New Zealand Highlights Nov 29—Dec 16, 2014

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

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Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 160) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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The tour started almost as smooth as silk until a flight delay had one couple arriving a few hours behind schedule. Fortunately the tide was excellent at nearby Mangere, and we were able to explore this bird-rich site for a couple of hours. Most notable were singles of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Black-fronted Dotterel, plus a single second year Black-billed Gull and a breeding plumaged New Zealand Dotterel. We headed off to Pakiri, a tidal estuary on the northeast coast. Here we waited a patient game and were ultimately rewarded with a superb view of a New Zealand Fairy Tern. With only 40 individuals in the entire population, this is one of the rarest birds in the world. We squeezed in a visit to Tawharanui where we had success finding a small flock of New Zealand Brown Teal, a crepuscular, endemic, endangered duck. Then it was off to the Salty Dog Inn, our home for the next three nights.

This male Fairy Tern is one of only 40 individuals surviving of the New Zealand subspecies

This male Fairy Tern is one of only 40 individuals surviving of the New Zealand subspecies “davisae.” Note how it has worn the tip of its bill plunging it repeatededly into the sand in pursuit of small fish.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

A full-day pelagic in light seas and sunny conditions in the Hauraki Gulf was alive with seabirds in unbelievable numbers with plenty of Common Diving-Petrels leading the charge. Our first chumming stop close to Little Barrier Island produced hundreds of Fairy Prion, Fluttering Shearwater, White-faced Storm-Petrel, Buller’s Shearwater, and Cook’s Petrel. After half an hour we spotted the rare New Zealand Storm-Petrel that made several close passes—an unusually dark morph of this little-known and enigmatic seabird. We headed out to the Mokohinau Islands, spotting the scarce Black Petrel on the way, a hungry individual that fed at close range next to the Norma Jean. Heading beyond the islands paid almost instant dividends when first a Black-winged Petrel, then a spanking Pycroft’s Petrel and a repeat visiting Little Shearwater rounded out our hoped-for pelagic birds for the day.  White-capped and Shy albatrosses, plus a pair of Sooty Shearwaters were a bonus. It had been a very successful day at sea.

Our day-trip to Tiri Tiri Matangi Island was held on a perfect summer’s day. Once off the boat we quickly found the first of several Kokako for the day, singing in the forest interior. The fabulous bird song at Tiri is a major highlight. Next up we enjoyed superb views of Stitchbird, North Island Saddleback, and North Island Robin. There were plenty of Whiteheads, Tui, and Bellbirds. At lunch we checked out the lighthouse and luck was with us again as we found a lone Takahe, the giant flightless rail. Breeding at this time of year, they are secretive and by no means guaranteed. Our good run continued when we found a pair of Morepork, the compact chocolate-brown hawk-owl that is widely distributed throughout the forests of New Zealand. Like any owl, they can be difficult to pin down. There had been birds to watch all day, and every year it is great to see the forest regeneration in this island sanctuary that was previously a sheep farm. We made a brief visit to Kawau Island where we picked up the North Island Weka and added Indian Peafowl to the growing list of ferals!

Cook's Petrel has responded fantastically to the removal of feral predators from Little Barrier Island.

Cook’s Petrel has responded fantastically to the removal of feral predators from Little Barrier Island.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We had to depart early to get to Miranda for the high tide and just made it in the nick of time. Amongst the 4,000 Bar-tailed Godwits, all of which breed in Alaska, we found a scattering of scarcer East Asian shorebirds. Best of all was a Far Eastern Curlew, now a rarity in New Zealand as populations continue to slide. Also good were a single Black-tailed Godwit, two Pectoral Sandpipers, and a small number of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Curlew Sandpipers, and Red-necked Stints. The main attraction was the unique Wrybill, a New Zealand endemic plover with a laterally twisted bill to the right. The bill is an adaptation to feeding in shingle beds in the glacial rivers of the South Island.

After a cup of tea and biscuits at the Miranda Shorebird Centre (plus a spot of Christmas shopping) we drove through to Whangamarino Swamp. An hour of patient searching drew a blank on the rare Australasian Bittern. We motored through to Rotorua and found a pair of New Zealand Grebes interacting with each other, passing a small leaf backwards and forwards in a lovely display. There was an incident where some youths let their dog onto a nesting island of Red-billed Gulls and Little Pied Cormorants with much disturbance, some fatal to the fledgling gulls. The leaders and clients rallied in the birds’ defense successfully, but it was so thoughtless. In the evening we enjoyed some lighthearted laughs and insights into Maori life at a cultural performance and excellent dinner at Mitai.

For the first time in several years the weather in the Pureora Forest was quite reasonable. This cool, temperate mountain rainforest produced our first Tomtits and Kaka with plenty of Whitehead, North Island Robin, and other native forest birds. Long-tailed Cuckoo tantalized us, calling well-hidden in the giant Podocarp trees of this magical forest. Just as we were leaving a beautiful pair of Yellow-fronted Parakeets made a superb sight as they chattered close overhead.  At Lake Taupo we had good views of the Fernbird skulking through the thick reedbeds. Heading to the snow-capped peak of Mount Ruapehu we were fortunate to quickly find a pair of Blue Ducks. These torrent specialists are superbly camouflaged in the boulder-strewn alpine streams they favor. It was great to watch them swimming against the rapids, dappling with their peculiar skin-tipped bills for lotic invertebrates. In the evening we gave the North Island Brown Kiwi a search, but heard not even a call. It was a superb evening, and the full moon and snow-capped peaks made it all the more surreal.

This day-roosting Morepork was a good spot on Tiri Tiri Matangi Island.

This day-roosting Morepork was a good spot on Tiri Tiri Matangi Island.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Exploring around our grandiose hotel grounds the following day we rounded up a New Zealand Pipit. This was followed by a Long-tailed Cuckoo, the flying crucifix, making a flyover—it’s never easy to see this skulker. A beautiful pair of Rifleman flitted restlessly, flicking their wings in a fidgety fashion. We tried a new site for the New Zealand Falcon and, as luck would have it, some loud cackling overhead produced the goods, with a repeat spiral flyover gaining elevation and drifting into the sun. Hooray! Then a Spotless Crake crept through thick aquatic vegetation giving quick snatches of view, but refused to come right out in the open. It was time to continue south, making a stop at the Manawatu Estuary where a Siberian Common Tern was a new bird for the list. We arrived at Paraparaumu in good time, and after a great dinner we prepared for our visit to Kapiti Island.

Our luck held again with the weather and we made the crossing to Kapiti in good time after taking in the biosecurity checks and information video. New rooms meant we could spread the group out more comfortably than before. Once settled in, we just kicked back and enjoyed all the birds at our doorstep. Noisy Wekas, chattering flocks of Red-crowned Parakeets, and loafing New Zealand Pigeons were right around the rooms, while Kaka made frequent visits to the lodge. A walk to the far end of the island turned up Brown Teal and a surprise Little Penguin, plus abundant Whitehead with a few Fantails and North Island Robins. After some wine and cheese followed by a tasty dinner, it was time for it to get dark. A Takahe, the female in the area, made a visit to the garden. At dusk the Little Spotted Kiwi began to call, and one bird was sighted almost immediately, showing well to nearly the entire group. There were two further sightings, one good and one brief, and then the kiwi must have gone back to bed, as sightings dried up. Further nocturnal perambulations produced Morepork, Brown Teal, and even a Takahe.

The bizarre Kokako is a foliovorous species - its diet of leaves being unique in the world of perching birds. The conservation status of this most unusual bird with its powerful ethereal song is beginning to improve slowly but surely, thanks to a lot of good work by conservation agencies.

The bizarre Kokako is a foliovorous species – its diet of leaves being unique in the world of perching birds. The conservation status of this most unusual bird with its powerful ethereal song is beginning to improve slowly but surely, thanks to a lot of good work by conservation agencies.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The dawn chorus at Kapiti is quite something as hundreds of Bellbirds and Tuis pour forth a torrent of song. The return crossing was very smooth and we spent a bit of time checking out the estuary at Waikanae. The major turn-up was a Great Egret, a rare breeding bird in New Zealand, revered by the Maori as the living link to the ancestors. Shortly after, we were on the Interislander ferry bidding farewell to the North Island and hello to the South Island, disembarking in Picton. From the ferry we sighted our first Cape Petrels and once inside the Marlborough Sounds added New Zealand Fur Seal, Common Dolphin, and even a trio of Killer Whales to our tally.

We did a comfortable inshore pelagic the following morning, exploring the Marlborough Sounds. First up we approached a roost of King Shags. This rare cormorant has a range restricted to these sounds and a total population of only 500 individuals. While watching them we heard some Yellowheads and managed to spot them “churring” from the flax bushes above the cormorant roost. We then landed on one of the island sanctuaries here, Blumine Island. After half an hour of patient searching we heard the call we were hoping to hear, the ultra-rare Orange-fronted Parakeet. It took a further half an hour to make the breakthrough and locate these quiet, cryptic kakarikis, and eventually everyone managed a good view. Heading south we made it to Kaikoura where a stop on the peninsula produced masses of European introduced seedeaters. Eventually we heard the call of the Cirl Bunting and tracked it down singing from the roadside bushes. Although an exotic species, it is quite beautiful and not overly easy to see in Europe.

The rare Orange-fronted Parakeet was considered to be a color morph of the more widespread Yellow-fronted Parakeet. Genetic assessment and consistent plumage differences revealed it is indeed a valid species. Note the blue-green plumage and orange band above the bill and pale yellow crown.

The rare Orange-fronted Parakeet was considered to be a color morph of the more widespread Yellow-fronted Parakeet. Genetic assessment and consistent plumage differences revealed it is indeed a valid species. Note the blue-green plumage and orange band above the bill and pale yellow crown.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Strong winds looked like they might cancel our pelagic off the world-famous Kaikoura sea canyon. Luckily we were able to obtain a larger, more comfortable vessel for our four hours at sea. As predicted, a stiff southerly blew in just as we approached the ten mile mark offshore. Chumming up, the birds began to arrive in good numbers, clearly hungry and showing off their aerial prowess in the 30 knot wind. It was a good turnout with Wandering (both Gibson’s and Antipodean populations), Southern and Northern Royal, Black-browed, White-capped, and Salvin’s albatrosses; Northern and Southern giant-petrels; and Cape, White-chinned, Westland, and Great-winged (Gray-faced) petrels joining the throng. Flocks of Hutton’s Shearwaters passed by, mixed with the odd Sooty and Buller’s shearwaters and numerous Fairy Prions, with a rare sighting of Soft-plumaged Petrel making a brief fly-through. We headed in with the surf behind us after taking in a lumpy and sloppy cross swell.

After the boat trip we drove south to the alpine Mackenzie Country, making good time despite rain and strong winds. As we gained altitude the weather began to clear, and by the time we reached scenic Lake Tekapo it was looking pretty good. We found a pair of beautiful Black Stilts quite quickly and enjoyed watching them in the scope. Several pairs of Double-banded Plover in breeding plumage looked exquisite, as did showy Great Crested Grebes. We could hear Chukar calling in the hills, but they kept hidden so we headed to the hotel after an action-packed day.

A fresh juvenile Westland Petrel approaches the boat off the coast of Kaikoura. This chunky petrel breeds in the winter months in the Westland district of the northwest South Island.

A fresh juvenile Westland Petrel approaches the boat off the coast of Kaikoura. This chunky petrel breeds in the winter months in the Westland district of the northwest South Island.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We had one last bird to track down in the alpine wetlands, and at Ohau we found a flock of Black-fronted Terns hawking hatchling mayflies. This delightful “marsh” tern is a South Island breeding endemic and becoming scarcer as its ground nesting behavior makes it vulnerable to introduced predators. In a nearby marsh we tried for Baillon’s Crake which called a couple of times from within thick willows and sedges, a rare event in itself. Another Great Egret was a surprise in this location. We headed to Te Anau ready for our big day in Fiordland.

It could not have been a better day for us in Fiordland as the weather turned picture-perfect, warm and sunny with no wind. At Nobb’s Flat we enjoyed our first tame South Island Robins and reacquainted ourselves with Tomtit, Yellowhead, Rifleman, and cooperative Yellow-fronted Parakeets. At Homer Tunnel, after some patient searching and waiting, Ian made the breakthrough this year on the Rock Wren. Good views were obtained. Another crowd pleaser was the lone Kea that turned up in the carpark seeking shade under the vans. It wandered around us, investigating any chances for a free feed, and delighted in taking a few bites out of Karen’s walking stick cork handle when we did not oblige! At Milford Sound we located our first Brown Creeper and found an inquisitive Weka, an unusual black morph individual. The boat trip on Milford Sound was magnificent in the sunny conditions.

The Rock Wren Lives in the high alpine country of the South Island. There is only one pair with a territory near a road, and good weather really helps when we are looking for these classy litle birds.

The Rock Wren Lives in the high alpine country of the South Island. There is only one pair with a territory near a road, and good weather really helps when we are looking for these classy litle birds.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

From Te Anau we drove east towards Dunedin. We dropped by Tomahawk Lagoon and, as luck would have it, we quickly found a juvenile White-winged Black Tern, a rare but annual visitor to New Zealand in very small numbers. The tern flew in and landed right in front of us—not bad we said! Local guides Yosh and Jane picked us up to take us to the Otago Peninsula. On the way Dion called the bus to a halt with a fortuitous Little Owl spotted basking on a roadside pine stump. Cruising past the Taiaroa Head we could enjoy the sky-calling and display flights of the Northern Royal Albatross, some thirty pairs nesting at this location. Carefully nurtured by Lance Richdale in the 1930s, the nesting Royal Albatross here are unique in nesting away from the subantarctic islands close to a major city. Our first Stewart Island Shags were seen nesting in colonies of large, bowl-shaped mud structures that make their nests. After the headland we went on to visit Papanui Beach where small numbers of nesting Yellow-eyed Penguins are protected. These large penguins are truly stunning. We watched a large dark-gray downy chick being carefully preened by a parent. On the beach we looked at a massive old bull Hooker’s Sea Lion with well-worn teeth that were in need of a clean!

The Brown Skua population on Stewart Island is particularly blonde. Here a bird approaches the

The Brown Skua population on Stewart Island is particularly blonde. Here a bird approaches the “Aurora” keen on some Blue Cod scraps.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Continuing south, the superb weather was holding and we made a scenic drive along the Catlins Coast, taking in Nugget Point and Cloudy Bay. Our luck was also holding as we found a small pod of five Hector’s Dolphin surfing offshore. The world’s smallest dolphin, it is a scarce New Zealand endemic and attractively patterned in gray, black, and white with a distinctive round dorsal fin. We flew on our “puddlejumpers” to Stewart Island. By 9 pm we were on the boat to Ocean Beach and our hoped-for encounter with the Southern Brown Kiwi. In glassy smooth seas we spotted more than a hundred Little Penguins. Walking the half-mile to the beach in early evening, it took a while to make the breakthrough, but when we did the views were exceptional. We saw two kiwis, but a male was very relaxed, even drinking from a pool of freshwater it waded into. After twenty minutes of taking it all in, we headed back to Oban. It was a fantastic result for all of us and a credit to Phillip, Greg, and team Kiwi.

Our last full day of the tour and we were beginning to think we might be in Tahiti. Warm, sunny, and windless are three words not typically associated with New Zealand, let alone the far south. The morning was spent walking the excellent network of trails on Ulva Island to which we were delivered by water taxi. The South Island Saddleback proved rather restless and full of energy, foraging relentlessly to feed the fledgling chicks. It took awhile, but eventually everyone had a good view. Yellowheads and Brown Creepers were in good form, and there were lots of Kaka and Red-crowned, plus a few Yellow-crowned Kakarikis. Weka, Tomtit, South Island Robin, Fantail, Gerygone, Tui, and Bellbird were all encountered and a Long-tailed Cuckoo was well-heard—and Ray was lucky enough to see it in flight. At noon we were picked by “Aurora.” In slightly breezy conditions we cruised out to the Titi Islands. The albatross were hungry and we fed hundreds of Blue Cod frames to hundreds of White-capped Albatross. Mixed in were smaller numbers of Salvin’s, Southern Royal and, as luck would have it, two Buller’s and a single Campbell albatross. A few Cape Petrel and Cook’s Petrel turned up with some big flocks of Sooty Shearwater and a handful of Common Diving-Petrel also making appearances. Several pairs of Brown Skuas, here strikingly blonde, showed off their aerial prowess, catching airborne fish scraps with ease. A single Yellow-eyed Penguin came ashore, picking its way past numerous Fur Seals. Our New Zealand adventure was coming to a close. It had been a truly fabulous trip. My special thanks to outstanding co-leader, Ian, with whom I have worked with for several years, and to a great group of participants.