Saturday, December 16, 2017

December 15/16, 2017: Bay of Plenty (of birds) Big Day

Well as per usual, I haven't been updating the blog. So here goes one things at least...

For the second December in a row, NZ birders were encouraged to get out on a specific weekend for a bit of fun competition to try and see as many birds as possible in a chosen 24 hours. This means that you can choose what time you want to start (e.g. 2pm on Saturday) and then from that point you have the next 24 hours to complete your day. This differs from the North American tradition of ‘calendar day’ big days where you must start and end at midnight. The advantage of the Kiwi-style big day is that you can use the night to cover great distances through uninteresting habitat. For example, you could have an afternoon birding around Auckland, then at night you could drive to Napier to bird the following morning, whereas in a midnight/midnight day you need to make sure your travel time is not cutting into birding time.

Having said all that, it has been a very busy end to the school year for Lisa and I so I didn’t have any time to plan any elaborate routes or set up a funding campaign for a bird conservation cause (as some friends and I did last year for the Hutton’s Shearwater Charitable Trust). We also had important social engagements on the Sunday, therefore elected to still try a ‘big day’ from 2:45pm on Friday to 2:45pm on Saturday (December 15th/16th, 2017). This would technically disqualify us from the competition as we were starting early, but we still wanted to get in on the fun. We also thought it would be a great challenge to set a new high count for the Bay of Plenty Region (which extends from Waihi Beach in the west, to East Cape in the east, and Rotorua and the northern half of Te Urewera Park in the south. Not wanting to spend our whole day driving, we decided to limit our scope to the coast between Maketu and Opotiki, and inland to the Waimana Valley and Rotorua. We would also take the rather decadent strategy of actually sleeping (for 8 full hours!)… but in a strategic spot of course. The record we were gunning for was 70, so would we make it? Read on to find out.

To start, we walked out onto the mudflats of the Little Waihi Estuary (just east of Maketu). This is one of the better shorebirding sites in the Bay of Plenty, and can be easily birded at lower tides since the mud is relatively firm in most places (but not all!). The tide was rising but we wanted to make sure we got to Ohiwa Harbour with enough daylight left so unfortunately that meant being a little hurried with our Little Waihi birding. Fortunately however, the long-staying LITTLE TERN was easy to locate as were several WRYBILL and BANDED DOTTEREL in amongst the larger numbers of BAR-TAILED GODWITS and RED KNOTS. Other common harbour birds made their way onto the list along with a brief and fortuitous appearance of BANDED RAIL. Just as we were about to head back to the car, I spotted a sleeping MARSH SANDPIPER among some PIED STILTS—a bird we definitely would likely not find anywhere else. We left the Little Waihi in high spirits with a tally of 44 species.

Over the hill in Maketu, we stopped at the surf club to check the WHITE-FRONTED TERN colony. Nearby 2 ARCTIC SKUA (Parasitic Jaeger) were harassing feeding terns, and a lone AUSTRALASIAN GANNET made a fly by. We checked through the Maketu waders very briefly but couldn’t manage to pick out anything new. A SPOTTED DOVE on the drive out to the highway put us on an even 50 at 4:35pm. Less than two hours in, we were feeling good.

From Maketu to Whakatane, there is not a lot to look at other than dairy farms, but at least the puzzlingly curvy road (considering the terrain is completely flat) keeps you on your toes. The obvious exception is Matata though, where blooming Pohutakawas drape from a steep escarpment overlooking some freshwater lagoons behind the beach. We were in a rush but managed to pick up NZ SCAUP, FERAL GOOSE, NZ PIGEON, and a few other garden birds, then we didn’t stop until partway along Ohiwa Harbour. In the past I have reliably found Grey Duck (Pacific Black Duck) at a particular stream mouth, and sure enough, there was a pair of GREY DUCK with some more dodgy looking hybrids. The tide was clearly high so we boogied on over to the eastern part of the harbour, stopping briefly at a small shellbank along Ohiwa Loop Road. This can sometimes be a good area for whimbrel so why not check quickly? BOOM! 4 WHIMBREL roosting in a line, and what’s the smaller wader with them? WANDERING TATTLER! It’s aliiiive!
Tattler on left.
Presumably this is the same tattler that has oversummered at Ohiwa for many years however last summer there were no sightings and I had assumed he/she had made their last migratory flight from the Alaskan/Yukon breeding grounds. Well maybe not! Lisa then spotted a surprise WILD TURKEY in the paddock on the other side of the road (They are surprisingly scarce in the Bay of Plenty) and we were on a mini roll! We pulled into the Ohiwa village and quickly nabbed CALIFORNIA QUAIL. Weka were playing hard to get though so we crossed the hills toward Opotiki and promptly spotted a WEKA on a recently mowed lawn.

Earlier in the day we had received texts and Facebook alerts about a Laughing Gull that had been seen the previous evening in Opotiki. This was of course serendipitous as we had already been planning on having tea around Opotiki on the off-chance last year’s Laugher was still around. Knowing that we had a shot at this bird (who was apparently in full breeding plumage) was particularly exciting for Lisa as we had dipped on it in the initial days after it turned up before Xmas (I had later seen it with some friends in early Feb… the last confirmed sighting of the bird). So this was probably that bird, so had it been around this whole time? There are no birders in Opotiki and very few birders regularly visit the area outside of summer. Or had it gone north and returned? Who knows, but we wanted it!

Fast-forward and we’ve pulled up to Hikuwai Beach with our Double Lucky Chinese takeaways and WHAMMY! There it is sitting on the beach. Cheers of jubilation, high fives, and some well-earned chow mein. Unfortunately however, while Lisa can happily plunk it on her life list, we cannot ‘technically’ include this in our big day effort since we received outside help to track it down. Yes, we were going to Opotiki anyway but there is a chance we would not have gone to Hikuwai Beach without the knowledge that the gull was there. Since I co-authored the rules I figure I should stick to them! (This rule was put in place to discourage teams from having scouts in the field to stake out birds for them. In other words, once you start your day, you should have all your planning sorted and must be self-reliant until the day is out.)

#lifer #Macs
This kid is just coming to terms with his first rarity

Woo, what a blocker Mom!

As you can see from the photos, it was a special experience to spend our evening with the Laugher, regardless of its ‘tickability’. Fortunately, we also added some legit species with BULLER’S SHEARWATER scoped offshore and a lucky close flyby of a COMMON DIVING-PETREL. Surprisingly there were no Fluttering Shearwaters in sight but we had tomorrow to bag those.
With the sun going down, we turn the steering wheel inland, and headed for the Waimana Valley, due south from Opotiki—the heart of Tuhoe country, and a section of Te Urewera bush neither Lisa and I had ever explored before. We set up the tent near Ogilvie’s Bridge, with MOREPORKs calling all around. As we began to drift off to sleep… wait we slept?! Yes we did. First time I’ve ever slept on a big day, well since I was 9 years old anyway. But things change when you turn 30 and get married and become a teacher and… at least we could maybe hear a kiwi from the tent? Anyways, where was I? As we began to drift off to sleep, a LONG-TAILED CUCKOO spiralled above our tent, screeching and ‘pit-pit-pit-ing’ putting us on 69 for the day and 1 shy of the record. We still had until 245pm the following day to chase 70. We were feeling pretty comfortable with that.

Long-tailed Cuckoos woke me periodically through the night. I’m not sure why they do it, but it seems like they are a very active species in the night, as almost every time I camp in central North Island native bush in summer, I hear them calling overhead in the dead of the night. I figured there were at least 3-4 chasing each other around this night, then around 4am the first BELLBIRDS started tuning up. By 530am many other species had joined the dawn chorus, including WHITEHEAD, NORTH ISLAND ROBIN, TOMTIT, and SHINING CUCKOO. We hopped in the car and cruised down the road a bit to the Otamatuna Track head. This area is a ‘mainland island’ where DOC and Tuhoe work together to trap (No 1080 is used to my knowledge) mammalian predators and keep this section of Te Urewera relatively free of pests. This track starts off very steeply but eventually gets onto a ridge of lovely tawa and rewarewa forest. Long-tailed Cuckoo were absolutely everywhere, making it the first time I’ve had easily more of them than whitehead at a site (We had at least 10 cuckoo here and only heard 2 whitehead—must be quietly nesting?). Our first KAKA was eventually heard as it flew overhead, and then multiple KOKAKO were eventually heard. We had some potential sightings close at hand but could never lock on them properly. Most of the vocalising birds appeared to be on the other side of a steep ravine so we had to be satisfied with ‘heard only.’ A pair of RIFLEMEN made a brief appearance, then further down the valley we finally picked up EASTERN ROSELLA—putting us at 77 and well and truly in new Bay of Plenty 24-hour record territory! Now we needed to push for 80.

Promising ourselves that we would have to return to this beautiful valley and spend more time tramping and camping, we pried ourselves off the beautiful slopes and make our way back toward civilisation, carefully checking the river for Blue Duck… but none appeared. ‘Coffee in Whakatane’ had become the main topic of conversation for most of the morning, and so around 10am we satisfied that craving at a lovely little French cafĂ© on the Strand. We took out cuppas and pasteries down to the harbour mouth to try and relocate the Reef Heron that we had seen the day before while scouting. No such luck, but we did pick up our first FLUTTERING SHEARWATERS of the day. On some oxbow ponds in town we grabbed our first COOTS, along with some dodgy Muscovy Ducks (Not counted for our list but these birds do breed in the wild, so perhaps one for future consideration). Sitting on 79, we pondered how we could get 80. We were still missing dabchick and had hoped to find one here—nope. Tried for crakes too…. Nope.  Okay—Matata we need you!
We had camped at Matata on Thursday night (photo from hide taken then). While we had failed to detect any Spotless Crakes, we did have both Marsh (Baillon's) Crake and bittern at night. This gave us hope on our big day. But seriously--how are there no spotless crakes out there!?

It was hot and windy when we arrived at the Matata lagoons. We needed fernbird, bittern, dabchick, and either crake… surely we could get one of those. Half an hour went by and still nothing. What is happening? This should be a crake bonanza site! FINALLY, a pair of FERNBIRD tuned up on the opposite side of the marsh. Then as we tried playing a tape for a crake, an AUSTRALASIAN BITTERN suddenly boomed directly opposite us! Wahoo—81!
Euphoria (or heat stroke?) sets in after a sweet fernbird/bittern combo put us up to 81

We had just under 3 hours to go, so decided to head for Rotorua, via some back roads in the hopes of spying a peacock or maybe a random rook. Neither of those presented themselves but we found a fabulous swim spot in the NE corner of Lake Rotoma, a place we’ll need to revisit. Long-tailed Cuckoo were calling here as well, but no dabchick on the lake.

We continued west along the north shore of the lake, then stopped at a good-looking wetland on the east side of Lake Rotoehu. Another pair of Fernbird were already calling when we stepped out of the car and no less than 2 SPOTTLESS CRAKES began calling in short order. And oh look, there’s a dabchick! 83 species. Off to Rotorua for lunch and a final hour to look for falcon and I dunno… maybe a Black-fronted Dotterel? Things were obviously starting to get a little loopy when I asked Lisa to turn around to check out what I thought might be a Mute Swan on a golf course... it was a goat! I have a feeling this will be 'Exhibit A' in any future ID debates.

Grabbed some subway and headed to the Redwoods, hoping for a chance NZ Falcon flyby as they supposedly reside here. No such luck, let’s try the same at Sulphur Pt and scan around. No falcon but hey—REDPOLLS! We had forgot we were still missing them. A nice bonus push to 84 (Not including the gull). We still had 15 minutes left but try as we might, no falcon presented itself, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to count the Mute Swan inside Rainbow Springs.
So the clock ticked over to 245pm and that was that! What a fun day in the Bay of Plenty, exploring new places and enjoying great summer weather. We’ll definitely have to try a similar route again some day.

Misses for the day were (That are reasonably possible on our route): Brown Kiwi, Peafowl, Brown Quail, Blue Duck, Ruddy Turnstone, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, NZ Falcon, Yellow-crowned Parakeet, and Australasian Pipit.


  1. Sounds like a wonderful time with plenty of suggestions for the rest of us. Congratulations on your total.

  2. That's so awesome good to see you blogging again! What a great big day Merry Christmas and Happy New Year you guys! You are missed in BC!