Thursday, August 27, 2015

New Zealand July - December 2015, Trounson Kauri Park

Trounson Kauri Park is the second most famous Kauri park after Waipoua Forest and has just like Waipoua Forest some pretty massive Kauri trees. Unlike Waipoua Forest, however, it is a reasonably reliable site to observe North Island Brown Kiwi. These nightly critters can be observed on a two-and-a-half hour long Guided Kiwi Walk organized by Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park (25 NZD), or by simply going into forest on your own. We joined a guided walk and enjoyed the nightly stroll a lot.

As I have been searching for Kiwi's for several times now, I figured out what the best strategy is to get one into to red light or your torch: Listen for their calls and follow the direction of the call. However, you will not find them solely by call, as the often call irregularly with intervals of 30 minutes or longer. Tape does not work either. Therefore, another strategy has to be applied: walk very quietly through the forest and listen for their "sneezes" and footsteps. I found this method very reliable and have found four of the five Kiwi species in this fashion so far. Applying this method also revealed a young male North Island Brown Kiwi in the Trounson Kauri Park and it allowed stunning views.
Male North Island Brown Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli)
Apart from this the Kiwi we also enjoyed good views of several endemic fish species such as the endangered New Zealand Long-finned Eel and Shortjaw Kokopu. Other highlights were some Tree Weta's and Koura (endemic freshwater crayfish). I can recommend the guided night walk, but calling ahead to make your booking is necessary (006494390621). As most places in New Zealand, access to Trounson Kauri Park by public transport is rather limited and perhaps hitchhiking is the best option...
New Zealand Long-finned Eel (Anguilla dieffenbachii)

Saturday, April 18, 2015

New Zealand February - June 2015, Akaroa Sound

The Banks Peninsula in general and Akaroa in particular are famous for their local population of the world's rarest dolphin: the tiny Hector's Dolphin. This has turned Akaroa to a touristic attraction with a focus on wildlife watching. There are several tour operators who offer tours into the Akaroa sound to connect with these lovely dolphins. Apart from the Hector's Dolphin's some other good wildlife can be spotted on these tours. Due to the popularity of these tours, reaching Akaroa from Christchurch by private or Public transport should be difficult.

We joined an afternoon nature tour with Black Cat Tours (75 NZD) and even though we were not able to leave the Akaroa sound due to swells of more than five meters, we got good views of a single Hector's Dolphin within the sound (which is apparently quite rare). Apart from the Hector's Dolphins we observed several New Zealand Fur Seals. We also enjoyed views of three Little Blue Penguins of which one could be identified as a White-flippered Penguin (which is either a subspecies of Little Blue Penguin or its own species) and three Giant Petrels of which one could be identified as a Northern. More common birds included several species of Shag, White-fronted Tern and Caspian Tern.
Hector's Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori)
New Zealand Fur Seals (Arctocephalus fosteri)
Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes halli)
White-flippered Penguin (Eudyptula (minor) albosignata)
Even though these tours are quite expensive, I can highly recommend them as they provide a great opportunity for wildlife watching and even though we did not even leave the Sound we got great views of several species. Apparently outside of the Sound Hector's Dolphin's are more common and there are some chances of seeing Albatrosses as well.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

New Zealand February - June 2015, Oamaru

Oamaru is a special place in New Zealand as it is one of the few places where two species of Penguin can be observed within one day. Both the endangered Yellow-eyed Penguin and the more common Little Blue Penguin have protected colonies just outside of this city. The Yellow-eyed Penguin colony is located at the Bushy Beach and is free of charge while the tightly managed Little Blue Penguin colony costs 28 NZD for an evening viewing. Access to both of these colonies should  not be a problem, both by private and public transport. There is even a Penguin Express that connects both of the colonies!

We arrived at the Bushy Beach around 16:30 and around 17:15 we observed a single Yellow-eyed Penguin making its way towards its nests within the bushes. Please not that this species is highly sensitive to disturbance, so it is advised to remain quiet while observing these stunning birds. Other critters that can be seen on the beach include New Zealand Fur Seals, while some seawatching proved productive with five species of shag including Steward Island Shag, Sooty Shearwaters, some Thallasarche spec's and an unidentified Giant Petrel. We also had another look at this colony in the early morning and around 07:00 we saw three Yellow-eyed Penguins on the beach.
Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes)
Around 18:00 we joined an evening viewing at the Little Blue Penguin colony and during the two hours we spent here we observed around 30 of these adorable little birds making their way towards their nest boxes. Before entering the Little Blue Penguin viewing area make sure to have a look at the harbor of Oamaru just next to the viewing area, as a large amount of Steward Island and Spotted Shags roost here.
Vast quantities of Steward Island Shags (Leucocarbo chalconotus) and Spotted Shags (Stictocarbo punctatus)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

New Zealand February - June 2015, Glentanner

The Black Stilt (or Kaki) is a sad story in New Zealand's conservation history, as these birds were already suffering from major population declines due to predation by introduced mammals when the construction of a dam almost provided the death stab to this bird of braided river systems. Numbers plummeted to a mere 23 in 1981. Luckily conservation efforts are picking up the pieces now and a captive breeding project is in place to boost the numbers of this critically endangered species.

Ironically, one of the best places to see this beautiful species is at the shore of lake Pukaki, one of the huge lakes created by the construction of dams to provide New Zealand's renewable electricity. We enjoyed a total of six individuals at this site. To get to the exact location where we observed Black Stilts, drive to the Glentanner Airport at the northern shore of Lake Pukaki and take the first gravel road to the right North of the little airstrip. Here is a gate where you can park the car and than follow the gravel road on foot towards Lake Pukaki. At the streams running towards the lake we found five Black Stilts and another one flew past. Unfortunately, this strikes me as another site in New Zealand that might be hard to get to when travelling by public transport and again, hitchhiking might be your best option.
Two adult and two juvenile Black Stilts (Himantopus novaezelandiae)
Other birds observed here included the endangered Black-fronted Tern, who has suffered a similar fate as the Black Stilt, heaps of Paradise Shelducks, White-fronted Heron and some New Zealand Pipits. Interestingly we also observed two dozens of Black-fronted Terns hawking for insects during a snow storm between Twizel and Omarama, so it makes sense to keep you eye out while driving through the area. At Twizel the Black Stilt breeding center can also be visited (12 NZD). We did not visit this breeding center, but it is probably a good experience, plus a visit would actively support the conservation of this species!
Black-fronted Terns (Chlidonias albostriatus) in a very kiwi setting

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

New Zealand February - June 2015, Haast Pass

Haast Pass within Mount Aspiring National Park is one a last places where the rare and endangered Yellowhead (Mohua) can be observed. Although lately this place has been everything but reliable, portraying how much this species is struggling with the introduced mammalian predators that roam New Zealand. The traditional site for seeing this species was at the Bridle Track, between the parking lot at Highway 6 and the first bridge, but the DOC (Department of Conservation) office in Haast informed us that Makarora, a bit further along the road, might provide some opportunities to see this bird as well. Both places are easily accessed by car and recognizable by DOC signs, but getting to these sites by public transport might prove less easy and hitchhiking may be the best option.

We searched the first part of the Bridle Track for an hour or so, but unfortunately we failed to find any Yellowheads. We did however observe loads of Rifleman, some neat black morphs of New Zealand Fantail and fly-by New Zealand was most welcome too. At Makarora we our efforts were equally unanswered and other birds observed here included Rifleman, Grey Warbler (Grey Gerygone) and New Zealand Pigeon. We enjoyed our time here nevertheless as the forest here is stunning and we even had some snowfall, which certainly added to the fairy-tale-like atmosphere.
The adorable black morph of New Zealand Fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa)

Monday, April 13, 2015

New Zealand February - June 2015, Southern West Coast

After the unsatisfying record of Blue Duck (Whio) at the Copland Track, we followed the advice of Ian from Okarito Kiwi Tours, to try to find them at the Blowfly Hut (now called Blue River hut). This hut is located a two to three hours walk from the Haast Highway along the Paringa Track. We walked the track to the hut and had a search at the river, which truly looks like decent Blue Duck habitat. Unfortunately we only found a Great Cormorant. We had a look at the visitors dairy of the hut and it seemed that two groups have come here to look for Blue Ducks within the past two years. Both did not see any. Birds we did observe along the Paring Track included New Zealand Pipit, Tui, Bellbird and Tomtit. Access to the trail head at the Haast Highway may prove difficult by public transport. Again hitchhiking seems like an option...

We had another stop a bit south of the Paringa Track at Lake Moeraki. During a different time of the year, this is a very good site to see Fiordland Crested Penguins. Unfortunately, during this time of year we only observed some Black Swans and Paradise Shelducks at the lake. Ombler mentions Australasian Crested Grebes to be present at this lake, but we did not find any. Access to this lake by public transport is similar to the Paringa track.
Male and female Paradise Shelduck (Tadorna variegata)
A little bit further from Lake Moeraki, we had a quick stop at Knight's Point, as this is supposed to be a good spot to enjoy the stunning coastline of the West Coast. The weather was extraordinary, compared to the previous days and so I scanned the Tasman Sea for a couple of minutes. This resulted in a dozen of "Shy" Albatrosses (probably White-capped Albatrosses) flying past! Two Sooty Shearwaters were also observed. Both species were observed using mere binoculars. I guess this can be a very productive seawatching site, provided the weather is favorable and telescopes are used. Knight's Point might be easier to reach by Public Transport than the other sites, as several busses pulled over while we were here so that tourists could have a short break and soak in the scenery.

New Zealand February - June 2015, Westland National Park

Similar to Paparoa national park (previous post), the reasons for our visit to this area of New Zealand's South Island were mostly the stunning landscapes. This national park, which is also called Tai Poutini national park, is world famous for its two easily accessible glaciers, Frans Joseph Glacier and Fox Glacier. When visiting these two glaciers it becomes obvious very quickly that both, but especially Frans Joseph Glacier, are major tourist attractions and helicopters hover over constantly, filled with adventurous tourists. This has its advantages, namely both Frans Joseph and Fox are easily reached from various major cities on the South Island. However this also means that everything is rather expensive here. Despite the two glaciers being the parks main draw, there are some other interesting things that can be done here, including some reasonable bird watching, even though the park hosts no species that cannot be seen somewhere else.

The first site we visited inside this national park was Frans Joseph Glacier. Although the glacier is stunning, as are its moraine fields, the speed of the retreat of the glacier becomes quickly obvious, visualizing the impacts of global change. There were only few birds present in the area and we only noted New Zealand Bellbird, Tomtit, New Zealand Fantail and Silvereye. There also is a wildlife center in Frans Joseph, where most, if not all, Okarito Brown Kiwi's and Haast' Tokoeka's (the Haast subspecies of Southern Brown Kiwi) hatch and spent the first weeks of their lives. The hatcheries can be visited for 50 NZD and it is quite interesting to learn more about the work that is being put into the protection of these species.
Frans Joseph Glacier
Tired, but adorable, two-day-old Okarito Brown Kiwi (Apteryx rowi) chick at Westland Wildlife Center.
Picture taken by Jason Preble. 
The next two days however, we visited an area that held far more birds, including some of great interest. We had decided to do the 18 km Copland Track to the legendary Welcome Flat Hut. The main draw of this hike and the Welcome Flat Hut are the hot pools with a very pleasant temperature that are located just next to the hut. Just like as many places and hikes in the Southern Alps, this site is weather dependent and so do check with the DOC office at either Frans Joseph or Fox. You need to make a reservation for the Welcome Flat Hut with them anyway (camping is 5 NZD and a bunk is 15 NZD). We hiked to the hut within seven hours and enjoyed increasingly beautiful scenery as well as some good birds, including Western Weka, Kaka, Kea, Pipipi, Tomtit and Rifleman. Once we were soaking our tired bodies in the hot springs we truly understood the magnificence of this place. There are not many places where one can enjoy a natural hot spring while Kea are flying over with brilliantly white glaciers in the background. The next day we managed to hike back within five hours, again encountering Western Weka, Kaka, Kea and other forest birds along the track. However we also connected to some extend with a species that I have wanted to see for a long time: Blue Duck (Whio). While hiking the Copland Track, you cross a lot of small streams that seem fit for Blue Ducks, unfortunately we never saw one at these streams and only heard two shrill Whio whistles from the main river, while we were in the forest. Not the sighting I had hoped for. I found out that Scott's Creek, a couple of hours hike further upstream from Welcome Flat Hut is a reliable spot for Blue Ducks in this area, but we did not have the time to attempt this site.
Male Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala)
After this track, we paid Fox Glacier a visit and I must admit that even though this glacier is less frequented by tourists than Frans Joseph Glacier, it stroke me as more impressive. Bird life however was comparably low with just a single New Zealand Fantail noted. Although we heard several Kea in the Fox village in the evening.

I can highly recommend visiting some places in this national park, especially if you are travelling with some non-birders. For hardcore birdwatchers this place might be not worth a stop, but do remember, the scenery is truly stunning. There is a reason why there are so many tourists here.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

New Zealand February - June 2015, Paparoa National Park

Famous for its rugged coastline, deep canyons, weirdly shaped pancake rocks and spectacular blowholes, Paparoa national park has become a major tourist attraction on the South Coast, but it rarely appears on the itinerary of birdwatchers. However this does not mean that Paparoa National park has one or two interesting birdwatching sites. To be fair, we did visit this place primarily to enjoy its stunning scenery, but the birdlife did not disappoint either. Being a famous touristic attraction does bring its advantages, and therefore Paparoa National Park can be relatively easily reached by public transport from either Greymouth (45 min) or Westport (45 min). However, once inside the national park or at Punakaiki, getting around may include quite a lot of walking along the main road.

The first place we visited inside the national park were the pancake rocks and the blowholes, which are by far the most frequently visited attraction inside the national park and for a good reason. The pancake rocks are truly other worldly and the blowholes most certainly entertain. High tide is the best time to enjoy the full force of this spectacle. For birdwatchers this site has little more than White-fronted Terns, Spotted Shags and Red-billed Gulls to offer. After having seen the main attraction, we decided to check out several trail heads, just to soak in the landscape of this place a bit more. The trail heads we checked out included the Inland Pack Track, Punakaiki River Track and Bullock Creek Road (see map below). Birds encountered at these sites included Wester Weka, Black-shouldered Lapwing, South Island Robin, Tomtit, New Zealand Fantail, Bellbird and Silvereye.
Western Weka (Gallirallus australis australis) up close. Taking at 17 mm!
Black-shouldered Lapwing (Vanellus (miles) noveahollandiae)
As night fell we drove towards the South, to enjoy one of the major draws of the area for birdwatchers: the Westland Petrel Colonies. This species of Petrel is an endemic breeder to the area and tours to visit one of the few colonies can be booked through Bruce here (50 NZD). While the sun is setting we climbed up a 25 year old (and still very decent!) stairway that was build by Bruce himself until we reached a sheltered viewing podium. We could see the petrels soaring along the hillsides and slowly they started to crash into the forest and made their way to their burrows. We enjoyed close-up views of these big petrels and even had one crash land next to us! It was a great experience and Bruce ensured that everything was as non-invasive on this vulnerable species as possible.

After this amazing experience we decided to drive along the Bullock Creek road to a site where Great Spotted Kiwi can be seen (see map). Even though we already obtained great views of this species at Hawdon Valley, we wanted to check this site out as well. We searched for 45 minutes, but apart from tons of the invasive Brush-tailed Possums, some Morepork and Wester Wekas our searches remained fruitless. It should be noted that that the Bullock Creek road can be subject to severe flooding and we had to maneuver through several streams and puddles to get to the car park at the end. Some British birdwatching friends of ours were not so lucky and got their van stuck on the way there, so come prepared! Visiting the local DOC office to check the weather conditions beforehand is definitely recommended.
Map of Paparoa National Park including Great Spotted Kiwi Site (GSK)
The next day we had a short stroll along the Truman Track and enjoyed some more close-up encounters with Western Weka's as well as more Spotted Shags (hey, they are endemic to New Zealand after all!), White-fronted Terns and Red-billed Gulls at the coast before we headed South again. We left Paparoa National Park behind with a very satisfied feeling, as it is truly a stunning place and we got to enjoy some good bird life here as well.
The rugged coastline of Paparoa National Park alone is reason enough to pay this place a visit!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

New Zealand February - June 2015, Okarito

Okarito is a tiny town on the West Coast that lies next to one of New Zealand's largest unspoiled and unmodified wetlands. This is already a reason to be attracted as a birdwatcher to this site. Some good species like Australasian Bittern or Great White Egret (very rare in New Zealand and confined to this area) can be observed here. However the real draw for birdwatchers is the Okarito Brown Kiwi. This is the rarest species of the five currently recognized Kiwi species. Thanks to Ian's Okarito Kiwi Tours  (75 NZD) there is a very realistic chance of seeing this rarity. However, be warned, these tours do fill up quickly, especially in the high season, so make sure to book ahead. Like many other sites, this site is difficult to reach with public transport and hitchhiking might be your best option. Also not that Okarito does not have any shops, so make sure to stock up before you come here.

Before we entered Okarito itself we had a short stroll along the Pakihi Forest walk, as I knew that Fernbirds had been sighted here. Our searches remained fruitless though. We did see several New Zealand Pigeons, Tomtits and Bellbirds here. Later we found out through Ian that we simply had been looking in the wrong area. The best area to look for Fernbirds at the Pakihi Forest walk is the parking lot, not the track itself!
Female Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala)
At Okarito we had a stroll along the Okarito Trig Track, as a sign reported Fernbirds to be reasonably common along the track, but again we found nothing, apart from Tomtits, Bellbirds and Grey Gerygones (Grey Warblers). In the evening we joined Ian's Kiwi tour and it was an experience to remember. Thanks to his very detailed instructions, enthusiasm, intricate knowledge of the both the species as well as the area and his military precision sightings of Okarito Brown Kiwis are almost guaranteed. Of course, the telemetry gear helps a bit too. We were however not prepared for the sighting we got. Oh my, we had a female foraging  on the path, barely 10 cm away from our feet, for more than 10 minutes! Needless to say it was a complete success!

The next day we followed Ian's instructions to connect with the Fernbirds at the Okarito Trig Track. Just like it was the case with the Pakihi walk, we were simply looking in the wrong area. Apparently you just need to walk two minutes on the track and try to look for them just before you head out on the boardwalk crossing a marsh. We played the tape once, and enjoyed brief but very decent sightings of two Fernbirds in the bushes just bordering the marsh!
The boardwalk of the Okarito Trig Track.
Just before you step onto this, look for Fernbirds in the bushes bordering the marsh
After this success we also had a quick look at the Okarito Lagoon from the old boat house and managed to add Great White Egret to our list. Other birds of interest included Caspian Tern, Variable and South Island Oystercatcher.
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia)
I can highly recommend to visit Okarito, to both birders and non-birders. Going on a Kiwi tour with Ian is an experience not to be forgotten and the scenery is stunning, yet different from most places on the South Island. Furthermore, in good weather boat or kayak tours seem like an interesting option to explore the lagoon a bit more.

Monday, April 6, 2015

New Zealand February - June 2015, Otira Gorge

The second site in Arthur's Pass national park of great interest to birdwatchers is the Otira Gorge. The main draw of this site is that it is one of the few easily accessible sites to see Rock Wren. Furthermore it is also known as a spot where Blue Duck (Whio) is regularly seen. Similar to Hawdon Valley, it is a site that might be difficult to reach by public transport, as public buses and trains only stop at Arthur's Pass village and the Otira gorge track starts some km North of the village. It might be possible to walk from the village to the track, but hitchhiking there strikes me as a better option. Perhaps checking transport options with the local DOC office is not a bad idea.

The place to see the Rock Wrens at the Otira Gorge can be seen by walking the Otira Gorge trail to a small metal bridge that crosses the Otira River (roughly 45 minutes to an hour) and to continue another 15 minutes after the bridge. In the area after the bridge there is a large boulder field where some Rock Wrens have there territory. The Blue Ducks can apparently be seen along the entire Otira river and down to the bridge where the main road crosses the Pegleg Creek. There are also regularly seen at the Pegleg Creek itself.

It is fair to say that our visit to this site was a complete failure as we did not see a single native species during our three hour visit to this site. However, this was largely due to the horribly bad weather we had to face while we were out in the gorge. Heavy rains and strong winds blowing down from the mountain ridges were anything but good circumstances to see a bird as tiny as a Rock Wren. Furthermore, the Blue Ducks were nowhere to be found, not on the Otira River, nor on Pegleg Creek. Later we found out why: The pair that had taken residence in this area for over five years does not exist anymore, as the female has been split into three parts by a car... After the loss of its mate the male has moved away from the site. So Pegleg Creek/Otira river is not a site for Blue Duck anymore.

I would still recommend this site to anyone visiting Arthur's Pass national park, as it is still a very scenic place to be and it still hosts Rock Wren in the area. However I would advice you to go here only during good weather. It does not make sense to go up the Gorge in the weather we had, as you will not see anything, and it can quickly become dangerous. Therefore, make sure to check the weather at the DOC office in Arthur's Pass village before you go to the gorge.