedule, but with 73 on the list and a lot of ground left to cover, we felt we could still do it. Kawakawa Bay was even further off the beaten track, but a full moon over the glassy waters of Wairoa Bay, filled us with hope as we pushed on through Clevedon. This is about where the first snores of the day emanated from the backseat. “An important investment for future driving.”

It was 1230am when we rolled into Kawakawa Bay. A few house parties were still going but seemed to be in the wind-down phase. Overall it was quite peaceful. Perfect Weka-listening conditions. “MOREPORK!” came the call of our first tick, then after another minute or so, came the shrill call of our big target. WEKA in the bag—wahoo!

This is where I took over driving for the ‘Graveyard Shift,’ and directed Dave’s ‘tractor’ south down to Whangamarino Swamp. It was almost 2 am, and the plan was to sweep the remaining marsh birds. Not a lot of people realise that these species are actually quite vocal at night, especially in early summer with a full moon! Our first stop produced FERNBIRD without any trouble, and eventually a SPOTLESS CRAKE, however after multiple stops listening for bittern booms along a stretch of road where I had had close to 10 a month previous, we were starting to worry. Fortunately we had saved the best stop for last, and at a high point overlooking the marsh, we managed to hear 2 or 3 AUSTRALASIAN BITTERNS, and even better was a MARSH CRAKE (Baillon’s) that gave its full comb-ticking winny a few times directly down the hill from us.

Back in the vehicle and it was straight down to Lake Karopiro where I had a group of feral greylags staked out. Not wanting to count any controversial pot-bellied jobs like the ones at Hamilton Lake, these were the only decent wild birds I could find along our route in the weeks leading up to the weekend. My hope was that they would cooperate in the dark. Parked up, torch on—boom—10 GREYLAG GEESE swimming in a line. I love it when it works like that!

Next stop was a wetland near Tokoroa where it took us a little longer to lay our eyes on a EURASIAN COOT than expected but the bird was added nonetheless. 435am and we were on 82 species. 

The drive from Toke to Whakamaru was that most difficult time of a big day, when everyone but the driver passes out, and safety can be a concern. Fortunately I had found a long-aged redbull in the back of my fridge that I had saved just for this occasion, and I can tell you it did the trick!
The gang were all awake when we hit an unsealed road in Pureora Forest and wound the windows down. Cool (wintery!) air filled our nostrils, and through the patches of fog, new birds were added to the list as we pushed deeper into the forest. WHITEHEAD, then NORTH ISLAND ROBIN, and there’s a LONG-TAILED CUCKOO! 

Man it was cold. Don't be fooled by the shorts--it felt like winter in Pureora as we jogged up to the forest. Those Douglas Firs in the background gave us great views of Long-tailed Cuckoo!

We got to our parking spot, and David T immediately picked up a singing KOKAKO. More LT cuckoos shrieked as we made our way on foot toward a remnant patch of oldgrowth forest. REDPOLLS sang and jit-jitted overhead, and finally a SHINING CUCKOO put our anxieties of missing that species to rest. TOMTITS sang their jolly song, then multiple YELLOW-CROWNED PARAKEETS did some flyovers. KAKA were everywhere (Though we had counted them on Hen Island), and made some of our ‘ear-birding’ difficult due to their constant cackles and whistles above us. Our only remaining endemic targets were now rifleman and falcon, so we headed straight to an area where I have had riflemen regularly, however in my drowsy state I missed a turn and we went the wrong away around a loop. Not a big deal but felt a little foolish potentially subtracting time off our day. Fortunately a single RIFLEMAN came zitted into view, and while we could not come up with a falcon, we felt great with the haul we had scored. After getting great looks at another LONG-TAILED CUCKOO back at the vehicle, we left Pureora around 645am with 92 species.

The water was quite high at Whakamaru Dam, and nothing present was new for our list, so we pushed on back to Tokoroa. We realized that feral pigeon was still missing from the list, and this bird made us sweat a while as we missed it at the dam, in Toke, in Putaruru, Tirau, until finally David T spotted some in flight as we entered Matamata.

From there we blitzed across the Hauraki Plains to Miranda. On a backroad we finally scored a FERAL TURKEY, which I’m sure Dave H was happy about as it meant David T would cut back on his gobbling impressions.

Arrival at the Miranda hides and the ticks started to pour in: GREY TEAL, RED KNOT, WRYBILL, BLACK-BILLED GULL, NZ PIPIT (Unexpected bonus!), RED-NECKED STINT, and SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER. We were at 102 and still had around 4.5 hours left to go! But where were the spoonbills, golden plovers, black-tailed godwit, pec sands, marshie, and curlew sand? That voice in my head started to creep in again. “If you miss these birds it might be over… can’t waste any more time…” Surely they’re around here somewhere! I tried to turn a backlit Sharpie into a White-rumped but after that failed we finally picked up some PECTORAL SANDPIPERS. But still no sign of the others! Marsh Sandpiper was particularly frustrating as it is usually so obvious and only a day before I had seen all of these species right out in the open. Eventually we had to call it off. We had hoped to be on 107 at this point, but instead we were still chasing the record.

Sharp-tailed Sandpipers demonstrating the potential size difference between female (left) and male (right).

Sometimes you just have to move on, knowing that it is better to go after sure things ahead of you then potentially miss out on them by wasting time searching for birds that may never present themselves.

Our next stop was a Kidd’s Shellbanks on the Manukau Harbour. When we got down on the flats just after 12pm it felt like we were in Thailand. It was hot, it was muggy… oh there’s LITTLE TERN (Ended up being 12)! We had tied the record! We scanned through a large godwit and knot flock but could not pick out anything new so we pushed on to the opposite end of the banks to where the main flock was being gradually pushed in by the rising tide. 3 FAR EASTERN CURLEWS were spotted in the distance—we’ve done it! Then David and I got onto an extremely heat-hazy but distinctive nonetheless PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVER standing alone out on the flats. Must have been a juvenile based on the still extensive golden colouration in the neck and face. Phewf—made up for that blunder. We were on 106.
Plenty of knots, but no Wandering Tattler to be found!

As the flock came closer and closer in, we were treated to fantastic views of the knot and bar-tailed godwit mobs. However, try as we might, we could find none of the 8 whimbrel, long-staying tattler, or other godwit species that have been seen at this spot this season. Time was ticking, and we made the call to bail and race up to Mangere with our last remaining minutes.

We arrived on the Puketutu canal with literally less than 5 minutes to go. ROYAL SPOONBILLS were scoped on the distant shellbanks to the north (Ambury Farm), then a BROWN TEAL floated past us on the canal. With 3 minutes to go we skipped up to the main holding pond near the island where we scoured every rock for a black-fronted dotterel. Scanning, scanning, scanning. With ten seconds left I sat back down. “Well that’s a wrap I guess.” “BLACK-FRONTED DOTTEREL! JUST FLEW IN!” shouted Dave. “And there’s another one!” What a way to finished! A pair of Black-fronted Dots with mere seconds left on the clock. We had no time left to try for whimbrel up at Ambury, but we were more than satisfied with 108 species for NZ in 24 hours—a new record!

It's finally over!!! (We had run out of shoes by this point)

I want to give a huge thanks to the team--David T and Dave H for the entire weekend, and Harry for his valiant companionship from midnight on! I couldn't have asked for a better record-breaking crew. Particular thanks to Dave for providing the boat, the vehicle, and some particularly hospitable lodgings in Mangawhai. I doubt my ol' Nissan sunny could have filled all those jobs!

Also a heartfelt thanks to everyone who supported us before, during, and after. The Twitter messages kept us going through the day, and know that we've raised what looks to be around $1000 or more for the Hutton's Shearwater Charitable Trust is a fantastic start to what I hope becomes a regular tradition. It appears that a number of other records fell this weekend, including best youth team (85), best in Wellington (64), and best in Otago (66).

After saying our goodbyes, I drove back to Cambridge, watched Home Alone, then had an epic sleep.

Our biggest misses for the day were probably: Little Penguin, Arctic Skua, Whimbrel, Marsh Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, plus our seabird list wasn't that impressive (But this is always a hit-and-miss activity). Will try for 110+ next time! Will post full list soon.


  1. Great effort Russ and team. On a week long tour about 10 years ago we saw 108 species in the week, somewhat longer than 24 hours.

  2. Wow Fantastic Russ Congrats! You rock Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and all best wishes for your wedding next month.